Chapter Eight: Lives Without Color
Adesina had just finished unpacking when she heard a knock on the door below. She moved closer to the window, out of sight but within hearing range. Jelana’s voice was recognizable.
“Hello, girls. How are you today?”
Now a younger voice. “Oh, we are fine-”
She was cut off by another young voice. “We saw the girl come here. Are you hosting her?”
A slightly more mature voice reprimanded the second. “Gainor!”
Jelana brought order back to the conversation. “Yes, we are hosting a girl. She is from the Northern Tribes. I will introduce you, if you wish, but you cannot stay long. She needs to settle in.”
Adesina did a quick check of her things, making sure nothing incriminating was in sight. Ravi casually moved so he was sitting in a corner out of the way. Her sharp hearing followed their step as they crossed the main room, climbed the stairs and walked down the hall.
There was a soft knock at her door and Jelana entered with three girls about Adesina’s age. In a split second, Adesina’s eyes took in various details about each of her visitors and could see the dynamics between them.
The foremost girl was clearly the leader. She had light blonde hair and laughing blue eyes, a heart-shaped face and a slightly stubborn set to her jaw. She stood stiffly upright, eager to be noticed and admired. The second girl was tall, with dark curls framing her round face. She had intelligent hazel eyes and a hint of humor around her mouth. Her dusky complexion was clear and smooth, touched only by a healthy glow on her cheeks. Adesina could see that she was a calming influence over the high-strung leader. The third girl seemed to be hiding in the background. This was the follower. She had honey-colored hair and an uncertain expression in her brown eyes, and her button nose was lightly sprinkled with freckles. All three girls were dressed in the same light brown dress with a darker brown apron covering the front.
“Adrie, these girls would like to meet you.” Jelana gestured to them in the exact order that Adesina had noticed them. “This is Gainor, Deasa and Rina.”
Each of them nodded politely when their name was said. Gainor looked as if she was dying of curiosity, but Jelana continued with the introductions at her own leisurely pace.
“Girls, this is Adrie of the Northern Tribes.”
Adesina reminded herself to smile shyly. “I am pleased to meet you.”
Jelana looked quite satisfied as she walked out of the room. “I will leave the four of you to get better acquainted.”
Gainor let out a dramatic sigh of relief as soon as the door was closed. She threw herself on the bed, paying no mind to Adesina’s possessions that were spread there. “I am always glad when the adults leave. Now we can talk without having to mind our manners.”
Deasa frowned slightly as she gracefully knelt on the floor next to Adesina. “Gainor,” she said with a rebuke in her voice.
Adesina absently noted that Deasa smelled faintly of the most pleasant mixture of spices. It was an exotic and invigorating sort of scent. Adesina wondered what it was that gave off the fragrance.
Rina looked as if she couldn’t make up her mind where to be seated. She hovered for several uncomfortable moments before collapsing next to Deasa. “Yes, Gainor,” she chided in a timid voice. “What an impression you will give Adrie about the High City.”
Gainor raised her eyebrows and surveyed them with a superior expression on her face. “Who cares? She shall see for herself soon enough. Besides, being shockingly honest is quite fashionable right now.”
Deasa rolled her eyes and gave Adesina a sympathetic smile. “Please forgive Gainor. She is often caught up in the winds of ‘fashion.’ She would walk around in boys’ clothing if someone told her it was fashionable.”
Rina giggled nervously at the idea. Adesina assumed an expression of polite incredulity, all the while wondering what kind of a world she had entered.
Gainor tossed her hair contemptuously. “Do not be ridiculous, Deasa. Only Outsiders permit those kinds of fashions.”
Rina glanced at Adesina with wide eyes. “Not that we would think such things about you, Adrie. We are pleased to see that you have a proper sense of decorum.”
Deasa decided it was time for a change of subject. “Where in the north do you come from, Adrie?”
Adesina shrugged casually. “Our tribe was nomadic, so we traveled quite a bit. Have you always lived in the High City?” she asked, shifting the focus away from herself.
Gainor snorted in disgust. “Goodness, yes! The same old city for sixteen years. My parents would have a stroke at the very idea of leaving the city walls.”
Adesina smiled softly as Gainor continued to chatter. She had no problem carrying the conversation by herself, but she was occasionally aided by Deasa. Rina said little and Adesina said even less. When questioned, the young Shimat found that a simple vague comment would turn the conversation back over to Gainor. For this reason, Adesina could tell that Gainor would be a valuable companion in the coming months.
Near the close of an hour, there was a quiet knock at the door and Jelana entered the room. Gainor hastily sat up and smoothed the skirt of her dress.
“All right, girls, that is enough visiting. Adrie still needs to finish unpacking, and she could also use some rest after her long journey.”
The girls seemed reluctant to go, but they all stood and straightened their clothing primly. Rina looked at Adesina with a hopeful expression on her face. “Will you be attending school?”
Gainor gave her a condescending glare. “Of course she will be attending school. It is the city requirement, Rina.”
She flushed in embarrassment. “Oh.”
Inexplicably, Adesina felt the urge to comfort this painfully shy girl. “I have never attended a formal school before. Will you show me around tomorrow?”
Rina smiled gratefully as Gainor launched into raptures over the idea.
“Oh, yes! What fun it will be. You will love our school. We have the best teachers in the city, and everyone is so friendly. We will be quite the center of attention, you know. We have not had a new student in ages.”
Deasa smiled in genuine pleasure. “We will meet you on the street tomorrow morning and we can walk together. We are all neighbors, you know.”
Adesina nodded and waved as the girls walked out of the room. Instead of getting back to her unpacking, she stood at the window to eavesdrop on what they were saying as they walked away.
Deasa was the first to speak. “Well, she seems very nice.”
Gainor broke over her with an enthusiastic objection. “Nice? Why, she is absolutely adorable. And so pretty as well. She will make a nice addition to our group. How shocking to be friends with an Outsider! Everyone will be talking about us, and quite jealous that they were not friends with her first.”
Adesina could see them making their way down the path and into the street. Their voices were starting to fade.
Deasa sighed. “You know, Gainor, sometimes I think that you view your friends as nothing more than fashion accessories.”
Gainor’s indignant response was lost as they walked away. Ravi chuckled in amusement over her first encounter with girls her own age, but said nothing. Adesina ignored him and thoughtfully turned back to her belongings to finish putting them away. She was surprised to see that her room looked like it belonged to someone. It had a strangely human quality to it.
Some of the decorations she had added herself were merely props. A small statue of a northern deity stood on the table. An elaborate braid of material was attached to the doorframe, supposedly lending protection from evil spirits. A bunch of feathers hung over her bed to protect her dreams. A thin, silver chain filled with charms and talismans dangled from her windowsill.
All of the things that were truly hers were hidden from sight. Adesina had discovered a highly useful loose floorboard under the trunk. Inside the small compartment she created, she stashed all evidence of her true identity.
Just as she was double checking her room to make sure everything was in place, there was a soft knock at the door. Adesina’s eyes flashed over her surroundings before answering.
Jelana appeared. She surveyed the room and looked pleased with what she saw. “I see you are all settled.”
Adesina nodded meekly. Jelana regarded the young woman before her with a maternal expression. “We need to go to the Square to get some things for you tomorrow. Is now a good time?”
“Yes, of course.”
Adesina and Ravi followed Jelana down the stairs and out the front door. The sun was past its peak and the beginnings of change were in the air. They walked down the same way that Adesina arrived. Occasionally the curtains in the windows of houses would twitch, revealing curious neighbors. More often than not, people would actually come to their doors to watch the two women pass. Jelana would greet them all by name, unfailingly polite even though her expression was rueful.
Their residential area was in the southern section of the city. The Square was located against the western wall, almost directly north of the cottage. The business section of the city was separated from the residential by a large garden, almost a park. Adesina followed Jelana through the tidy garden, paying greater attention to her surroundings than she had previously.
The grass was trimmed quite short, making it crackle softly when they stepped on it. The gravel walkways were lined with whitewashed stones, and on the other side of the stones were rows of docile flowers. The shrubbery was pruned into geometric shapes that dotted the landscape in an orderly fashion. Citizens of the High City strolled through the garden at a leisurely pace, nodding to each other with great amounts of dignity.
The two women entered the Square and were greeted by the tall, uniform white buildings. Jelana first led her young charge to a dress shop to purchase some clothing that would better suit the city. The small shop was marked by a simple wooden sign above the door. Jelana walked in without hesitation, and Adesina followed. Ravi sat down just outside the door, not inclined to enter the shop.
It was a good-sized single room, with everything inside whitewashed. Adesina was certain that she would quickly grow tired of all the white. The shop held an elderly man tending to the counter and two younger men sewing busily in the back of the room. The young man with bright red hair looked to be in his mid twenties, and the young man with brown hair appeared to still be in his teens.
The man at the counter greeted them warmly. “Mistress Jelana, welcome. Surely you have not worn out your dresses already?”
Jelana shook her head. “No, no, Master Ardley. We are hosting this young woman and she is in need of a school uniform as well as a carpenter’s apprentice sash.”
Master Ardley nodded and sized Adesina up. He reached under the counter and pulled out a length of thick white string with regularly spaced black marks. The brown-haired young man put aside his sewing and went to stand by the elderly man. As Adesina was measured, Master Ardley would state the numbers and the young man would write them down.
It took only a few minutes, and then the man gestured impatiently to his apprentice. The young man hurried to sort through the shelves of pre-made clothing. He returned with two dresses and matching aprons identical to the ones Gainor and the others had worn. Master Ardley took them as his apprentice hurried off again. With dexterity that belied his aged hands, Master Ardley began hemming the sleeves and skirts of the dresses.
The apprentice returned with several pairs of brown stockings and a dark blue sash with a white circle on the shoulder. When he had deposited these items on the counter, he silently went back to his sewing.
Master Ardley finished his hemming in remarkable time. He folded each article of clothing neatly and wrapped it all in brown paper. When Jelana began pulling out her purse, he held up a weathered hand.
“My wife has been admiring Mistress Eda’s new rocking chair.”
Jelana smiled. “Of course. I will tell Hass to deliver one to your home.”
She and Adesina gathered up the packages and bid Master Ardley a good day. Ravi shadowed them to their next stop, which was at the cobbler’s, and waited just outside his door as well.
It was very much the same by way of conversation. The cobbler, probably only in his early thirties, measured Adesina’s feet and came back with a pair of sensible brown lady’s boots. He accepted payment with a lifeless, but extremely polite, smile.
After they had finished making their purchases, Jelana strolled through the Square, showing Adesina around. Most merchants had kiosks set up in the center of the Square, while most artisans ran the shops that made up the border. There were, of course, exceptions. Jelana pointed out a large shop with a lavish display in the window.
“That is Master Lindell’s spice shop. He is Deasa’s father. He is the most prominent merchant in the High City. Although, he deals quite a bit with Outsiders,” she said in a slightly distasteful voice, as if to indicate that this last fact lessened his prestige.
Adesina looked at the vivid window display and smiled quietly to herself. It seemed a bit bold to have such a display in a city such as this. Jelana averted her eyes as if it were indecent.
She sighed and admitted, “The quality of Master Lindell’s spices is much higher than any other merchant’s in the city. And his prices are quite reasonable.”
They walked a bit further and Jelana pointed out the shops that they passed. “This is my brother’s cooper shop. This is the wainwright’s shop. This is a floral shop.”
They passed by an understated little shop without comment. Adesina could tell by the window display that it was an apothecary shop, but Jelana acted as if it weren’t there.
She slowed her pace. “What shop is this?”
Jelana reluctantly turned her eyes to the sign above the door. “That is Mistress Faryl’s apothecary shop.”
Adesina took note of the emphasis with some confusion. She cast a quick glance at Ravi, but he offered no explanation. Jelana merely shook her head and walked on. “It was her uncle’s shop while he lived. Oh, if he could see it now. A shop run by a woman.”
The young Shimat had to stifle a laugh. She could imagine the look of well-bred horror on Jelana’s face if she were ever to discover Adesina’s true identity. A woman warrior. Ravi shared her amusement, and gave her a warm smile.
She fixed an uncertain expression on her face and looked at Jelana with mournful eyes. “Is it improper for me to apprentice a carpenter?”
The older woman hesitated apologetically before answering. “Well, dear…no…because you are an Outsider, and were not taught as we are. Of course, if you were to marry quickly you would not need to work. That would be ideal, but no one will fault you for apprenticing in the meantime.”
Jelana quickly moved on. They next came to a blacksmith’s shop and, as before, Ravi seated himself outside. The door was wide open, and the heat from within issued out. A sharp methodical ringing could be heard from the back of the shop. Jelana looked uncomfortable as she stepped through the door.
She half turned and said to Adesina quietly, “Hass is usually the one to come here for our needs. However, that task falls on me today.”
The front room of the shop was attended by a boy in his early teens. He had a mop of dirty blonde hair and large brown eyes. He was of medium height and wiry build, and he wore a dark blue sash with a brown circle on the shoulder. All of his clothing bore scorch marks, and his stance was hesitant. He looked up at them and stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes fixed on Adesina.
There they stood for several uncertain moments before Jelana cleared her throat delicately. “Good afternoon, Horas.”
Horas gave a slight jump and looked at Jelana blankly. “Good afternoon, Mistress Jelana.”
Several more awkward moments followed as Horas turned his eyes back to Adesina. The young woman met his dazed expression coolly, but was a bit puzzled inside. Was this boy so unaccustomed to Outsiders?
Jelana cleared her throat again. “Horas? We are here to pick up my husband’s order.”
He started out of his bewilderment and hurried about the shop with strange twitchy movements. “Yes, Mistress Jelana.”
In his haste he began knocking things over. The ringing in the back of the shop ceased and the connecting door was darkened by a large, muscled figure. The man had a shock of dark hair, a thick beard, and earnest blue eyes. His facial features were blunt and strangely gentle—quite a contrast to his intimidating build. He seemed to take in the situation with a glance.
“Good afternoon, Mistress Jelana,” he said, his eyes lingering on Adesina.
Jelana smiled bravely. “Good afternoon, Master Quinlan.”
Quinlan ambled into the room, tugging on the edge of his leather apron. “I do not believe I know your young friend.”
Horas stopped his frantic attempts to fix the mayhem he had caused and listened intently for the older woman’s answer.
“This is Adrie. She hails from the Northern Tribes. Our family is hosting her for the duration of her stay in the High City.”
The blacksmith nodded thoughtfully. “I spent some time up north. They are good people. Very hospitable.” He then switched to one of the northern dialects. “Jeex mihe?”
He was asking if she was from a specific group of tribes. Adesina shook her head. Her proclaimed tribe was from farther west, therefore, her response was in a different dialect. “Peng vur zhe.”
Quinlan looked surprised at this disparaging reply. “Do you not think well of the Quehe?”
Adesina raised an eyebrow and looked dismissive. Her assumed tribe did not like the Quehe at all. “They serve their purpose.”
He nodded again and turned his eyes to his apprentice, who was still frozen in place. “Pick up your feet, Horas. Fetch Mistress Jelana’s order and then clean up this mess.”
The boy flushed crimson and stumbled to do as he was told. He retrieved a fat leather folder and set it on the counter in front of Jelana. By the way it jingled, Adesina assumed it was full of nails.
Quinlan gestured to the folder and then to the parcels in Adesina’s arms. “Will you need any assistance in carrying your packages home?”
Jelana paused for a moment before shaking her head slowly. “No, thank you, Master Quinlan.”
Both Horas and Quinlan looked a bit disappointed. As Jelana gathered up the folder, the blacksmith began tugging on the edge of his leather apron again. “This order should settle my account with your husband, Mistress Jelana. Please thank him again for the cabinet.”
“Of course,” she smiled.
Both man and boy ducked their heads politely as their customers turned to leave.
Adesina followed Jelana and they passed back into the street. The sun was now setting quickly, and the older woman looked anxious. “Fia will probably already be home from school. I must hurry or supper will not be ready by the time Hass returns.”
As they hurried through the Square and back towards the residential area, Jelana threw Adesina a sideways glance. “Master Quinlan is a good, honest worker. He is well respected throughout the High City…and he is unmarried.”
A deep laugh rumbled in Ravi’s chest, and Adesina felt her face flush slightly. She could hardly believe her ears. “Mistress Jelana.”
The woman patted her shoulder in an attempt to reassure her. “I know you are young, Adrie, but it never hurts to be mindful of future options. He seemed to be quite taken with you.”
When Adesina didn’t reply, she went on. “Women of the High City are expected to marry young and start their families as soon as possible. Is that not how it is in the north?”
The Shimat nodded reluctantly. She knew that if her stay in the High City ended up to be long term she would have to deal with this issue. However, she had not anticipated having to address it so soon.
Jelana could see that Adesina was uncomfortable and tried to shrug indifferently. “I would not dream of rushing you into such an important decision. That being said, remember that marrying a citizen of the High City makes you one as well. You could belong here, Adrie. And after wandering for so long, that must be a welcome thought.”
The older woman then changed the subject and began asking about Adesina’s domestic skills. She seemed relieved to find that Adesina knew how to cook, clean and sew.
“I am glad to hear that, dear. You would not believe some of the young women one comes across in the outside. Not a single skill to their name.”
Fia was waiting for them, playing quietly in the yard. She gave Adesina a shy smile before running to open the door for them. Jelana immediately began bustling about the main room. “Adrie, take your things up to your room and then come help me prepare supper.”
She ducked her head meekly. “Yes, Mistress Jelana.”
Adesina’s years of living under strict Shimat codes would not allow her to simply dump the packages on the bed. She put each item away carefully and then hurried downstairs. Jelana was scrubbing potatoes when she appeared. She indicated to the knife and cutting board next to her. “Adrie, would you slice these potatoes?”
The young woman went about her task silently, as did Jelana. Fia stirred the mixing bowl solemnly, taking her grown-up assignment seriously. As usual, Ravi seated himself out of the way, but where he could keep an eye on Adesina. The finishing touches were just being completed when Hass walked through the door. He greeted his wife with a peck on the cheek and patted Fia’s head.
Supper was laid out with unfailing precision, with all the bowls placed in front of Hass. They all took their places and began their meal. He filled the first plate and handed it to his wife, next Adesina was served, then Fia, and finally himself. They ate in complete silence. It wasn’t until Jelana began clearing plates that Hass spoke.
“How was your first day in the High City, Adrie?”
She looked mildly surprised at being addressed. “It went well. Mistress Jelana took me into the Square to buy some clothes for tomorrow.”
Hass nodded amiably. “Well, you should probably get to bed early tonight. You have a big day ahead of you.”
She hesitated before standing. “Mistress Jelana, do you need any assistance with the dishes?”
Jelana smiled and shook her head. “Oh, no, Adrie. You go get some rest.”
She was handed a candle to take to her room with her. Adesina walked quietly up the stairs and down the hall to her room. She opened the door to let Ravi in first, and then closed the door securely behind them. After setting down the lamp, she moved behind the painted screen to change into her nightclothes.
“What do you think of the High City?” asked Ravi as he settled down for the night.
She sighed. “It is very orderly.”
He chuckled softly. “Yes, it is.”
Adesina stepped out, wearing a cream-colored muslin shift. She folded her clothes neatly and placed them in the trunk. Her tightly braided hair was unpinned and shaken loose, falling into thick waves. Adesina briskly ran a brush through it, ignoring the way it glinted in the lamplight.
Ravi watched this process with a thoughtful expression on his face. He did not speak until Adesina blew out the candle and climbed into bed.
“Are you troubled, Ma’eve?”
She sighed and pulled the quilt up under her chin. “No more than usual,” she muttered softly.
He sat up on his back legs and faced her, a strange shadow in the darkened room. His golden eyes glowed faintly in the dim moonlight, and his deep voice rumbled gently. “Speak more of these troubles.”
For several moments, Adesina considered brushing off her words as nothing. But slowly, almost involuntarily, she answered. “At the end of each day I feel a vague sort of discontentment. I have felt it since I was young.”
“Why do you think that is?”
The young Shimat shrugged, and even though the room was dark, the motion was easily discerned by Ravi’s sharp eyes. “I do not know. I have never understood.”
“Are you unhappy?”
This question caught her off guard. “I do not believe so. I always associated it with some sort of self-dissatisfaction.”
There was a meditative pause. “What did you do in your youth to dispel such feelings?”
A grim smile spread across Adesina’s face. “I would resolve to work even harder the following day.”
“And what of when you could work no harder?”
She glared at the ceiling. “One can always work harder.”
She heard the soft sounds of Ravi settling back down. “So, what will you do in this instance?”
Once again Adesina felt uncertain as to how to respond. “I do not know.”
Ravi dropped his head onto his paws. “Do not worry, Ma’eve. Tomorrow will dawn, and you will be shown your path.”
Adesina didn’t feel very comforted, but said nothing. The sound of Ravi’s humming gently lulled her into a dreamless sleep.