About this chapter
Rating: PG – 13
Content Warnings: mild violence
Life is busy in Port Spire, no less so for Keahmat, a young child who helps keep their family’s bakery thriving even during the height of the festival season. While other children get to run off to enjoy the pageantry and spectacle of the holiday, Kaehmat has other plans in mind. Their own journey of awareness and self-discovery is at hand if they only have the courage to reach out and take it for their own.
Even as he opened his eyes the young boy could hear discordant sounds of music and preparations beginning in the town center. Keahmat was not immune to the excitements and distractions surrounding a festival day. But that did not mean his father was just going to let him skip off from chores just yet. There was always work to be done in the bakery and especially today when so many other people would have the luxury of putting off work for a while and going to see the sights. Keahmat slipped out from the carved bedbox and made his bed, folding the blanket and tucking it under the pillow. You never wanted to leave your bed unmade if you could avoid it. Scorpions had a tendency to sneak into knotted sheets and hide there to pinch you when you slept, or so his mother said. His sister Nirobea confided in him that she only said this so they would keep their rooms tidy. But once the idea had settled into his brain there was no getting rid of it. And to this day Keahmat had never found a scorpion in his bed, so who was to say she was wrong?
He opened the cedar chest at the bottom of his bed and pulled out his clothing for the day. Festivals called for something brighter and more jovial than his typical work clothing for hauling bags of barley and flour around. But he didn’t want to smell of yeast in the middle of a crowd. He slipped into the loose fitted tunic and trousers he wore for chores, and laid out a better outfit for afterwards. Father had promised he could go to the festival if he got everything done early, and Palleo didn’t break promises. Kaehmat had heard rumors there was going to be an entertainment troupe coming at the behest of the Priestesses, and he had no intention of missing out on it over the sake of a few rolls and braided loafs. Already he could hear the crinkling sounds of dried husks being used to wrap them the warm bread and hand them out to hungry customers. He was late.
He grabbed a wash cloth and splashed water over his face, brushing back his thick black hair and tying it up to keep it out of the way. He cleaned his hands and headed down the hall. He’d have to rush to catch up now! As he ran past the family room he caught sight of his ahama nestled comfortably in the pillows, her bum leg propped up to relieve the swelling and ache of it. Her wrinkled face turned up in a smile as she spied him, and she chuckled warmly. “Lazy boy. Waking up late won’t get you to the festival any faster.”
“I know ahama, I know! I did not mean to wake up so late!” He bustled over, kneeling down to search through the fruit bowl for something to eat quickly. His grandmother let him rummage for a moment before she took out a flat clay pot and opened the lid, steam rising from it’s contents in a billowing cloud of garlic and bread scents.
“Hungry children spend too much money on candied fruits and nuts.” She warned sagely and pushed the hot naan towards him.
“Thank you ahama!” Kaehmat took two of the disks, grabbing a jar of preserves to smear the top with onion jelly. “Do you want me to bring you back anything from the festival?”
“If they have those little chimes on the braided string, get me a few of those. They keep away the geni.” She warned him with an eye on the multiple faded bands hanging in the windows. Much like the concept of scorpions not liking folded bed sheets, ahama Enosi believed firmly that geni despised the chiming of little tin and copper bells. And much like the concept of scorpions in bedsheets, Kaehmat had never seen a geni. So he could only assume that his grandmother shared the same kind of ineffable wisdom his mother did. Grandmother Enosi had been in the military for forty some odd years and seen everything between the Red Wastes and the Greenback Pass, so it stood to reason that she would know more than he about the world outside their town. Kaehmat had never even been past the city gates except to visit the gabelin market. Even then he’d been under his mother and sisters close supervision.
“Mother said no more bells.” Actually what she’d said was if this many bells couldn’t keep the geni out of their house than no amount of bells would be effective. But it wasn’t his place to start up that argument again.
“Well then, you and I will just have to let that be our little secret, won’t we?” Ahama smiled and took a few coppers from her leather pouch. “And of course if there is enough left over for you to buy a candied apple for yourself, then I suppose I will be none the wiser.”
Kaehmat took the coins with a conspiratorial look. “Yes, ahama.” He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before shoving the naan into his mouth and rushing out the door. He flung the thick woven curtain aside, taking the stairs two at a time until he reached the bottom and turned the corner to head into his families shop. Sure enough they were already busy. There was a line of people waiting to get their order, another line of people waiting to place new ones, and a gaggle of folk standing by the widow just to look inside. Not at the bread, though what they stared at had the same golden brown goodness as far as they were concerned. Bahumi had long maintained that the best decision of her life had been applying for a thrall to help her look after the bakery during her first pregnancy. She would have been happy enough for a strong armed thrall who could carry the heavy sacks without complaining. She never expected to get Palleo. In his younger years, Kaehmat’s father was said to be rakishly good looking. He hadn’t lost a bit of that, though the gray in his hair gave him a more mature appearance. Kaehmat was used to seeing women and men alike find excuses to linger just to watch him knead dough or shape loafs.
“The second best decision was deciding the hire him after his service was over.” Bahumi had said many times when teasing her husband. “The third best was when I figured I could marry him instead of paying him.” And no one laughed as loud as Palleo when she said it.
The young boy slipped in past the customers, but if he hoped to go unnoticed by his parents watchful eyes he was mistaken.
“There you are!” Came his father’s voice, booming over the crowded counter. “Come on boy! Up with you. We’re behind on orders as it is.” The tall, broad shouldered man grabbed a warm onion bun and cut it in half, slathering it with a goat cheese and oil mixture before handing it off to his offspring. “Eat and get to work. Go.”
“Yes father.” Kaehmat took the roll, shoving it into his pocket for later. He rushed to the service counter, taking his flour covered apron off the hook and stepping up on the stool so he could start filling orders while his father baked. He wasn’t big enough or strong enough to lift the heavy wooden paddle to get the finished loafs from the oven, and Bahumi didn’t trust anybody but her husband to make the bread just right. Nirobae had been too busy with training to be bothered over the ledgers and running of the business, and ahama couldn’t stand for more than an hour or so without her knee swelling and causing her pain. Which meant it was Kaehmat’s duty to pick up the slack.
He was half way through the line when his mother came from the back, leather bound book in her hands as she took stock of what they had left, counting through the inventory and making notes. She paused long enough to give her child a kiss on the head. “Have you eaten today?”
“Yes hama.” He responded as she ruffled his hair.
“I thought you were going to the festival today?” Bahumi asked, not looking up from the ledger.
“I have to do chores first.” He replied quickly, taking half a dozen jam spirals form the basket and telling the man across the counter how much they would be. He was still not good enough at counting to take large orders, but he could manage a copper for the small buns, three for the large, and six for a braided loaf or the chopped fennel and barley rounds.
His mother nodded with a distracted, indulgent smile. “Such a dutiful son. You’re going to make someone a very good homemaker some day. Just like your father.” She kissed him again before heading over and giving her husband a quick squeeze before she gave him the rundown for their order for the next month.
Kaehmat blushed and looked away, keeping his focus on the customers. The hours went by so quick when they were busy like this! There was music drifting in from the streets and he could even swear there was cheering drifting across the plaza. He bounced in place, too excited to keep still.
“You’re dancing like a thrush-hopper, boy.” Palleo told him as he shuffled six more loafs from the brick over, sweat pouring down his face. “Settle down. There’s plenty of time left. And if not the festival runs three days. Maybe you can wake up earlier tomorrow.”
Kaehmat chewed his lower lip and hurried, finding himself increasing irritated by the people who had waited in line for what seemed like hours only to get inside and not know what they wanted. He stuffed baskets and husks, knowing they wouldn’t be done until the shelves were empty or until the crowd dispersed. How could there be people here when there was a parade going on and jugglers and entertainers around? It was made all the worse in listening to everyone coming in and talking about it, discussing their plans and ruining the surprise by telling him what they’d already seen. Kaehmat felt lke his life was ending when he heard that the parade was already over and the first play had come and gone!
The young boy was so harried that he didn’t notice the girl coming up to the counter until one of them coughed sharply. He looked up, blushing when he recognized one of them and feeling a bit too warm even with an oven in the room. “What do you need?” he asked, not quite looking her in the eyes.
The girl was perhaps a year older than him with chestnut brown hair, dark eyes, and a serious look to her. All girls in Verdant had a serious look, but more so the ones who’s mothers had a military career and expected their daughters to follow suit. So most of them. She didn’t seem to notice Kaehmat’s awkwardness, in fact she barely seemed to notice him. “Three of the custard rolls, a stack of naan, and some of the garlic spread.” she said, passing the coins across the counter to him. It wasn’t until he filled her order and pushed the bread across the counter that the girl blinked with recognition. “You’re Nirobea’s little brother, aren’t you?”
Her eyes lit up with excitement, the corners of her mouth turning up. “My older sister went with her to the Trials. Mother can’t wait for her to get back. We’re going to have a big celebration when she returns. But mine will be bigger.” She proclaimed proudly, ignoring the cooing adults as they listened in to her plans for the future. “My sister Mesmire is the best in town with a bow. But I’m already better than she was at my age with a spear.”
“I don’t…know how to use a spear.” Kaehmat admitted shyly.
The girl rolled her eyes and scoffed shortly. “Of course you don’t. You’re a boy.” She took the bread and packed it neatly into her basket. Perhaps she noticed the disappointment on his face and regretted how harsh she must have sounded, because she followed it up with, “You make very good bread though.”
“My father makes the bread.” Kaehmat turned pink in the cheeks, making his freckles all the more apparent.
“Thats good then. You’ll learn from him and be a good baker someday.” She assured him before deciding the conversation was over from her point of view. She paused at the door and turned to look at the boy, but whatever was in her mind she decided wasn’t needed, and left.
“But I want to learn how to use a spear.” Kaehmat whispered softly, not loud enough for anyone to hear.
“That’s Uhari’s girl isn’t it? Isalla?” Bahumi observed, standing next to her husband and clearly paying more attention to the conversation between the two children then she had been her ledgers..
“Yes. Her sister is with Nirobea in the Red Wastes for the Trials.” Palleo gazed over at his wife, taking in her expression before he got what she was thinking. “Her mother is a scout. In all liklihood she will be too. I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing we ought to pursue for Kaehmat.”
“And why not? You don’t think they’d be a good match?”
“It’s not about that. You know our son is a more gentle soul.” The man insisted, smiling softly at the boy.
“You’re only saying that because you were half feral.” Bahumi tapped him in warning with her quill. “Banditry isn’t exactly what I have in mind for my children. And Isalla will likely marry well. Our boy would prove a good second for her family. It would be a comfortable and well provided life for him.”
“He’s only eleven summers, Bahumi. Isn’t it a bit early to be thinking of such things?”
“It’s never too early to see if they get on well.” Bahumi insisted, turning to Kaehmat and laying a hand on his shoulder. “You wanted to go to the Festival today, didn’t you?”
The young boys eyes brightened and he gazed up at his mother with hope. “Yes! Very much so!”
Bahumi untied his apron and took it off, hanging it on the hook. “I’m sure Isalla is going as well. Why don’t you take the day and see if she would like some company?”
“Really?” Kaehmat asked, his voice high with excitement as he jumped down off the stool. “I can go early?”
“Yes yes. Here.” His mother undid the strings of her purse and pulled out a few silvers. “Offer to buy her a chilled juice and something from one of the stalls. Be back before dark. Your father and I can manage the shop for one day.”
“Bahumi…” Palleo said in a soft tone, but his son was already running out the door with coins in hand, ready like most children to do anything besides work.
Kaehamat ran upstairs, throwing water onto his face and hands to get rid of any flour remnants on his skin before he threw aside his work clothing and changed into the colorful outfit he’d picked for the festival. A pair of orange pantaloons with teal trim he’d hand sewed on from remnants of his ahamas purchase was quickly paired with a yellow tunic that buttoned across the right and a braided leather belt. He had been saving for months for a special purchase, ignoring the temptation to spend it elsewhere, taking on deliveries for the family bakery and storing every little tip he was given. Kaehmat knew what he wanted to buy, and it was much more important to him than a candied apple.
The town of South Prosper wasn’t among the largest of Verdant’s cities, and despite it’s namesake it was not among the most prosperous. None the less, they fulfilled their part as a regional center for farming, harvest, and processing in the yearly cycle, ensuring that their people were well fed and their goods made their way across the desert through caravan. Being such a town gave them a sense of pride in knowing they helped ensure the stability of their county, and the local temple was quick to devote time at the end of the season to thanking the people in the form of a three day festival to celebrate a good harvest and a hard working population. It was one of their their many duties to the people, and while it was always nice to be appreciated, the people were much more grateful for the priestesses unequaled ability to heal.
Kaehmat had met a priestess of Tiamati only once, when his mother had been pregnant with a third child, her second by Palleo. He’d watched as the woman in teal robes stayed with Bahumi day and night, coaxing her through the blood and pain until the abortive herbs could do their work and relieve her of the fetus poisoning her body. The priestess had hands that glowed with a soft blue light, and her gifts had ensured Bahumi’s life did not end as well. But the priestesses were not gods, and Kaehmat had been there when the woman had told his mother she would not be able to withstand another pregnancy. It was impossible to watch a priestess work and now be somewhat in awe of them. And Kaehmat, like any child, was a little afraid of things that were awesome.
Yet he watched with fascination as the priestesses stood before the crowd, offering praise to Tiamati in thanks of a bountiful harvest and the continued good health of her people. While they raised their voices in song, the acolytes walked among the crowd with silver bowls full of cool water and herbs. They took branches of the Bauhinia tree, it’s purple flowers said to be sacred to the goddess, and flung the water among the people, offering Tiamati’s relieving touch to them. Unlike those who served the Warrior or Queen aspect of Tiamati, those who served her in the Goddess form wore large hoods that concealed most of their face, lending to their aura of mystery and power. Even so, when Kaehmat peeked up from his kneeling position, he caught a flash of dark brown eyes and a vivid amount of curls. The priestess looked back at him and smiled indulgently, flicking her branch to splash him in the face before turning back to her duties.
By the time the ritual ended and the crowds began to disperse and enjoy the more frivolous entertainment being offered, Kaehmat had long forgotten about Isalla and trying to find her. There were far more interesting things happening then trying to locate a girl he found to be both intimidating and awkward to be around. Colorful banners had been stung across the sandstone plaza and flower petals were strewn about, adding a splash of fragrance to the air whenever he stepped on them. Many businesses had sponsored game booths, adding small prizes from their shops for the enjoyment of the festival goers. It was a popular method to show your fancy for someone by displaying your skill with a sling and knock a target off the pole to win them a little clay figure or bit of tin jewelry. Someone with a lot of skill could even compete and win a goat or chickens to take home.
Kaehmat passed the food booths, his mouth watering at the scent of the richly spiced meats and confectioneries. Thank Tiamati his mother had decided against opening a booth this year, otherwise he would have ended up stuck behind a counter all day with no chance to sneak off. He looked over at the minotaur filling wooden bowls with saffron rice and chicken with curry sauce, but resolutely grabbed the breakfast his father had given him and chewed on it. Kaehmat had come here with a purchase in mind, and he had just enough to get it if he haggled. Lots of girls his age were wandering around, shoving each other around and using toy spears with all the ferocity of real ones. Nearby mothers cooed and awed over them, bragging to one another about their daughters obvious skills and potential. Kaehmat stopped to watch them with envious eyes, feeling a swell in his chest at the thought of his plans.
Before his sister had left for the Trials, she had gone to the Temple of the Warrior, presenting herself to Tiamati and offering up her childhood toys and trinkets and leaving behind her youth in favor of a prospective adulthood. It had been the proudest moment of his parents life, but when Kaehmat had asked them when he would be able to do the same, his mother and father had laughed with annoying delight.
“Boys don’t do this sort of thing, Kaehmat.” His father had assured him in a comforting tone.
“Some boys do.” Bahumi admitted candidly. “But I don’t see why. They aren’t well suited to it.”
He remembered looking at his sister with a mixture of respect and envy, staring up into the youthful vigor of Tiamati’s face and saying. “Then can I be a girl instead?”
They hadn’t been as patient with that question. His mother had assured him that such a thing wasn’t possible, then soothed him with the promise that when the time came they would find him a good married couple he could provide to as a second, a worthwhile position for a young man from a good family. But as his mother had told him there was plenty of time and not to worry about it, Kaehmat could not shake the look of worry on his father’s face. He had never brought it up again. His parents never yelled at their children, but he could tell that the questions had made them uncomfortable.
He made his way off to the east side of the plaza, looking for the familiar booth from Lhrime’s. Children practiced with wooden spears and swords, but when his sister had been about eleven or twelve, Bahumi had bought her daughter a real spear with a sharpened head. It wasn’t a battle ready weapon, but it would suffice for hunting and practice so she could learn the weight and balance of something with purpose. Nirobea would bring home small game almost every night from fish to desert hare. After a fair bit of practice she started going on hunts with her friends and returning with deer or red lizards. The first real spear meant something. It said you were ready. Kaehmat hadn’t been allowed to play with his sisters spear. But his parents hadn’t said anything about what he could or couldn’t do with one of his own.
Lhrime’s booth was a large wooden stall with a blue and white canvas overhang. She wasn’t terribly busy with customers, but that was to be expected. With the exception of daggers, spears and tools, Lhrime did much of her smithy work by commission. What she had on display was just a sampling for prospective clients. At first she didn’t notice the child hanging around her stall, but after a little while it became obvious to her that the boy wasn’t just gawking. She slipped off her soot covered leather gloves, turning to give him a cursory glance up and down. “Picking up an order?”
“No miss.” Kaehmat told her, summoning up his courage.
“Your mother send you for something?” Lhrime put a hand on her hip when the kid shook his head and swallowed nervously. “What do you want boy? I don’t have the time to mess about today.”
“I…want to buy a spear.”
“A spear?” She undid her messy black hair and pulled it back into a bun, pinning it with a leather hair brooch. “If your sister needs one for training she’ll have to come for herself. I’ve got to measure her and have her try a few to see what kind of balance she needs. It’ll take a few weeks, I’ve got a bit of a back order right now but I’ll make time…”
Kaehmat nudged closer, hands shaking behind his back. He could lie, say it was for his sister. But soon enough it would get back to Lhrime that Nirobea was not in town. Or she’d figure out something was wrong when nobody showed up for an appointment. He had to do this now or loose all courage. “It’s not for my sister.” His voice trembled as he stood there under her penetrating gaze. “It’s for me. I need a spear to practice with.”
The blacksmith’s snorting didn’t do much to give him hope. Even less so when she crossed her arms and started to turn away. “Get along boy. I don’t have time for jests today.”
A burning sensation was starting to grow in Kaehmat’s chest, followed quickly by a prickling of anger. “I’m not joking. I have plenty of coin. See?” He took his purse and put it on the counter so she could see the weigh of it.
Lhrime leaned over the table, staring at him up and down without so much as a glance at the purse. “Where are your parents? Maybe they can talk some sense into you.”
“I’m here now. I have the money. Why can’t you sell me a spear?” Kaehmat dug his heels in hard, his bottom lip pouting as it was prone to do when he got a stubborn idea in his brain.
“I’m not selling some little boy a real spear. Maybe a sling or something more suited to you. But I’m not selling a child any weapon without your parents around.” She insisted and started looking around, either for his parents or, more likely, for one of the guards to deal with this properly.
Kaehmat could feel his chances dwindling if he didn’t do something soon. His heart pounded in his chest and tears stung in his eyes. A dawning feeling of foolishness began to creep over him. People were turning around to see what the fuss was over. If this got back to his parents? He didn’t want to know what the end result would be!
“Aoha?” A familiar voice called out as a hand took him by the shoulder. Kaehmat turned to see the girl from the shop looking at him, curious eyes staring with calculation. “Whats going on? Why do you look so upset?”
Kaehmat flushed, unable to keep himself from sniffling. “I’m trying to buy a spear. She won’t sell it to me even though I can pay.”
Isalla’s face scrunched with doubt. “What use does a baker boy have for a spear?”
“That’s what I said.” Lhrime chimed in.
“I…” Kaehmat didn’t know where the lie came from, but it came unbidden into his mind, quick as a frog after a juicy fly. “You saw how busy the bakery was. With my sister gone my parents don’t have a lot of time on their hands for things like fishing and hunting. I thought if I had a spear I could help out. Maybe even keep the vermin away from the grain stores.”
Isalla’s expression lightened as she heard his explanation, and she looked up at the blacksmith. “That sounds like a good reason to have a spear. I mean if it’s just for vermin and hunting small game what harm could he do? He’s just a boy.”
Lhrime sighed, pinching her brow with increasing irritation. “I tell you like I told him. I’m not selling some kid a spear. Boy or not. Money or not.”
“I see.” Isalla’s sneaky little smile looked quite precocious on the face of a twelve year old. “Well since thats how it is, maybe I should tell my mother I want my spears from a different black smith, since you object to making them for children.”
Lhrime hesitated. Isalla’s mother was well known, both for her valor in combat and her fiery temper. The woman wasn’t sure what could happen, but she did know she did not want to risk upsetting someone who had made their career out of surviving alone in he harsh wilderness of the open desert. The blacksmith sighed, looking over at the little leather purse. “I don’t have any of the good stuff on display and it will take me weeks to make something balanced and professional. But if it’s only for vermin…I could part with one of the older pieces for fifty copper.”
“I have fifty!” Kaehmat shouted with excitement, undoing the pouch and counting out the money into five groups of ten. The wary blacksmith eyes him warily as she sighed and accepted the coin, packaging the spear up in a leather wrap with a thong tie and handed it to him. “Thank you! Thank you thank you!”
“Don’t thank me.” Lhrime warned him with a wag of a finger. “And don’t stab yourself with it either!”
“I won’t! I promise!” Kaehmat said, unable to keep himself from smiling. He turned to see Isalla standing there, quite pleased with herself if her grin was to be believed.
“So. Why do you really want a spear?” She asked, practically cornering him.
Kaehmat wasn’t sure he could lie to her a second time effectively. He clutched the new weapon to his chest with a protective air, as if daring her to try and take it from him. “I want to learn how to use it.” He said defensively.
“Because I do.”
“Alright. But why?” The girl insists, no less stubborn and perhaps somewhat entitled to the information given her part in helping him get the spear. She followed him adamently as Kaehmat moved away from the stall and the crowd. “You’re not going to have one when you grow up. And it’s not like you can go to the Trials…”
“There’s no law that says I can’t.” He says back with surprising determination. “Even hama says there’s no law forbidding boys from going into the Trials.”
“Do you want to be a Citizen that bad? Why not join the guards then? Or the military. Boys can do those too since you’re so insistent about fighting.” Isalla continued with the pervasiveness of someone who is sure the person they are talking to doesn’t realize their own fallacy.
“I didn’t say I wanted to fight. I said I wanted the spear. What I do with it is my own business.”
“You’re very rude for someone who just got helped!” Isalla stamped her foot, crossing her arms over her waist. “My mom says you turned out weird because your mom married a bandit instead of a normal Verdant man.”
The prickling in his chest came back with ferocity, but Kaehmat wasn’t about to be pushed. “Maybe. But my sister says your mom is just bitter because my dad wouldn’t lie with her when he was just a thrall.”
“You take that back!” The young girl said, getting in front of Kaehmat and the way home. “Take it back or I’ll sock you in the jaw!”
“You sock me and I’ll bite your arm!” Kaehmat said, taking a step back. Isalla was a year old, two inches taller, and he had seen her get into ‘play’ fights with other girls. She sure didn’t look like she was playing now.
“You can’t bite in a real fight. You’re supposed to fight the right way.”
“You mean the right way so you can win.” He snapped back at her, shoving his way past since she would not move on her own. “And anyway I don’t wanna fight. I wanna learn how to use a spear.”
“Do you even know anything about wielding a spear properly? You can’t just go spinning it around you know. You’ll hurt yourself!” Isalla yelled at his back, frowning that she hadn’t gotten the information she wanted. She huffed and started to head to her own home, giving one last shout at the retreating child. “You’re a really stupid boy, you know!”
“No.” Kaehmat said, more to himself than anyone else. “I’m not.”
The night air was cool and refreshing compared to the blazing heat of the sun on the cobblestones. The brazier crackled in the sleeping room, fending off the chill and giving the young boy just enough light to see by. Kaehmat sat up in his sheets when he heard the sounds of his father’s snores from their bed. He was always the last to fall asleep after a long day. The young boy took his sandals, looking across the room at his parent’s bedbox to make sure they were out before slipping from his covers and taking his sandals quietly from the floor. He’d stuffed some clothing under the wooden bedframe so he wouldn’t have to dress n the house. He carefully removed the leather-wrapped spear and tiptoed from the room, hyper-aware of every stray noise in their home. The house was silent save for the tinkling of the bells in the window and the gentle flap of the curtain in the breeze. Kaehmat sat next to the hearth in the middle of the family room, staying warm while he got into his breeches and shirt, tying it to the sides so nothing would be in his way. He wrapped bands of cloth around his feet and ankles as he has seen the young women do before training. Footwork was important to combat, though he didn’t know how yet. He added a wrapping of cloth to his wrists, and he knew that was to give the joints support and help prevent a sprain or fracture. The last thing he needed was to get caught because he hurt himself.
Kaehmat remember the precision with which Nirobea and her friends had prepared themselves for the Trials. He would linger in the yard, watching her spar with the other girls and laugh when they knocked each other into the sands. Bruises were bragging rights, and friendships were only made stronger through keeping each other ready to fight. They had planned on facing the Trials together, undertaking the year long exodus to prove their capability and worthiness as women. The Trials separated the wheat from the chafe, putting young women through a harrowing experience on the very edge of their world. Beyond the borders of Verdant’s golden desert lay the Red Wastes, where the sands swirling in rusted fury and water was even more scarce. Much of the plantlife there was poisonous, and the animals were wild and mutated things distorted from their natural forms. Bandits hid out there because they knew the guard wouldn’t cross the borders unless absolutely necessary, and it was even said that the yenya still roamed the ruins of their old empire, eyes glowing the dark recesses of the crumbing structures and maws salivating for the flesh of Verdant children. There was ample enough reason to be frightened. Every human and minotaur child grew up hearing the stories of the striped dogs and their attacks on caravans, leaving a swath of blood behind them whenever they crossed into the Queen’s lands. Life in the deserts could be demanding, but the brutality of the Red Wastes showed who was worthy enough to defend their homeland.
When Nirobea returned she would be hailed as Citizens of Verdant. Her triumph would be commemorated with a feast, and Bahumi would call on the markmaker to visit their home and give her daughter the scar on her chin so everyone could see her bravery for themselves. Citizenship meant status about the regular residents that merely lived and worked in Verdant’s cities. She would be able to hold property, run a business, vote in town parlors and speak before the magister. Citizenship meant being able to request thralls. It meant if she chose a military career she would almost certainly become a ranking officer. If she chose a crafters line of work she would hold sway with the guild for a good apprenticeship. It meant that in good time the family bakery would be passed down to her and when she chose, she would marry well and be able to pass property down to her children. She would be a true woman of Verdant.
That thought was somehow the one that rang in Kaehmat’s head as he slipped into the yard under the watchful eyes of the stars and the sleepy bleating of the goats in their pen. He unwrapped the spear and licked his lips at the sight of it, tingling with excitement over holding this in his own hands. It was real now. The shaft was beautifully sanded and polished, leaving just enough of a sheen to show off the spiral patterns. The grip was leather with Lhrime’s mark hammered onto it, ensuring the quality of her work would not go unnoticed. The long, lean blade was more intimidating than he had though, and Kaehmat could not take his eyes off it’s silvery glow as the moon peeked out from behind the curtain of clouds. He held out the weapon in first position, a thrill running down through his limbs as he found the same stance as his sister had. Their parents had paid for their elder daughter to receive training in the proper technique. Kaehmat had often lingered in his chores to watch her during drills. He remembered her tutor, a fiery woman with powerful arms and a welcoming smile, putting her through the paces over and over again until they became as second nature. The power and grace had stayed with him, and as Kaehmat began to practice the stances for himself, he began to imagine his own body moving with such fluidity and strength. He imagined himself in the rich Verdant blues of the guard, or perhaps even the soldiers! In his minds eye he was just as capable as the other girls, just as hungry to prove himself. Just as ready to be seen and acknowledged and victorious. The person in his mind was taller, with their thick black hair braided back and their eyes lined with protective khol. The person in his mind was shaped by force of will and determination in the same muscular tradition as his sister, his mother, and their grandmother in her more active years. When Kaehmat danced with the spear, he did not feel like a boy playing with the disapproval of his surroundings and societal expectations. He did not feel like a boy at all. And the very thought of this made him happy.
The spear sang with metallic glee as he moved in quickening fashion, bringing the weapon around his head and preparing to move it into a block position. Kaehmat spun, planting his left foot back for balance and adjusting his arms so he could brace for a hit from an unseen enemy. He did not expect a hand to reach out and grab the wood of the spear just bellow the blade, stopping him in his tracks. The sudden, halting jerk jarred his arms, and Kaehmat thought for sure that his heart had stopped beating as he looked up into his father’s stern expression.
“What are you doing, my boy?” Palleo did not yell. He only eve raised his voice when shouting bakery orders out. But his tone was deep as a well and unbroken as a rock when he tightened his grip on the spear. “Kaehmat, answer me. What are you doing?”
All at once Kaehmat felt like a child, like the stupid boy Isalla had called him. His fingers trembled, but he did not let go of the spear. “I am practicing.” he said in a voice just above a whisper.
“Practicing for what?” His father asked, no less intimidating in a linen night tunic and robe.
“To…hunt?” He started, and it was not entirely untrue. It might have been a lie thought up out of desperation earlier, but it was also not a bad idea on the whole.
“If you are asking then you are not tell me truths, Kaehmat.” Palleo tugged at the spear, and his bushy eyebrows raised when his son did not release the weapon. “Boy…”
“I bought it.” Kaehmat said in defense, shaking as he looked his father in the eyes. “W-with the money I saved from running deliveries and doing odd jobs. I bought and paid for it. It is mine.”
Palleo did not release his hold, but the unmoved force of his face changed into an impressed little smile. “You saved that much? For a training spear?” When his son nodded emphatically, Palleo let loose the breath he’d been holding, and let his hand come away from the spear. He crossed his arms and let his gaze wander to see if anyone else was out this time of night to spy them. “Come in side, Kaehmat. We need to talk.” He gestured and the boy didn’t have the choice of not following him into the house. Palleo pointed to the cushions next to the hearth. “Warm yourself up. I will make us some tea.”
Kaehmat sat there, clutching the spear as if it would be taken from him at any instant. He wasn’t afraid of being struck. But he was afraid of what he had earned being taken from him. Tea had never taken so long to prepare as it did when you were waiting for someone to come and be angry with you. But as his father sat down and put the clay pot between them, he didn’t look upset. If anything he looked oddly older than he ever had.
“Did I ever tell you about how I came to be here?” He asked, putting down the little pot of honey shaped like a hive and glazed in a bright yellow. “Why I am your father at all?”
“Everyone says you used to be a bandit.” Kaehmat said, eyeing his father across the table.
Palleo nodded, his eyes cast far away into old memories long since packed away in a trunk and forgotten about. “It is much romanticized here, the affair between your mother and I. The customers love to gossip and play it as some torrid thing but they overlook much. And nobody here really asks about what living a bandit life is like, so I don’t speak much on it. For twenty four years it was the only life I knew. My own mother was ill used and ill treated by the man who fathered me, and her life was a short one. Living like that, there is no sense of permanence, no stability to find comfort in. The boys often fought over food, sometimes to the point of bloodshed. You slept with a shiv in your grip and hoped you’d have the presence of mind to use it when the time came. Everything that existed was a threat to your life. From your fellows to the wilds themselves. The stories they tell children here are not so far off from the truth but if you can imagine, my son, living that reality every single day and night with no knowledge of any other life? I never questioned it myself. I killed when I was told and when I grew up into a man with this face, it wasn’t hard to carve out my own group to go after caravans.”
Kaehmat said nothing, but for the first time in his life he was a little afraid of his father.
“When we were captured, I watched most of others I had known my whole life die in the sands, their names unimportant and their blood nothing but bait for the scavengers. When I was shackled and taken to the House of Thralls I thought I would spend the rest of my life toiling in the minotaur farmlands for my crimes. Maybe fate had different plans. Maybe Tiamati shined on me. Or maybe it was chance. Your mother was pregnant with your sister and she had already had a difficult loss. So when she applied for a thrall I was given to her and told if I could make good and ease her burden my efforts would be looked upon favorably.” Palleo sipped at his tea gently and pushed a small tray of little sugared biscuits towards his child. “For the first time in my life I could sleep through the night.” He said as if it were a revelation on him. “I had a full belly. I did work with my hands that left them smelling of wheat and comfort instead of salt and iron. Your grandmother hated me but Bahumi…” And at that memory he finally smiled, the secret little smile of a man who found something worth being alive for. “Your mother always has been a demanding woman. And I found delight in meeting her demands. Do you understand what I’m telling you, son?”
“I do not and you are making me increasing uncomfortable.” Kaehmat said, holding his tea with one hand and the spear with the other.
Palleo’s belly jiggled with good humor and he rubbed his nose. “Well enough. I’ll come to the point then. When I became a free man, like all thralls I was told I could return to my life in whatever manner I wished. I was free to leave this town and do as I pleased which to many would all would have meant that I died like like a dog in the middle of nowhere. Name and face forgotten. But then Bahumi said if I wished, she would pay me a fair wage to work for her. And I liked the smell of the wood oven and fresh bread. I liked the way the customers flirted with me. I liked the way your mother looked at me. I liked having some stability in my life. And when your mother became pregnant again with you, she offered to marry me, so that I would have a family. The only fear I had that entire time was that my child might be born a girl. A girl who will want to train with weapons. A girl who will by all rights want to earn the mark through Trials or through military service. A girl who go out into the desert to defend her nation and risk her life dying in the sands with name remembered only by her family and her body pickings for the scavengers.”
Kaehmat’s heart dropped and he looked down into the caramel brown of the tea.
“You come from a good family line, Kaehmat. Your mother runs a good business. Your grandmother’s name is known for her valor. When the time comes and you are of age we will make you a good match as a second to a good pair of women. This much I can promise. This much your mother and I have wanted for you since Tiamati blessed me with a son.”
“But what if that is not what I want?”
Palleo stiffened, then a thought seemed to dawn on him. “Ahhh. You uh…you have no interest in women.”
“Aoha, dahama!” Kaehmat shouted, turning red till his freckles darkened and he shrunk back into the pile of pillows.
“Now now don’t look so astonished. There are many good families out there with young men who have interest in one another. It is not so uncommon for men to find good matches like that anymore. I am certain when the time is right we can find something suitable. Your sister will inevitably marry quite well so I have no fear your mother will find grandchildren in that way. But this…Kaehmat.” Palleo pointed to the spear. “This worries me.”
“Some boys go to the Trials. Some boys become guards.” He defended stoutly, though in his heart that was not even close to what he wanted to say. This whole conversation was taking so many unexpected twists and turns and he hardly had any idea of how to respond to make his father understand when Kaehmat himself had only just begun to know something was not correct.
“Some boys. And I do not have the heart to tell you that you cannot do those things. Your life is your own Kaehmat. But the world is not always kind to the choices we make. There are consequences to every single decision. And I for one would like to see my boy make choices that will give him a long life of content and safety. Because I know what the alternative looks like.” Palleo took Kaehmat’s hand and squeezed it, his eyes glistening as he looked at his son with pride. “Keep the spear. The vermin have been at the stores lately and we can’t afford to place a big order this close to sandstorm season. Don’t let your practice interfere with your chores or the bakery work.”
“Is mother going to be angry with me?”
“She’s not going to be pleased. But I will speak to her. It’s difficult having your sister away. She doesn’t like to show it but the Trails frighten everyone, even more so those who have survived them. Perhaps she’ll find some comfort in having two such determined brats.” He smiled warmly, taking another sip from the tea and sighing to himself. “You’re a good boy, Kaehmat.”
No. He thought privately, holding the glazed clay cup in his hands. I’m not.
Kaehmat awoke early the next morning as soon as the rooster crowed an checked under his bed, half surprised to see the leather wrapped spear still present. He thought for sure his father or mother might have taken it while he slept. But there it was. He dressed and readied himself quickly, bracing to face what he was sure had been a conversation in the wee hours when his father would be prepping the dough and his mother would be stocking the shelves with the day olds for two a copper. But when he arrived the in bakery Kaehmat was met by his mother’s face. “Hama?”
“You are going to the festival today.” She said primly, picking up a large tray with a leather strap around it and handing it off to him. “There is going to be a big performance. Those entertainers everyone has been chatting about finally showed and I know how much you have been wanting to see them. So…” she put the strap around his neck and began filling the tray with saffron raisin rolls and glossy buns stuffed with honey and nuts. “Go and sell these to the audience while you watch. Make sure they know where they are from. If you sell all of them the rest of the day is yours. You can get yourself a treat, provided it’s not another sharp weapon to hide from your parents.”
Kaehmat looked at her like a dog that had been smacked for stealing food, but Bahumi’s expression betrayed nothing beyond mild annoyance. He glanced over at his father but Palleo was doing a bad job of hiding an amused smirk behind the cloud of flour curling in the heat from the oven. He looked up at his son from over his nose and tossed his head, telling him to get while the getting was good. “Yes hama. Thank you, hama!” Kaehmat smiled brightly and went on his tiptoes to kiss her cheek gratefully.
Bahumi’s eyes softened and she ruffled his hair with a worried turn of the lips. “Go! Go go go! Be back by dark! The temple is going to do fireworks and we can go up on the rooftop to see them!”
“Yes, hama!” Kaehmat covered the tray with a clean cloth, protecting the good from dust and dirt as he moved quickly through the streets towards the plaza. Overnight a stage had been erected with bright banners and benches spread across the cobblestones. Jugglers mingled through, tossing brightly painted balls and silly things like flower pots live chickens in the air as people found seats. A minotaur in teal and orange danced lightly on her hooves, playing a large woodwind instrument that played a sweet, sonorous tune to the gathering folk. On the platform there was a warmup act of a rope strung between two poles, a man balancing effortlessly on one foot as he pretended to fall. The crowd gasped in awe, only to see him smile and change his footing to remain standing. The temple had sponsored the troupe from a local Twilight house, but next to the performance stage was a sign that read; Tiamati looks favorably upon the generous, and so do we! There was already a crier moving about with a small wooden box on her neck to collect tips and donations. Likely this was the house mistress ensuring her charges were well compensated for their acts.
Kaehmat wound through the crowd, far from the only young boy sent out with a tray to make a few extra coins for the family. The neighbors son Foubhi was selling sweet rice cakes with jam and he waved over, showing off how many he had already sold. Kaehmat recognized a few others plying their wares, from chilled fruit to stave off the heat to woven fans and little discs with the festivals date and symbol on them as little commemorative trinkets. Most of South Prosper’s people could take a day or two off from work to enjoy the festival. There was a thick swath of minotaurs in from the farmlands, their work all but finished for the season. Kaehmat aimed for them. The bovine folk were always happy for sweet treats and that was sure to be the quests way to rid himself of the goods. “Honey rolls and rosehip buns!” He called out as he neared the towering folk, watching as their ears flickered towards him. The scent of them was dark and earthy, and their black eyes turned with interest towards the young man offering treats. “Honey rolls and rosehip buns. Four coppers each.”
“Aha. I know you. Baumi’s little boy.” A female with orange speckles and soft cream fur called him over, kneeling down to examine him. “I am Karisa, from the Brokenhorn household. I sell your mother her wheat and flour. She drives a hard bargain.”
“With your goods in such high demand she can’t help but be canny.” Kaehmat said, careful to phrase his words wisely. It was smart to not offend the people who supply your business, and if you offended one minotaur odds were you offended their whole herd. He held her up the tray. “Taste what your flour makes? Only four coppers a piece.”
Karisa chuckled, her pale nostrils chuffing out noisily as she fished a few coppers from her purse and gave them to the boy. “I feel like I’m paying for my own product. Maybe you have your mother’s business sense huh?” She clapped Kaehmat on the shoulders and he almost lost his balance and fell to the ground. Her flat teeth cut into the bun and she hummed appreciatively as the warm honey and nut filling dripped out over her large fingers. “It’s good to know your father makes such good use of my flour.”
“Quality ingredients makes for a quality product.” Kaehmat knew well enough how to flatter if he had a goal in mind, and Karisa puffed up at his words.
“Clever boy. Three more. And here, go give one to that brawny galute over there. The one with the gaudy ring in his nose.” She pointed to a massive male with reddish fur and gold tipped horns that stuck out far enough for a sunhawk to land on them. “Aegeus is always bragging that the fields under his charge produce fatter grains. That may be, but let him see mine are sweeter.”
“Yes Mistress Karisa.” minotaurs took great pride in their care of the land and their horticultural prowess. They had the highest allotment of thralls from the House, second only to the needs of the military and the city infrastructure department. Food production in a desert with weeks of travel between the larger cities was paramount, and the Queen had long upheld the precedent of ensuring that the farmlands did not lack for workers to bring in the harvest. The House of Agriculture was known to work closely with the House of Thralls to keep things in order. But on a more local level, it was the minotaur population that ensured the quotas were met each season. There was something of a friendly competition each year to see who’s land allotment produced the most, the best, and the finest grain. So it did not surprise Kaehmat at all that Karisa would want to rub her achievement in a rivals face. He walked over obediently, prepping a bun and tugging at the males trousers to get his attention.
Aegeus turned around and looked down at the boy speculatively. “What do you want boy?”
Kaehmat held up one of the buns to him. “From Mistress Karisa.” He said, pointing to the orange specked female, who waved at Aegus in a discreetly mocking fashion.
“Karisa.” He growled and took the bun roughly. Shaking it at her before he began to yell over the crowd in their own language.
Kaehmat spoke a little minotaur, just a smattering he’d caught onto from his mother’s business dealings. But he knew well enough when words no well behaved child should know were being used. He ducked out of the range and went back to selling. The stage acts were switching to a fire dancer, with the promise of a play to come after. The Epic of Anahete, one of the many tales currently in vogue through out the nation. Anahete’s history was somewhat in dispute between historians and the priestesses. Conflicting historical records pointed to her either as one of Tiamati’s trusted officers during her human lifetime, an early Queen during the three hundred some off year period of Orcish incursions, or possibly a well respected and honorable warrior of legend. The priestesses point to scriptures and ballads reciting Anahete as a figure of great wisdom, connected to Tiamati from her childhood and destined to die before she could achieve renowned by casting the blight from the Red Wastes and claiming it for Verdant and their goddess. This usually meant that any performances about her were riddled with contradictions and wildly inaccurate speculation. They were also crowd pleasers that ensured a heavy donation box for the entertainers after the show.
Kaehmat hurriedly sold every bun and roll in the tray, letting the coins clink into his pouch until he could call it done and rush to find a good spot. The crowd was thick and many folk had brought their own pillows or blankets to carve out a spot. Like most children, Kaehmat didn’t try to find a bench. Instead he looked for a storehouse or goat shed he could climb up on and claim to get above the rows of heads to see the stage. He spotted a bunch of others making a space just to the right of the throng and tossed his box down among the rest of them, clambering up the ladder to the thick hay thatched roof.
“Hey. What are you doing here?”
He frowned at Isalla, looking at her annoyed expression as he made himself a spot. “Is it your goat shed?”
“Than I can do what I want. I can be up here just as much as you can be.”
Isalla’s brows met in the middle as she gave him a thoroughly aggravated look. She was sitting there with a few of her friends, and they all had that manner about them that told Kaehmat they were waiting to see what she would do next. “Nobody said you couldn’t be here. Just what you were doing here.”
“I am going to watch the play. Same as you.”
“Do you even know this play?” Another of the girls challenged him, a stocky young woman he recognized right off the cuff as Deine. There was a tinge of yellow in her hazel eyes and her lower incisors were just pointed enough to make you wonder if there was a little bit of orc somewhere back in her bloodline. She often bragged that her great grandmother had been along the borders of the Dense Jungles when the last big Orc incursion had caused trouble. So it was entirely possible.
“Everyone knows this play. But every troupe plays it different. I want to see how they do it.” Kaehmat insisted with a resolute tone. He didn’t want to fight. He just wanted to watch the play without being scolded.
“Plays like this are wasted on boys.” Deine told him as if she was consoling a crying child. “Go find a play about cooking and weaving and keeping a house well. That will be more suited to you.”
“There aren’t any plays like that.” Said another boy Kaehmat didn’t recognize.
“Thats because it would be a boring and stupid play.” Deine proclaimed with absolute certainty.
“Yes. It would. Thats why I came to watch this play. Because I don’t want to be bored.” Kaehmat told her slowly, explaining it like he would to a simpleton.
Deine’s eyes flashed as Isalla laughed dispite herself. “You have a lot of mouth for someone sitting so close to the edge.” She made a move to push him, but Isalla grabbed her tunic and tugged her back firmly.
“That is not a fair fight.” She told her friend with a calming tone. “Of course you could shove him off. He’s a year young than you and nowhere near as big. Besides, if you cause a fuss someone will call the guards. Or worse, our parents. And then no one will get to see the play.” Isalla’s words had a reasonable effect, and Deine settled down next to her with gruff discontent at being robbed of the opportunity to get into a fight. Isalla smiled over at Kaehmat, but when he didn’t return it she frowned and turned her attention towards the stage.
The crowd quieted as the first of the actors took the stage, dressed in soft blues and greens. The narrators purpose was to set the stage, and he did so with great eloquence. He spoke of a time over a thousand years past, when Verdant was still just a city and not yet the admired country it would become. When huge Orc armies still presented a credible threat and yenya forces were great in number. He told of a set of stars in the inky blackness of night that aligned just so in the form of a sword, heralding the birth of a destined warrior and healer, and how no one could have guessed that this such young woman could be born to a family of no notable means or status. Rumors said she was a secret love child between the Queen’s and a mere ditch digger, hidden away to ensure she would never be found by other jealous royal children. This of course would make her a princess by rights, but she was, according to the story anyhow, destined by Tiamati’s grace to do far greater things.
Kaehmat watched as the story unfolded in a series of vignettes, each one telling of a special event in young Anahete’s life that surely meant she was headed for bigger things. Everyone knew at least a few of these tales, and they always differed a bit depending upon who was telling them. But the important part wasn’t that Anahete had rescued her families prized goat (or maybe it was a chicken or a cow or a pig), but that she had done it at five years old by fending over a river crocodile with just the branch of a sacred ironwood tree. Her miraculous and untrained ability as a healer was far more important that the precise malady she had reportedly healed at the tender age of ten. Anahete had to be everything to everyone, and so her story had to be told in a way that it would reach the audience as a whole, giving them aspirations of grandeur and the inspiring them to keep their mutual history alive.
The boy watched with rapt fascination as the players owned the stage, transporting their audience into the fantasy of their own past. Anahete the prodigy. Anahete the warrior. Anahete the chosen of Tiamati, or perhaps even Tiamati herself returned in human form. No one could tell. But as they watched her mature from childhood into her teen years, the actress changed, returning from her Trials as an adult woman in faded Verdant blues that had to be a good generation or so old. Kaehmat could tell they had been dyed and redyed to keep up the pageantry for the stage show. But it didn’t matter. She looked radiant standing there in the glory of her own triumph, dark braids neatly rowed against her crown and wound with gold thread. Kaehmat could not take his eyes off her, a deep sense of longing plucking at his very core. She looked so much like the version of Kaehmat in his own mind that it almost hurt. When she laughed brazenly in the face of a yenya hoard, he wanted to be her, high on the rush of battle. As she knelt before the Queen (who is this version was her mother unbeknownst to the both of them, and Anahete was given her Citizen’s mark to the uproarious cheers of the gathered crowd. The narrator took center-stage as the curtain fell and promised that the second half of the story would come tomorrow afternoon, ensuring that they would have a captive audience for the final day or the festival.
“I liked last years better.” Said the other boy in a disappointed tone.
“They got a new actress to play Anahete. I heard the other one got a contract with one of the wealthy estates and only does private performances.” Deine dropped down from the shed easily, dusting herself off as the crowds swarmed by them. “My father says that means they do disreputable things for people who can afford to be disreputable.”
“What does he mean by disreputable?” Isalla jumped off to join her, holding the ladder so the boys could climb down.
“My mother smacked his head and told him I was too young to know. So it probably means sex.” Deine shrugged at the oddities of parents thinking their children are deaf, dumb and blind until told to be otherwise. “Do you think they leave their costumes on when they have sex?”
“Do you think guards leave their armor on to have sex?” Isalla’s mouth scrunched up at her friend behaving like an idiot before she turned to Kaehmat and shoved him gently. “We’re going to sneak up on the guard tower to watch the fireworks tonight. You can come if you bring something to eat. We’re all bringing something.”
Kaehmat shook his head as he picked up the tray. “My mother wants us to watch the fireworks together. But maybe I can be at the festival again tomorrow.”
“Maybe. My mother has let me skip two days of training. I don’t know if she’ll let me skip another. Speaking of, what did you do with that spear?” Her eyes were bright once more. Like a kattie with a long tailed mouse she had no intention of giving up on this till she got her answer.
“Wait. How did you get a spear?” Deine barged in, shoving up next to her friend.
“He bought it.” Isalla informed her.
“The pits he did. It was your sisters wasn’t it? Or your mothers.”
“No. He bought it himself. I watched him.” The girl defended staunchly and shrugged her friend off her shoulder. “I just want to know what he’s doing with it.”
“I told you I’m hunting vermin with it.” Kaehmat held the tray between them like a shield, as if it would protect him from their questions. “My dad even said I could.”
“Boys aren’t allowed to have weapons.” The other boy said with an air of someone afraid they might get into trouble just by mentioning it.
“No, thats thralls. Boys can have weapons. They just don’t. At least not bigger than a dagger. Kaehmat what do you want with a spear anyhow? Why don’t you practice with a sling or something of you just want to kill rats and weasels?” She was doing an excellent job of cornering him, using the shed and the wall of the house to give him little room for escape. “Why spend so much on a real spear?”
“Because I want to!” Kaehmat shoved the tray forward, knocking the girl back and marching past her angrily as Deine laughed. Why did nobody understand that simple point? Why did everybody want to know why a boy wanted a weapon? He stormed through the remainders of the crowd, trying to put some distance between himself and the others as he fought off tears. The happy atmosphere of the celebration was suddenly contrary to everything he felt. He didn’t want to be around people anymore. Kaehmat turned around the corner of the stage, ducking behind the gathering of tents and tables the entertainers used to store their equipment and change between scenes. He threw his box in a corner and hunkered down, hoping that he’d go unnoticed if anyone came looking for him.
As the child sat there sniffling to himself, shadows passed by the other side of the tent and he could hear the performers discussing how the play had gone. At first he didn’t recognize the voice, but when a wild laughter hit Kaehmat’s ears, he couldn’t resist peeking between the canvas. There, still dressed in the prop armor and redyed blues, was the actress who had portrayed Anahete, hurriedly undoing the buckles to get the layers off of her. Kaehmat watched with starstruck awe as she chatted to one of the people in a cobbled together yenya covered in layered hay to make fur and paper teeth that had been broken in places. He blushed hen she began to undo the side ties of her tunic and started to turn away so he wouldn’t see something he ought not to see. But out of the corner of his eye, Kaehmat witnessed the actress groan softly as she adjusted the wrappings of her chest and taking out two faux breasts made of carefully crafted velvet and filled to roundness.
“You ought to take those off for a bit. You’ll hurt your shoulders.” The ‘yenya ‘ warned, taking off their mask and wiping sweat from their brow with a wet cloth.
“I am used to it. I just need a little break before I put them back in. Besides, don’t yours hurt your shoulders? I don’t see how you lug those tits around all day without complaining.” ‘Anahete’ pointed out.
“Who says I don’t complain? I complain plenty. But not all of us can just pop them off whenever they get too heavy or too hot.” She shot back with a friendly shove.
“I’d trade you if I could, dearest! Give me yours and you can have the ones that come off whenever you want.” The performer offered and their partner laughed, shaking her head as she walked away. The entertainer turned around to take a robe, and stopped, catching sight of the spy looking in on them from the other side of the canvas. “If you want a peep show, boy, you take your coins and get down to the taverns in Pauper’s Den. This lady doesn’t work the red scene!”
Kaehmat was stunned back into awareness of where he was and what he was doing. He jumped back, stumbling over the baskets and crates and running down the alley as fast as his feet could carry him. A new, strange, and somewhat frightening sense of awareness was starting to building his belly like a fire waiting to climb into the skies. He has just witnessed something utterly new to him, and Kaehmat was smiling even as he left the plaza and took the path back to his house. Something about that entertainer was right in almost every sense. So much so that it tingled in his fingertips! Kaehmat stopped behind one of the shops storehouses, panting to catch his breath and realizing absently that he’d left the tray behind. That realization took precedent. His mother would be livid if he came back in without it.
Which meant he’d have to go back for it.
The entertain who had taken the stage to play Anahete did not look entirely surprised to see their peeper pop back up the next day. But they were surprised that this time the young boy had the courtesy to knock on the wooden post of their dressing tent to ask if they had found a sellers tray lying around.“I may have.” They opened the tent flap, letting the young boy in. “But that depends entirely upon you.”
“On me?” Kaehmat was not yet courageous enough to look the actress in the eyes, perhaps suitably ashamed that they had stared for so long at a naked body.
“On whether or not you intend to apologize for being such a rude little peeper yesterday.” They asserted, sitting back down at their vanity to finish doing their make up and hair for the afternoon show. The tent was packed to the brim with costumes, props, background canvases and instruments. Surrounded by all the trappings of the life as an entertainer, there was a messy but comfortable clutter that framed them in a world of decoration and playing to the crowd. “Don’t dawdle about it, boy. I have three hours till curtain and it will take me that long to get into character.”
“I wasn’t trying to peep!”
“That is not an apology, young man.”
“But I wasn’t! I was hiding and I heard your voice and I…!” He flushed brightly, looking at the brush as the entertainer lines their dark lips with a rich purple cosmetic. “I really liked your Anahete. I didn’t mean to peep. Then I saw you.”
The performer didn’t stop doing their makeup, but they were watching Kaehmat through the reflection of the mirror.
“And I didn’t mean to keep looking. I wasn’t trying to be lewd. But I’ve never seen someone like that before. I’m sorry. I am.”
They humphed, putting down the brush and finally looking their guest up and down with doubtful beliefs. Whatever internal decision they were making belong to them alone, but in the end the performer waved a hand impatiently. “I accept your apology. Your tray is on the nightstand. You can go.”
Kaehmat kept his head down, scuttling over to the tray and picking it up with a murmured thank you and rushing towards the door. His fingers paused on the canvas trim, and an exasperated sigh came from the person behind him.
“Is there something else?”
Kaehmat swallowed hard, closing his eyes and thinking of that rush he’d felt while holding the spear, and how it felt so familiar to this recent discovery. “Did you mean what you said to that woman yesterday?” He turned a little, the actress still looking at herself in the mirror more than him.
“Did I meant what?”
His mouth was dry, and his head felt a little warm. “T-that you’d trade them…if you could?”
The Anahete actress stopped their applications. The slow realization was an effective way to dissolve the piqued irritation that had been there before, and now they put their eyes right on Kaehmet when they spoke. “I did. I’d trade a lot more than that too if it were at all possible to do so.”
The entertainer smiled in a very real and very understanding way, scooting an ottoman over to her side and nodding for Kaehmat to come back inside. “I think you know why.” She observed candidly the way the child held themselves so awkwardly, all their tension carried in the shoulders as if they were ashamed to be asking such a thing. “So you liked my Anahete, did you?”
“Yes. A lot.”
“She was my favorite too when I was your age. Everything a true Verdant woman should aspire to be. I love getting to play her.” The actress insisted as she lounged easily back in the chair. “Every time I stride onto stage, sword in hand and armor gleaming, I feel like I am her. I like that feeling. I’m Nali.”
“Thats a girls name.”
“Yes it is.” Nali said with a knowing smirk.
“I’m Kaehmat.” He answered, displeasure in his face. “Which is a very boy name.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. But you don’t want a boys name, do you?” Nali sighed, knowing that feeling all too well as she took in the child’s aura of wonder and desperation. “In fact, I would put coin on you not wanting a boys anything.”
“I don’t think I get a choice in that.”
“Maybe not about some things. But I prefer to think of myself as an expert in finding wiggleroom.”
Kaehmat had a thousand questions on their mind, and only one came to the tip of their tongue. A crude question perhaps, but no less necessary to him. “What are you?”
“Ha! Cheeky little shit. I’m an actress. And a very talented one at that.” Nali bushed back her braids and began pinning them together atop her head.
“But are you a girl or a boy?” He had to ask, he had to know. He had to hear it from someones lips besides his own and feel some sense of reality to what had only been a thought on the fringe of his consciousness.
Nali gazed at herself in the mirror, looking at the proud features that stood out from her face, the purple tinted line of her lips and and the cheekbones that would not have been out of place on a bust of Tiamati. “I am a woman.” And there was no room for doubt in her voice. “Is that what you want to be?”
“Yes.” Kaehmat squeaked out. The change was so intrinsic to her being that it was like a thunderstorm in the desert, approaching on the horizon, course unchanged by the will of any. “Yes I do. Very much so.”
Nali’s sympathetic voice was a strange mixture of earned knowledge and nostalgia as she spoke. “You’re going to have to be certain of yourself, I can tell you that much. Girls like us are all over the place, and people don’t always know quite what to make of it. But certainty helps. You know how the priestesses say ‘know thyself’?”
“Well think of this as the ultimate extension of that. You know yourself. You know this is what you are, suddenly it gets a lot easier not to care if other people know.” Nali promised the admiring girl, thinking back on what advice they could offer and how it might be of use. “Don’t be afraid to get into fights over it. Quickest way to convince people you won’t be second guessed is to break a nose or two and convince them to be more respectful with their choice of words.”
“I’m not a very good fighter.”
“Learn quick then. Because I can promise you as sure as there will be a sunrise that you will come to blows over this sooner rather than later. Also, find yourself friends. Good friends. They aren’t going to understand much when you first tell them. But over time people can learn. Good friends will put in the effort to learn.” Nali finished her face work and stretched, searching for her tunic and armor amid the chests and cases.
“What about my family?” Kaehmat said, the excitement trickling over into nervousness as her mind wondered at how her parents might respond to this seemingly new revelation. “What am I supposed tell them? How do I…”
“Easy now. Easy. You’re riling yourself up. Who says you have to tell anyone anything just yet?” She told the girl, patting her shoulder to give her strength. “Hear me, child. This is a long journey you are on. Think of how long it took you just to get to this point. There is no rush, and no need to force yourself into more than you are ready for. You are still very much a child.”
“But I know now. I know why I don’t like this. Why I don’t feel right the way I am. How am I supposed to just ignore it?” Kaehmat shook, hungry for answers and wondering where she was supposed to get them.
“I never said ignore it. I said give it time. Like good wine or good stew. Let yourself set and mature. You’re a girl today. You’ll be one tomorrow. But it might help to let yourself become a woman before you start challenging people to treat you like one.” The actress adjusted her garb, righting the ties and ensuring the bust fell where she wished. “I found my place amid the Twilight houses. Creative types have a tendency towards welcome. They accept me for just who I am. Or maybe it’s just cause I’m that good of an entertainer.” She smiled, fastening the stage armor onto her body one piece at a time.
“You’re saying I need to figure out what manner of woman I want to be? Where I want to be?” Kaehmat asked, thinking back on the spear, the play, and the rush of admiration she had felt when her sister had left them behind. “I want to do the Trials.”
“Oh! Well now. That is certainly an ambitious future you have planned, girl!” Nali snapped the buckled into place, shifting as the tin armor settled against her frame until she was satisfied with it’s placement. “You’re going to have a rough time of it. Most weapons tutors and defense teachers won’t take on anybody but a girl from a well placed family.”
“My mother paid tutors to help train my sister.”
“But will she pay them to tutor you?” Nali explained as the work outside began to pick up. Just beyond the tent they could hear the juggler taking the stage, warming up the audience with their routine. “Sounds like a big crowd. I’ll half need to scream to make sure everyone can hear.” The entertain turned back to their guest once more, clasping her shoulders as she took in the sight of her. “Go watch the show. Think about what I said.”
“Can I come talk to you again?”
“Children aren’t allowed in taverns or entertainment houses. But I imagine you’ll see me around from time to time. I play the dulcimer in merchants row near the silk shops when we don’t have any big shows like this. Now, take your box and go find a seat. I have to get into character and last I checked, Anahete never had any children.”
Kaehmat picked up the box, looking at herself in the mirror before leaving. She’d wondered over her reflection before, looking at the dark freckles and prominent nose that was so like her mothers and finding them to be her best features. She focused on them now, a sense of confidence growing within her from the very core of her being. “Nali?”
“What did your name used to be?”
Nali glanced over her shoulder before heading out the door and into the melee of performers running about like decapitated chickens. “Does it matter?” She said with a winning smile.
Kaehmat smiled back. “No.”
The woman watched as Kaehmat looked into the mirror at herself. “What do you want your name to be?”
Kaehmat looked at the emblem of old Verdant on some of the prop pieces and banners. “Anahete.”
The actress tossed back her head and laughed richly, the bravado of performance already washing over her. “Like I said, you are an ambitious girl!”