“Hold on I’ll take a picture. You are never going to believe this,” the man grinned. He held out the thin rectangular box and pressed his thumb to it. Then he did a few more things with it, brought it back to the side of his head, and continued speaking into it with a never ending smirk.
From under the hood of her buttoned up shirt Khori raised an eyebrow. She quietly watched the peach-skinned foreigner and his strange device, not entirely interested but curious about what far away lands like Naedin and Ōmbwyn were shipping out — they were the only known places that produced people who looked like him.
In shorts and a t-shirt he stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowd of Tülne, who wore a wide, lightweight cloth around their waists, which then covered their rears and fronts with the long ends. They were in varying colours and designs, some based on the wearer’s family colours, others simply for fun. Only a few others were under the hot sun in shirts, pants, or shorts. Nearly everyone was shirtless.
On large stage in the middle of the massive square centre of the city an announcer spoke into a stone. Tall, magical stone statues around the marketplace projected her words.
She beamed and raised her free arm. “Now is the time you’ve been waiting for! The bathing suit competition!”
The crowd cheered as a group of men climbed the stairs in single file. One was in swim shorts, another wore a shorter set of tight shorts, and the rest paraded around the platform in bottoms that were colourful but barely covered them. The sun reflecting off of the solid gold stage further illuminated their toned and muscular bodies.
Lutes, drums, and vocals on a corner of the stage accompanied the men.
There was a sigh behind her. Khori turned to find one of the stall owners resting his elbows on the table filled with clay cups and spices found only in the northern half of the continent.
“I thought they got rid of the bathing suit competition?” the man grumbled.
“Yeah, well.…” His wife shrugged the issue off as she continued wrapping the spices in individual cloth bags and calculating their prices.
The man made a noise as he glared at the other men on the stage.
A woman who was sitting on the ground a few metres away from Khori grinned over her shoulder. “You’re just jealous, JJ.” She winked.
“Am not! It’s disrespectful. Women and men are supposed to be equal but we continue to have these things,” he said, gesturing with a sweep of his hand.
The woman frowned. “Oh come on, those men up there do good in the community.”
The man rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
The woman smirked and turned back to the cloth laid out in front of her. It had been covered with fresh fruits but was slowly being cleared by paying customers. Several cloths such as hers were set up all over the square, particularly around the crowd eyeing the performance. Standing and covered stalls loosely ringed them, followed by the circle of the large stone statues. After that were fewer stalls both standing and sitting on the ancient tiles, which were a mix of colours and black obsidian stone designs.
The man’s wife placed the smaller bags of spice in a large sack. Once Khori had paid the woman eyed her with concern.
“Are you quite alright in those clothes? You must be so warm.” She straightened and smiled. “You must be from the south pole, am I right?”
Khori nodded to two of the three, placing the bag in her backpack.
“I thought so. Your accent is similar but there’s something different about it. I like it.”
Khori nodded and easily slung the heavy bag onto her back. “Thank you. Have a nice day.”
The woman’s mouth opened at the abrupt goodbye but Khori was gone before she could speak.
Khori adjusted her large hood and rewrapped her scarf around her neck. Over the years she had grown accustomed to studying the people around her for double-takes and furtive looks without much effort. Weaving through the crowd with ease, she passed between a set of the statues without a glace and continued through the rest of the great square.
She headed for the northern avenue. Lining the streets were ancient open-air stone buildings decorated with obsidian and gold. Colourful art pieces had been added overtop, and lush trees and vines were allowed to grow over certain walls. Some houses and shops were roofed by their own miniature forests, which often spilled over the edges and dangled toward the street below.
One large, three-story building had one such rooftop, complete with flocks of birds and a few iguanas who munched on the fresh fruit growing from the trees. It was one of the most decorated shops of the great four avenues, covered in tiled mosaics and paintings.
In front of the shop new art was being unloaded — a recent shipment arriving from the south. Nearby artwork from city artists’ were getting ready to for the next trip south along with some foodstuffs. All of the pieces were treated with respect while the food was shoved onto the wagons. Not far away another wagon was being loaded with more art and bags of coffee beans headed over-seas.
In the middle of the avenue a man was throat singing while a woman sat on the ground and strummed a lute. Beside her was a guitar, an import from across the oceans.
Khori left the busy street full of happy artists of all kinds and paused at the entrance to the shop. There were three openings with the largest in the middle. Over the entrance was a mural of a large feathered goddess holding chocolate in one hand and crafting tools in the other. It had recently been restored, its colours bright once again despite that the meaning of the image had long been lost. Khori thought that they had done a fair job considering that artists had tried to mimic the elves’ art for centuries and — she believed — had been failing.
Ignoring the people striding in and out of the shop around her, she clasped her hands together and bowed.
As she rose up a tall woman in shorts halted beside her. She grinned at Khori and glanced at the colourful image.
“Don’t suppose you’ll ever tell me why she’s so important to you, will you?” she asked, not expecting a clear answer.
“She was important to someone I used to know.”
The old brown eyes twinkled, her laugh lines crinkling. “Sometimes I wonder if you were around for the elves.”
“But then I would be ancient.”
She laughed. “You would be the oldest warlock I know, keeping your body so young for eternity.” She hummed and shifted the large box in her arms. “You would also be the strongest I know — I imagine that would take a lot of power to keep you so young.”
The woman laughed again and continued into her shop. Customers and employees easily weaved around her. Khori followed in her wake.
“You know, you’re the reason I keep that mural in good shape, otherwise I would have placed art over it by now.”
Khori didn’t respond.
A teenager moved to allow the woman space at the counter at the back of the entrance room. Around the room were displays in addition to piles of chia seeds in bags. After their largest export came the entire Empire’s largest commodity: art. Paintings of various sizes hung on the walls — always being replaced the moment they were sold. Three-legged pots and bowls were set up on shelves along with utensils and figurines.
“Chigu’ku! We have a request from Naedin for more coffee!” shouted a woman from one of the open doors around the shop that led into either storage, work rooms, or housing for the owners.
Chigu’ku carefully placed the box down, her arm muscles relaxing. She turned and yelled in understanding. She chuckled, “They sure seem to love their coffee over there.
So what will it be this time? More chia seeds?” she asked as someone came by and began carefully opening the box.
Khori nodded and placed her bag on the ground. Reaching into it she pulled out a couple of carefully wrapped objects and a solid metal tube.
“Seven bags of seeds and copies of Shiraghul’s latest books.”
Chigu’ku raised a brow. “Seven? Of the large bags? Think you can handle that?”
Khori allowed a rare smirk. “I think I can.”
The shop owner tapped a corner of her mouth. “And Shiraghul’s new novels… what have you got that’s worth those?”
Khori unwrapped the objects. Inside each were small but intricate statues.
Chigu’ku’s eyes lit up.
“For the seeds. And for the books….” Khori popped the top of a tube, which was an artwork in itself, and let the sheets of paper inside empty out onto the counter.
Chigu-ku’s eyes popped out of her skull.
“No,” she said in disbelief, carefully grasping the papers as though they held her very soul. “It can’t be… Samyin’s newest song pieces.”
She squealed like a little child and bounced on her feet. Then she excitedly gazed up at Khori. “Is this real?”
She nodded. “Her granddaughter sent it with me.”
Chigu-ku couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. “Oh this is spectacular! You don’t know how many people up here have been waiting for this. I’ll get your copies right away!” With that she was racing into the nearest doorway.
Khori silently waited, ignoring the hustle and bustle around her. Her sensitive ears heard a scuffle — she didn’t turn as scream and a CRASH echoed in the shop. People froze and stared at someone behind her.
“Was there anything like this when you were alive?” Teneg whispered. She had quietly snuck through the legs of the crowd, carefully avoiding excited feet and wincing during particularly loud cheering. Wandering aimlessly, she found herself behind the row of men waiting to go up on stage.
Yo-yo shook his head. “We had other festivals.”
She looked up at him and nodded. He had a wider nose and darker skin than anyone she had ever met. He had dark brown hair that seemed to wave about in a gentle breeze. He was dressed much like the people around him but the cloth around his hips had fine stitching and beads.
A man behind him frowned at her. She gasped and returned her attention to the line of men, hoping the stranger wouldn’t speak to her.
The elf glanced over his shoulder and sighed. He apologized but Teneg shook her head.
She whispered, “It’s okay.”
Yo-yo gazed at her with sad eyes. Though he was the cause of her current problems, he knew it had been far worse before he had taken to following her around.
He smiled. “Come, let us get something cool to drink.”
“But you can’t drink,” she said quietly, barely able to hear her own voice.
Somehow she was always able to hear his.
He chuckled. “But you do. And you need to keep hydrated.”
She nodded and once again made her way through the throng of people. At the last moment there was a loud cheer and an excited, large man knocked her some metres away from the back of the crowd.
“Teneg!” Yo-yo cried.
She landed on a cloth stall, knocking aside pitchers of iced tea. The warlock jumped and shouted, first in shock and then in anger, her fists clenched.
Yo-yo flew over to Teneg. “I’m sorry child but you must get up,” he ushered her as he flowed in the air, his fingers going through her shoulders.
Teneg winced and rubbed her arms. Looking up, her eyes widened. She scrambled as the woman stepped closer, ice forming on her raised fist. Another woman, her spouse, quickly stepped in front of her but Teneg was already off the cloth and racing away.
Yo-yo flew parallel to the ground beside her.
Teneg ran to one of the statues. She dashed around it and nearly slammed into its stone base. Breathing heavily, she turned and leaned against it, staring up at the sky. Not for the first time she silently asked the Blue Sky Goddess why she had been made like this.
Yo-yo kneeled in front of her and frowned, wishing he could hug her. He watched helplessly as her face crumpled and two small tears trailed down her little cheeks.
After a moment she sniffed and wiped her nose. “I still want something to drink….”
He smiled. “You are one of the strongest people I know.”
Her lips trembled into a rare smile. “Thank you,” she said, forgetting that someone may be listening.
She began away from the statue. “Come on, I know this new place at the end of the northern avenue… Yo-yo?”
She turned to find that he had stopped a few steps away. His eyes were wide and he looked like his heart had stopped — again.
She glanced around and tentatively stepped toward him. “…Yo-yo? Are you okay?”
He breathed, “Khori.”
Her brows furrowed and she scanned the crowd, standing on her tippy toes. “Who?”
He took off at a run, forgetting that he could fly faster than any person could dash.
“Ah! Yo-yo!” She took off after him, weaving through people and yelling, “Excuse me! Excuse me!!”
Some people glanced at her, wondering what was wrong and searching for what she was chasing. A few looked away, commenting, “Oh, it’s just that girl.”
“Not again, Teneg.”
“Teneg, you know, the one who sees things.” The man laughed and the woman joined him.
Teneg didn’t hear the words as she focused on following the ghost.
“Yo-yo, wait! Yo-yo! Wait!” she screamed raggedly, afraid she was loosing her only friend.
Soon she found him duck into her grandma’s store. She danced back and forth, avoiding the countless busy feet while trying to follow Yo-yo.
She found him standing in the counter, his body phasing through the wood. He was transfixed on the woman. Teneg’s heart caught in her throat, happy at first to have caught up to him, but then worried about who the woman was.
Not paying attention, she walked toward the stranger.
In the chaos of the store someone bumped into her, tripping and releasing their cargo in order to keep themselves upright. Teneg fell to her knees as something crashed behind her.
Her heart beat wildly. On her knees, she looked behind in time for the woman to scream.
“Ahrg! Teneg!” Her cousin’s wife glared at her. “Watch where you’re going!”
A second cousin holding a package grumbled loudly, “Yeah, Teneg.”
Her father, frazzled behind the counter, grasped at his hair. “No! That was supposed to go Heart-on-the-River!” He placed his hands on the counter and turned to his daughter. “Teneg, you know better than to run into here, chasing your imaginary friends on a busy day like today.”
“She shouldn’t even have imaginary friends,” another woman said. She had placed down the box she was carrying and was resting against it. “She’s ten, isn’t she?”
“Nine and a half…” Teneg whispered, holding her arm and looking down.
“Now is the time she needs to start expressing her artistic side and stop keeping it in.”
“Really, she should have started that a long time ago,” one of her teenage cousins said dryly.
The woman nodded. “Instead she chases non-existent spirits.”
“What?” asked a customer, bewildered.
The woman explained, “We’ve had warlocks and shamans look at her, there are no spirits around her even when she claims there is.”
Teneg shrunk further into herself.
“Oh, Teneg…” Yo-yo said. “I’m so sorry.”
“What’s going on?” her grandma asked, returning through the door with several books in her arms.
Teneg’s father sighed as Chigu-ku eyed the broken pottery. “I deeply apologize for my daughter.”
“Oh,” she said, placing the books on the counter. Yo-yo stepped aside and curiously glanced at them. She smiled down at Teneg. “We you chasing your friend again? What was his name? Yoie?”
“Yo-yo,” Teneg whispered, glancing at the people around her. Her grandma was the only one who didn’t disapprove of her actions, despite only “humouring her” as Teneg had overheard one night.
“Yo-yo, right. Hmm… now how are you going to pay for this?”
“She can’t. That piece was expensive,” her father said.
Chigu-ku held a hand out to his face, nearly hitting the person beside her. “Now, now Khulan, my daughter’s husband, you are to listen to me.”
He bowed his head, still glaring at Teneg.
“We can afford this one disaster, after all, I am a friend of the artist. We simply need to see if we can acquire a new piece from Sarnai. As for paying her back… hmm.”
Her eyes glittered at Teneg and she shivered.
“She does love your previous works. I think… perhaps ten pieces should do nicely, any medium. Of course we will have to wait for Sarnai’s response. How does that sound?”
Teneg slowly nodded. “Thank you, grandma,” she said quietly.
Chigu-ku beamed. “You’re very welcome, dear. Now, why don’t you join me behind the counter and help me serve this lovely woman.”
Teneg glanced at the shards of clay around her and then at the woman — Khori. She carefully tiptoed between the shards as her family cleaned up. She did her best to ignore their grumbling and whispers but she could feel their glares like whips on her back.
Chigu-ku pulled out a wooden block and Teneg stepped up onto it. Being short, it just brought her chest level with the counter top.
“I apologize for this,” her grandmother said.
Khori shook her head. “It’s fine.”
From what she could see under the hood and over the scarf, Teneg thought the woman as a work of art, the kind that had stood the test of time while other artworks were constantly created and replaced. However she was reserved and hardly seemed concerned with the world around her.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Teneg jumped. She ducked her head when Chigu-ku and Khori glanced at her. When they had looked away she nodded.
Yo-yo had kneeled beside her, his head sticking through the counter.
“I knew her a long time ago.”
Teneg’s brows rose and her jaw dropped.
She glanced at him and then studied the woman again. Muscles were barely hidden under her shirt, however her strength wasn’t as obvious as her grandma’s.
Chigu-ku laughed. “You’ll have to forgive my grandbaby.”
Teneg blushed and closed her mouth. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Khori said again.
After a moment Chigu-ku padded the cloth keeping the books tied together. “There, safe for the journey south.”
“South?” Teneg asked.
Chigu-ku nodded as Khori placed the books in her bag, filling it to over-packed once more. “Our customer is from the south pole. The old Empire’s capital.”
Teneg frowned. “I thought we were still an Empire?”
“Well we are, I suppose, but not as before. As the stories go we were a great Empire in the south until the elves attacked us in this very city.”
“Right,” drawled Khori, hauling her backpack on without effort.
Teneg glanced at them both. “O-oh.”
“Mm-hm. Save trip, and don’t forget to send a message once you reach Tülne.”
Khori nodded and turned, walking around the disaster scene without care.
She torn her eyes from the woman and looked at him questioningly.
“I’m going to follow her. I’ll be back.” He stood and jogged to catch up.
Teneg gasped. “Wait!” Ignoring the looks she ran off after him.
Behind her Chigu-ku shouted, “Don’t forget those pieces, Teneg!”
Teneg skidded to a halt outside of the shop. Yo-yo had stopped, waiting for her. He smiled and together they slowly followed Khori, keeping just far enough away, escaping her notice.
They hid behind people, paintings being carrying down the street, and ducked into buildings as they followed her. In the great square they weaved through the people, loosing pace with her as Teneg again found it difficult to navigate the excited crowd watching the pageant.
Upon reaching the southern avenue clouds stared to blow in above them, covering the blue sky. Travelling the street similarly to the northern avenue, Teneg soon felt faint raindrops fall on top of her head. On the cusp of the rainy season, she had been wondering when the real rainfall would begin.
She bit her lip, hoping that it wouldn’t rain hard enough to block her sight.
Eventually they reached the end of the city and one of Tlanextli’s ports. The city was nearly ringed by them. Several ancient stone quays stuck out into Lake Chāntli all around Tlanextli. In between them were newer, additional wooden or stone quays. Boats and ships of various sizes were docked and those still out on the water were rushing to return before the rain fell hard.
The lake’s surface danced as the rain continued. Teneg’s short hair was quickly flattened against her head. She licked her lips, tasting the sweet, warm water. She stood on the edge of the stone port, wondering where Khori had gone. Yo-yo was searching as well while the rain fell through him. Below them the water was far lower than the wall, but in the coming months it would be expected to rise closer to the edge.
“What are you doing?”
Teneg gasped and spun. Yo-yo whirled around.
Khori frowned down at her, stepping closer. “What do you want?”
Teneg backed up but felt nothing beneath her foot. She barely had time to gasp when Khori was pulling her forward and settling her back down on the ground.
“Are you going to answer me?”
Her eyes widened and she froze. “I-I….”
She gazed down at her wet feet, shoulders hunched. She glanced at Yo-yo but he was watching them both, unhelpfully silent.
“I…” she whispered.
Khori sighed. “I’m not angry. Go back home. The rain will get heavier soon.”
Teneg looked up at her. Her expression had relaxed as she waited for Teneg’s response.
Teneg’s thoughts flashed to her home, her father, her family, and the people of the city who would openly talk about her without care.
She looked at Yo-yo.
Khori turned her head but saw nothing.
Teneg watched as Yo-yo’s face both lit up with love and dimmed with sadness.
She shook her head. “No.”
Khori looked at her.
“I-I mean… I don’t want to. Take me with you, please.”
Khori’s brows rose. “No.”
Teneg jumped forward. “P-please! I don’t want to go home!”
Khori shook her head. “It’s not my problem. I can’t have someone travelling with me-”
Khori took a step back as Teneg spoke louder than she had in her entire life.
“They bully me here! You saw!” Tears stung her eyes as she remembered each and every insult that had been thrown at her. “People here hate me. My dad wishes he never had me! I mean… he never actually said it but he looks at me like he does. And my cousins hate me — they bully me for making things up. Please! I hate it here.”
Her heart leapt. She had started with the intent to make Yo-yo happy, but now she wanted to leave more than anything.
“Please…” she whimpered.
Khori only stared at her with wide eyes. She made a noise and turned thoughtful. She glanced down the port at a two level barge that was waiting for any stragglers wanting to reach the forest.
The rain cascaded down on them, slapping the stone.
After a long moment Khori sighed. “Fine. But you will do as I say. It’s dangerous out there.”
Teneg’s eyes glowed. She cheered and jumped, having never been so happy in her life.
In a thoughtless rush, she hugged Khori. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou!”
“I… uh… your welcome. Come on, we need to get to the boat before it leaves.”
Teneg giggled and nodded.