Endskel 11, 1013
Gino was right where he’d said he would be: by the great monkey fountain.
Leona looked around the ancient temple as she slowly advanced up the grassy walk. She wondered — was this once a stone walk? Had the grass merely grown over flagstones, buried them under years of disuse, of nature taking back its own? Or had the natives never bothered to pave this walk in the first place?
Maybe “never bothered” was the wrong way to look at it. She’d barely gotten to talk to any of the natives, and she kept most of her conversation to the subjects of trading relationships and bargains. But she sensed that they might not see things the way Wrightians did. Any Wrightian church, especially a big, important one, would have a paved floor as a matter of course — if nothing else, there was no way for plants and grass to grow for long in a dim cathedral, and dirt floors quickly turned to mud floors if you had a lot of wet people tramping across them. But the Twikkii islanders didn’t seem to think that way. They even kept their temples open to the sky.
Or had it always been that way? These temples had been abandoned long, long before the Travellers had found their way to the Twikkii shores.
As Leona watched, Gino took out a coin from his purse, stared at it for a moment, then tossed it into the fountain.
As it hit the waters with a delicate plunk, Gino called over his shoulder, “Good afternoon, Princess.”
Leona bristled. There he went calling her Princess again. Who did he think she was? She certainly didn’t act like a princess … well, like an empty-headed, fluffy princess, who managed to get kidnapped by the evil wizard and locked away in a tower, or taken by a dragon, or hounded by an evil witch — one who never did anything, who needed to be rescued at every turn. True, there were other kinds of princesses out there … but nobody ever called a woman Princess when he was thinking of one of those princesses.
“Good afternoon, Gino,” she called back — determined not to let him get to her. “How’d you know I was coming?”
Gino turned around and stuck out his hand. “Nobody else on the island jingles when they walk.”
“That’s good to know. It means I haven’t rusted solid in all this wet heat.”
Gino snorted. “You could always try ditching the chain mail, you know. And the leather.”
“Easier said than done,” Leona replied. “What would I wear instead?”
“Don’t ask me that,” Gino chuckled. “I just might answer.”
“Ugh. You’re a pig.” Leona shoved him — but playfully. He didn’t rock on his feet, though he had the first time she got impatient enough to shove him. He’d looked surprised then, though the surprise quickly melted away, replaced by … an expression that Leona wasn’t used to seeing on a man’s face, directed at her. If it had been toward any other woman — even Mother Isabella! — she’d have called it admiration.
“So,” she said, switching topics, “why’d you toss the coin into the fountain?”
Gino blinked. “You don’t miss much, do you?”
“My father told me that the knight who doesn’t watch everything is, sooner or later, a dead knight.”
“So is the knight who does. And so is the knight who stays home from battle.”
“… Maybe I should have said sooner rather than later,” Leona backtracked.
“Fair enough,” Gino replied. “And … to answer your question … it’s for luck. They say …” Gino looked over his shoulder at the gushing fountain. Leona wondered, where did the water come from? And where did it go? “The natives say that Numchuck will grant good fortune to anyone who comes here, leaves a trinket, and makes a wish.”
“Really? Can I try?” Leona asked.
Gino blinked. “You’re a Wrightian.”
“So are you,” Leona pointed out.
Gino snorted — but he did step aside. “Be my guest, Princess.”
Leona stepped forward, took a coin from her purse, and wished.
She wished that these negotiations would go well. She was getting nowhere with Mother Isabella. The few native islanders that Mother Isabella would connect her with were all thoroughly under the thumb of the Church. One of them was a nun who couldn’t even speak the natives’ language! And they all said the same thing: they’d be happy to trade, but of course they’d have to pay the Travellers’ fees.
That was stupid, to Leona’s mind. Sure, the Travellers said that they needed the money to act as middlemen — to keep the mission in good repair, to keep making inroads into the remote corners of the island, trying to convert more people. But Leona saw how they treated the natives, even the converts. They were condescending, sneering at the natives’ traditions and way of life. And while, yes, the Wrightians had the True Faith … they could at least be a bit more polite. And a lot less rapacious. Leona had taken a good long look at those fees that the Travellers habitually charged to act as the middlemen in the trading relationships, and she had only question at the end of it: Where the hell was all the money going?
She hadn’t been brave enough to ask Mother Isabella that, though. One thing at a time.
Leona tossed the coin into the fountain and watched it sink with a satisfying plunk. As soon as it hit the bottom, Gino spoke up. “Why do you assume I’m Wrightian?”
“Um …” Leona flashed him a wide, nervous smile. “I asked Mother Isabella a few questions about you … she mentioned you’d been baptized …”
“When I was too young to defend myself.”
Leona blinked. “Huh?”
“I was an infant — only a couple of days old — when Brother Enguerrand threw some water over my face. That makes me a Wrightian? Please, Princess. You’re cleverer than that.”
If baptism didn’t make you a Wrightian — and the Church insisted it did, and the Church ought to know — then what did? That was what Leona wanted to know. But there was another thing she wanted to know, too. “Brother Enguerrand. You mean–your father?”
A mask clapped over Gino’s features. “And what is it that you know about that?”
Not much, Leona had to admit. Barely more than she had the day they had met. Mother Isabella had not been forthcoming about Gino’s background and childhood when Leona had asked. She’d insisted that Leona stay away from Gino, though: she said the boy (as she called him) was on a dangerous path, which could only lead to perdition.
Leona wasn’t so sure about that. But she was reasonably sure, from what Mother Isabella had said, that she wouldn’t have to pound Gino into the dirt for any insults — which explained why she was here.
“You know what?” Gino sighed. “Never mind. Just–accept, Princess, that what happened between Brother Enguerrand and me is far too complicated to go into, and not worth the time and trouble it would take to understand.”
Leona wondered. She hadn’t seen such venom towards a father figure even from the de Ganis girls — and surely they ought to be entitled to vent some spleen if anyone was! The way Gino talked about his father was like …
… how Garnet discussed her mother …
Leona decided she wouldn’t ask any more questions.
“So,” she asked instead, “when is your grandmother supposed to be here?”
Gino blinked. “What? That’s it? You’re dropping it?”
“… That’s what you seemed to want … was I wrong?”
Gino stared at her with his head cocked to one side, an expression of bewilderment on his face. “You’re that inquisitive, and you take a hint that fast?”
“Would you prefer I was slower?”
Gino blinked at her. He shook his head. “No. No, I wouldn’t.” He sighed. “And don’t call her my grandmother. Not in her hearing.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because …” Gino sighed. “She won’t acknowledge it. It’s … complicated. But … let me put it like this. You’ve heard of the last war, right? Between the natives and the Church?”
Leona nodded. That war had started almost a quarter-century ago — it was older than Albion — but the people still talked and moved and acted like it had ended only the day before. Or if it was still ongoing, though Mother Isabella swore that the island was peaceful now.
“Well,” Gino replied, “it started when Liloloa –”
“… Aye,” Gino admitted. “It started when she laid me, all of three days old, at the church door. And then, once I was inside the hostel, she ordered her warriors to start shooting.”
Leona’s eyes widened. “What? Why?”
“If I said it was complicated … and had to do with Brother Enguerrand …”
Leona blinked, but she said nothing. She nodded.
She still had one more question, though. “What are the odds that she’s going to bring the warriors to start shooting at us?”
“Slim to none.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because twenty-five years ago, when she fought that war, she was trying to get the Wrightians the hell away from the island. She failed. For the time being, you all are here to stay. But … maybe now, she can play you all off each other, and come out ahead.”
“Hmm.” Leona stroked her chin. “For what it’s worth, we’re all not as bad as … Brother Enguerrand.”
“No. That much I know.” Gino glanced at the entryway to the temple, the long line of grass down which Leona had come. “You’ll have to convince her of that, though. As far as she’s concerned, you’re all the same.”
“Well, if she’s only met the likes of Brother Enguerrand … and even Mother Isabella … who can blame her?” Leona asked philosophically.
“Mother Isabella is nothing compared to Brother Enguerrand.”
“I still wouldn’t want her camped out in my backyard, telling me that everything I’ve ever done is wrong — and when she’s ‘trading’ with me, skimming a lot of everything I stand to make from the bargain right off the top.”
Gino stared at her, then he laughed. It wasn’t a deprecating laugh, or if it was, it was at the absurdity of the world they lived in, not at her. “Ah, Princess–if everybody thought like you …” He smirked. “Well, I’d be out of a job as go-between.”
“Then I guess it’s good for you that–” Leona caught sight of something — a person — out of the corner of her eye. A person. “Um, Gino — is that her?”
Gino looked up–and without a word to Leona, he marched off to meet the old woman slowly advancing up the grassy path.
She showed more skin–well, not more skin than Leona had ever seen in her life. She’d spent too long on the island to say that. But she’d never seen anyone, native or otherwise, with so many white markings. Were they tattoos, she wondered, or were they painted-on markings? She never saw any of those markings on the natives who came in for services once a week … but those natives were always, as Mother Isabella put it, “decently covered,” often with loose-woven burlap tunics and kirtles that the Travellers had to put outside the doors of the church for that very purpose. Leona always saw the natives with those burlap tunics on, and by the time she was able to make her escape from the church, the tunics were piled by the door and the natives were long gone.
She wondered what the markings might mean. But more than that, she wondered, as Gino and the woman — Liloloa — talked in the natives’ strange, musical language, just what it was they were saying.
She watched Liloloa — and Liloloa caught her watching. She shot Leona a glance every bit as appraising as the glance Leona had shot her. Her eyes were deep and dark, like a pool that appeared still and friendly on the surface, but jump in and you’d find …
How was it that this woman had lost, all those years ago?
… Maybe she hadn’t been quite as wise yet. Maybe it took losing, and losing big, to gain that kind of wisdom.
Liloloa seemed to lose patience with what her grandson was saying, waving him out of her way with a single twitch of her hand. Then she stepped up to Leona. She put one foot forward, bent her knees, wiggled her hips, raised both hands in the air in half a fist, with only thumb and pinkie sticking out, and said, “Ess’achi!”
She somehow did it all at the same time, too.
“Um …” Leona scratched her head.
“Do it,” Gino hissed.
“What she just did. It’s a greeting. Do it.”
Leona sighed–but she wiggled her hips, and stuck a foot forward (probably the wrong one), said, “Ess’achi?” and tried to put her hands in the right position. And she by no means managed to do it all at the same time.
Liloloa watched her with no attempt to hide her amusement. She turned to Gino and said something to him in the natives’ language.
“She wants to know,” Gino said to Leona, “how is it that you’ve been on this island for four months and haven’t properly greeted anybody yet.”
“Tell her I–wait, she knows how long I’ve been here?”
“Very little happens on the island without Liloloa knowing.”
Leona glanced at the old woman. Somehow it wasn’t hard to believe that.
“Well–tell her that I’ve been holed up with the Travellers, and I haven’t had a chance to — to meet a real native until now.”
Gino froze. “Don’t say that.”
“A ‘real’ native. Just because some have … are living near the Wrightians–that doesn’t make them any less real.”
“Oh. Um. Well–then tell her that I’ve been holed up with the Travellers, and nobody’s greeted me properly yet.”
Gino smiled, so Leona guessed she had said the right thing. He conveyed the phrase back to Liloloa. Liloloa nodded, but her eyes never left Leona. She said something back in reply to Gino.
“Hold your horses. She’s welcoming you to the island — officially,” Gino said, then paused while Liloloa said something else, “and she wants to know what it is you want from her.”
“Tell her to trade — of course! Her people have all kinds of herbs and spices — and so many different kinds of crops — and of course people say that the Llamas roam freely here –”
“Don’t bring up the llamas!”
Leona jumped. “What?”
“The llamas.” Gino ran a hand over his face. “You have no idea the trouble that’s come from the llamas … anyway,” he added, “they aren’t on this island. Not anymore.”
Leona did have an idea of some of the trouble that had come from the llamas: Mother Isabella had said that one of the marks of the Grim Reaper on these people was the fact that they would kill and eat llamas. She’d also mentioned that during the war, great herds of them had been slaughtered by the natives and left for the Wrightians to find. The Remans, she had pointed out, had done exactly the same thing when they were trying to halt the spread of the Wrightian faith. That was why there were no more llamas left in Reme.
But she could ignore the llamas if they were that touchy a subject. She wasn’t sure how she’d manage to bring a llama across the sea, anyway. “All right, forget the llamas. But mention to her that we have steel. And our bows have a longer range and greater stopping power. And we can teach them how to make and use the crossbow, too.”
“You’ve got a one-track mind, haven’t you?” Gino muttered, but he translated — or, Leona hoped he translated — what she had said to Liloloa.
Liloloa replied instantly. Gino translated, “She wants to know why you’d give her people those weapons when the Church says they’re not to have them.”
Leona hesitated. With tensions still this raw, giving the natives weapons and steel could easily end in disaster … “Well,” she replied to Gino, “I suggested that because it’s something we have that I figured the natives might want. What else might they want?”
Gino stared at her.
“What?” Leona asked. “This is how trade works, right? I know I’m a noblewoman, but I thought I had the basics down. You have something I want. I have something you want. Neither of us particularly wants to keep the something we have. So–we trade.”
“Yes,” replied Liloloa, “that is how it work.”
Leona gasped. “You–you speak Simlish!”
“Oh, no,” Gino murmured, covering his face with one hand.
“Yes,” answered Liloloa. “Not as good as he.” She gestured to Gino. “But he speak it from a baby. Me–I learn late. And he no speak Sim’kim as I do.”
“Simlish,” muttered Gino. “The islander word for it.”
Leona had to blink — how was it that they called their languages the same thing? And how was it that the word ‘Sim’ managed to be part of it? Surely the Lord worked in mysterious ways.
“But–but if you can speak Simlish — then, then we can trade that much more easily! Maybe we can work out–”
Leona blinked. “… No?”
“Not–not yet. I can no make this …” She said a word to Gino.
“Decision,” Gino filled in.
“Decision alone. I must consult. With elders — with people.” With narrowed eyes, she added, “My people–we are not like you. We all talk. We all have voice. We all decide.”
“Oh, I understand,” Leona replied. “King Arthur doesn’t do much, either, without getting his council to agree with it.”
“Kingarthur?” repeated Liloloa.
“He’s my — um — oh, Gino, help me out …”
“Roy’der,” said Gino to Liloloa. “It means ‘king.’ Or close enough,” he added to Leona.
“King,” repeated Liloloa. “A new word. A good word. I will try it. But for now–I must leave. We speak again at the feast of Jumbok. He bring you to the village.”
“I–um–all right! Thank you!”
Liloloa nodded. She then turned to go.
“Wait!” Leona replied. “Ess–ess–ess’achi!”
Liloloa blinked, looking almost — impressed. She glanced at Gino and said something in the native tongue.
“She wants to know how you knew ess’achi is both a greeting and a parting.”
“Um …” There was a good question. “Inspired guess?” She grinned at Liloloa.
Liloloa nodded once, replied, “Ess’achi, and turned to leave.
As soon as she seemed to be out of earshot, Leona replied, “Well, that went well! So, when’s this feast of Jumbok?”
“… Darid,” replied Gino.
“What?” Leona asked.
“Darid 16,” added Gino.
Leona watched Liloloa’s retreating back. “Well,” she finally sighed, “I guess that gives me lots of time to get Mother Isabella used to the idea.”