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I - Kelikiin in the Wake

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When he woke, she was at the tiller, fully dressed. “Stay down, please. I am working close to shore and may need to move the sail without warning.”

He kept his head down but glanced over the gunnel. It was just before dawn and a heavy mist, typical of this season, blanketed the water. The wet air was thick enough to breathe and was redolent with the smells of the shore: salt, growth, and rot. Sound was distorted by the moisture, so that cries of waking birds and animals made it seem as if the land was no more distant than the length of his arm.

He watched her face, set in hard concentration, lips slightly parted to improve her hearing. He felt, rather than heard, the scraping of the boat’s keel against the rapidly-shallowing sand the sand of the shore. He put on the awful, reeking scraps of his clothes. Then the keel began to bite and the boat slowly ground to a halt a few paces from a shoreline he could hear but could not, through the foggy air, see.

“Now is the time,” she said softly. “If you’re to be safely away and into the trees before the mist burns off, you need to go ashore now.”

“Come with me,” he surprised himself saying it.

“I cannot,” she said. “It would be...unwise. But you could stay with me,” she offered, sounding hopeful and sad at the same time, as if she knew what he would say.

So he said it. “I cannot.” He moved back towards where she sat in the stern, where the boat was least like to rock when he debarked, and saw her hand lifting: something dangled there, on a cord.

He recognized it, remembered watching her roll it into being along her thigh. It was made into a loop — a necklace — and at its lowest point there hung a pendant fashioned from a piece of wood, delicately carved.

He reached out and took it. The little carved piece nested in the center of his palm: a complicated interlace of lines, here curved, here straight, which incorporated the shape of two kelikiin, as if they were dancing through one another in the boat’s wake. It was exquisite. She must have made it for him with her own hands when he was sleeping and in that moment, it was more precious to him than all of the treasures in Tanaja.

“It is beautiful,” he said, looking up after a long moment staring at it. “What is it — a symbol? I do not recognize it.”

She nodded. “Think of it as a rural thing. Something like baji-naji.”

“Something like?”

She smiled. “Yes. Though it is closer to ‘it will be well’.”

“‘It will be well,’” he murmured, carefully tilting it in his hand. “Rural, you say.”

“It would be best, I think, to keep it to yourself.”

“Ah.” She had given him a secret, and a clue — a pair, in fact: the pendant itself and the fact that it might mark her as someone questionable. A peasant’s symbol? He already knew that whatever she was, she was no peasant. The infelicity of the two clues nestled into his mind where it would, he know, remain as an itch until he had matched them up with their solution.

He slipped the cord on over his head and tucked the pendant under his ruined shirt before bracing himself against the gunnel, ready to go over the side. But before he went, he hesitated, turning back. “You could still come with us.” He offered a clue for her in return, with that royal “us”.

But if she marked it, it was apparently nothing she had not already guessed. She shook her head sorrowfully. “Perhaps our paths will cross again.”

“I have nothing to give you in return,” he said, delaying.

She smiled. “I will always have the memory of You. Go, now, before the light comes.”

He went over the side and splashed down, his bare feet sinking into the sand, a pinch here and there where skin too long accustomed to shoes met unfriendly stones. She came over the side as well, and together, they pushed the boat back and clear of the sand — it felt good to be joining his effort to hers at her side, and for the flash of a moment, he wanted to put his arms around her. But she had slipped back aboard and the moment was lost, leaving him to give the prow a gentle push to set her on her way.

He waded ashore, sand turning to mud and then mud squelching between his toes and then at last, there was solid earth beneath him. It had been a while since he had last been to sea and now that he was ashore again he felt the swooping dizziness of an inner ear still accustomed to the waves.

The tree line. It was up ahead. If he put the rising sun just to the right of straight ahead of him, and if he followed the trees where they marched away from the shore, he would be going towards Tanji District. He reached the trees and ducked into their shade.

He knew that there was a hunting lodge in the district’s southwest, one that he had visited several times before the Troubles. Once the sun was fully up, perhaps he could take some bearings and find it. With any luck, he would be able to gain access and get a coded message to his aishid, if they still lived. There were a number of ways to do it, but he had to get there first or, failing that, try his fortune in a village. The difficulties of that challenge stood on the enemy’s side of the ledger. On his side, though — he marked it with a short, bitter laugh — his once-fine clothes were little more than rags and his bare feet were caked with mud and sand and, now, fine bits of bracken and grass. In other words, there would be no one who, upon glancing over him, would mistake him for a country gentleman, much less the aiji of the whole of the Marid. It was not much of an advantage, but he would take it.

The sun was fully up over the horizon and was beginning to disperse the sea mist. He topped a slight rise and stopped beneath an ancient ilkani, its slender leaves draping down around him in long, lacy curtains. Peering through the cascade of green, he could see patches of clear water down below as the sun did its work. The pale triangle of Fisher’s sail entered one of these as he watched, bowed into a graceful curve by the wind that was carrying her away from him. He thought, perhaps, that he could see her turn and look back towards the land.

Perhaps they would meet again. But in order for that to happen, he would have to reach Tanaja, and he would have to retake his place as aiji there. And in order for that to happen, there was one more thing he would have to do: he would have to live.

He put his back to the sea and began to walk.