— SWIRLS OF SAND EXCERPT —
S.E (Second Era) 2898
Everyone has an important story to tell. Some stories are about reclaiming a kingdom, or winning a great battle, or saving a life. This is the story of how I did a very foolish thing.
I am still perplexed as to whether or not it was good that I did it. My father used to say that writing down these important things in life will clear the head, exercise the mind, and help one to understand them; and more than that, to help the future generations see with clearer eyes.
And that is why I, Sazin-a-Amli, daughter of Hizru and Innem, will write of the things that happened to me the year that I was fourteen — the year that the houseboy died, the year that my friend Saraji became engaged, the year that my brother began coming to the house late.
I would start with the houseboy’s death, for that was the most important of the three. But in the north, Celvid tells me, in Orden, they start with the things that happened first, because they want to know the order most of all.
So I will start with what happened first — the night of Saraji’s betrothal.
I am Amli, Sazin-a-Amli. Not Amli Sazin, even though that is what Celvid calls me, for he does not understand that in Arahad that is the way we say the surname. And the night that Saraji was betrothed my family and I were sitting at dinner — my father and my mother, that is, but not Rojud. Rojud was out late. My mother was talking sternly because she was upset that Rojud was not there, telling my father that he must speak to Rojud, Rojud must not get into bad company; and my father was nodding in a tired, distracted way because he did not like to think about such things after a long day in the ships’ offices.
“How do you know he is in bad company?” he asked patiently, and lifted a careful portion of meat to his mouth with the tine.
“Hizru,” said my mother, sitting very straight in her chair in the way she did when she was about to discuss matters of propriety, “what else would he be doing, staying out so late at night?”
“Have you asked him about it?” my father questioned, quite reasonably. He was often reasonable when my mother was not, but also absent-minded where she was reasonable.
“Not yet,” said my mother with a faint sigh, knowing what he would say next.
“Then ask him about it. He is your son. Ask him, and if he is doing nothing wrong then surely he will tell you what it is.”
“You should ask him, Hizru,” said my mother firmly; “you are the man of the house, and he is your son.”
I tried to eat, but my appetite was vanishing rapidly at the thought that we were only one course into the meal and I must look forward to three more with this sort of conversation buzzing in my ears. But my father must have seen me toying with my food, for as I looked up I saw him send a direct and meaningful glance from me to my mother.
Then he took in a slow breath and settled his house robe more closely. “So,” he said with a cheerful, dismissive air. “It seems our friend Uika has found a husband for Saraji.”
My head snapped up, for I had heard nothing of this.
“What!” cried my mother, disapproval flaming crimson into her dusky cheeks. “Scandalous! He is as bad as a Rodronian or an Ordenian, marrying her off at scarce seventeen!”
By the look on my father’s face, he clearly wished he had not brought the matter up now. “Well,” he said with a heavy sigh, “it is understandable when you think of his situation, Innem. A motherless child, particularly a girl, is not an easy thing to have in the house, and he feels that he is neglecting her because he must be away all the time at the palace. It is not ideal, no, but not all families are as fortunate as us, my dear.”
My mother shook her head, unflinching. “No good Arahadian girl is married before twenty,” she said sharply. “And Saraji all the more, because her mother died and she has not yet learned all she needs to manage a house properly. Whom is she going to marry? What if she marries into a household of fifty slaves? A hundred?”
My father sighed again and stroked his beard.
“It is all the books Uika reads,” said my mother. “He should never have been chosen as keeper of the libraries. They have filled his head with silly notions, and now look what he is doing to his child, his only child!”
“I am not hungry any more,” said my father with finality and got up, pushing his chair aside and walking out of the dining-room.
My mother was the one who sighed now. She looked at me apologetically and tucked back a stray ringlet of her hair. “I am sorry, Amli,” she said. “It is just that I am fond of Saraji, and of Uika your father’s friend, and I wish the best for both of them. I do not like to lose my temper and drive your father away from the table hungry.”
I smiled inside, knowing that my mother would go into the kitchen later tonight and make a platter piled wondrously with food, and would present it to my father as amends. And my father would eat almost none of it, only the barest bit to make her happy, because his was the stomach of a masquäa, a little insect.
“May I go to see Saraji tomorrow, Atra?” I said to her.
“Yes,” answered my mother. “And tell her I send my love, Amli.”
“Yes, Atra,” I said. I turned attention to my food again, and because I was young and my stomach not the stomach of a masquäa, I finished the meal readily.
Rojud was still not back when I went to bed.
Saraji is my good friend, but she is silly all the same. But that is excusable; her mother is dead. And her father is keeper of the libraries for the Ahwerus of the province, so she has read many of the foreign books there. That is another reason, I believe, why she is silly; for my father has always said that foreign tales are full of absurdities and ill-fated romances.
So it did not surprise me that Saraji was crying when I came to visit.
“But surely you understand, Amli,” she said to me, sniffing tearfully as she pulled a gather into the delicate silk spilling across her lap.
“Of course, kisha,” I said comfortingly, though I did not exactly and hoped that she would tell me what I was supposed to understand. I settled myself on the drooping green cushion of a stool near her, feeling its airy, smooth touch against my bare feet, and rubbed a finger over the diamond embroidery threaded all over.
“Amli,” wept Saraji, dropping the robe she was busy with and turning imploring eyes upon me, “oh, Amli, I am so nervous!”
“There, Saraji.” I knelt forward on my cushion and gave her hand a soothing pat. “Is it that you are worried your groom will be some old toothless man, or a wife-beater? You cannot think your father would ever choose someone so horrid for you, you his only child and the darling of his eye.”
“Of course not!” cried Saraji, casting me a reproachful look. “No, Amli, it is that I am scared he will be a wonderful man, tall and kind and handsome, and I will not be good enough for him, and he will not like me!”
There you are. Only out a foreign romance book could Saraji have got such an idea.
“You are impossible, Saraji,” I said to her. “Why would he not like you?”
“Because, Amli” — she gestured tragically to herself — “I am ugly!”
“Saraji!” I was quite astonished. Saraji did not look like the wife of Ahwerus Zor, no, but no-one else did either. I had never thought much about Saraji’s appearance — she was a reasonably well-built girl, taller than me by about half a head, with good color in her cheeks and pleasant if plain features. Besides, when she smiled her eyes crinkled and seemed very dark and sparkling, and her whole face seemed to dance.
Saraji was certainly not smiling now. She sniffled again and rubbed a hand across her eyes.
“Kisha,” I said firmly. “You may not have a face that the artists of Mesoremn want to paint, but I think you are very nice-looking, and that is the truth. Why, I am no rose myself, Saraji.”
“You are prettier than I am,” wailed Saraji.
“I am not!” I protested. My father was a tall and slender man of princely bearing and looks, but I resembled my mother more, who was as ordinary as are most of us, with little points of beauty but no striking whole. “My nose is pretty,” I said, stroking the small, straight feature with a gesture of vanity. “But really, Saraji, I am no more fair than you and I think you should stop this nonsense.”
“But your hair,” moaned Saraji, tearing the ribbons out of her own braid and loosening the strands. “Mine is so coarse. Look at it. He will take one look at me and turn up his nose and walk away!”
“Then I do not want him for your husband,” I snapped, thoroughly vexed, “and neither would your father, and neither should you!”
Saraji’s mouth opened, and she contemplated my words for a time. “Oh—” she said with a sigh. “Perhaps. You do make sense, Amli.”
“Good,” I said, and sprang up to rebraid her hair. And we talked of other things until it was time for me to leave.
“You must come again soon,” Saraji said as I stood and slipped on my sandals. “I shall make up an errand and we will go walking around the bahra together.”
We giggled, and I assented, full of high spirits at the thought of wandering the city’s market-place with Saraji again — buying little trinkets for one another, tasting fresh-fried honey candies, splashing our feet in the sea-water by the docks. “Soon,” I promised, and hurried out.
The familiar voice stopped me as I made my way through the cool, windowless passageways.
“Jih-Uika,” I answered, turning and nodding respectfully to him. He was a slim man like my father, though not as tall, and his hair and beard were already white. “Thank you for the hospitality of your house; I have had a good visit with Saraji.”
“Ah! Have you managed to — quiet her mind at all?” he asked, and a slight distress betrayed his deep, even-toned voice.
“Yes, Jih-Uika,” I answered again with a nod.
He smiled and patted my head, which I did not like because I was fourteen and quite tall now; but he had been doing it to me since I was a babe and I supposed he did not notice. “Go safely, Amli, and we hope to see you at the betrothal dinner.”
“We shall surely be there, Jih-Uika,” I said eagerly, for I enjoyed betrothal dinners, and this one would be my friend’s. Then, lest he perchance pat me on the head again, I gave another quick bow and hurried down the hall, out into the noisy streets of the city.