A cloud of dust signaled the caravan’s approach. Atanar, who had been alternating positions in front of and behind Ged and Merti’s wagon, did not see it until Ged shouted a greeting in a language he did not know. As Atanar trotted up from behind, the Aredian man drew Pepper to a halt and fairly leaped from the driver’s seat, grinning. Merti, too, was smiling, though her movements were considerably less spry.
“Who is it?” Atanar asked her, offering his hand to step down. Ged had already darted into the road, waving a bright blue scarf in the direction of the travelers.
Merti squinted through the sunlight. “Sufani.”
The word had no meaning to Atanar, but before he could press her, the others were upon them. These Sufani had their own scouts, apparently, for two riders pulled their horses to a stop several paces away from Pepper and the wagon. They were strange folk, indeed. Swathed head to toe in teal and saffron colored silks that fluttered in the breeze, only their eyes peeked through. Each carried a spear in their saddles, and their clothes were loose and flowing, perhaps to conceal other weapons. But no weapons were drawn now as the newcomers greeted Ged with clasped hands and murmurs in a language Atanar did not understand.
“Sufani,” Merti said again in a low voice only Atanar could hear. “Nomads. Ged’s family.”
“These people are his clan?”
The nearest Sufani nodded to Merti, who offered a short bow in return. “Not these exact ones,” she said to Atanar. “But the Sufani in general.”
Before she could explain further, Ged led the newcomers over to his wife and Atanar, still speaking in the foreign tongue, though Atanar could tell it was only in answer to the Sufani’s questions.
Finally, Ged cleared his throat and gestured to Merti as he spoke in Aredian. “My wife and I have just returned from a long stretch by the border, so a respite at your fires will be most welcome.”
“By the One, what did you trade for him?” the saffron-clad nomad asked, pointing to Atanar, who bristled.
Ged only shook his head. “That’s a story best told with a cup of wine in one hand and a biri in the other. But for now, the lad is with us.”
The nomads exchanged glances until the one in teal robes spoke. “We have little desire to harbor a Canderi in our midst.” His eyes darted to Merti. “A wild one, that is.”
Vorunn coiled around Atanar’s heart with his anger, but Merti placed a cool hand on his arm, stilling him and dissipating the feeling. “Atanar will behave himself,” she said gently. “You have our word on that, Celke.”
Sell-kee. A name, he thought, and an odd one, but perhaps Atanar’s own name would sound odd to these people.
Celke studied Atanar a moment more, then sighed. “Garrel will be pleased, at any rate. She’s always been fascinated by the blue-eyed warriors.”
“Mother,” the teal-robed man began, but Celke cut him off.
“Jinadu, Ged and his wife are our kin,” she said. “If not by blood than by heart and soul. If they claim responsibility for their…companion, then we must honor that accord.”
Atanar’s gut twisted at her statement and he leaned down to speak in Merti’s ear. “This is not good. You should not do this. I can stay away until–”
“My people take hospitality very seriously,” Ged interjected, loud enough for everyone to hear. “For it’s not often we extend such a welcome to an outsider. If you refuse, you will embarrass me in front of extended family. Is that what you want?”
What he wanted was to stay as far away from potential trouble as possible, but apparently that was not going to happen today. Be calm, Atanar scolded himself. If not for your own sake, then for theirs. He took a deep breath to steel himself and quell his roiling stomach, and shook his head.
“I do not wish to offal you – or anyone,” he said in slow Aredian. At the others’ blank looks, she shot Merti a hopeful glance.
To her credit, she did not crack a smile, though he thought she might wish to. “I believe he means he does not wish to offend any of us.”
Damn this language to the fire and ice. “Yes,” Atanar said, nodding even as his cheeks burned. “I do not want to offend.”
“I hope not,” Jinadu said. “You’re the size of an oak tree. It would take a great deal of effort to bring you down.”
Atanar frowned at him, but he was already turning back for his horse, speaking in the Sufani language. Celke replied in kind, then looked back at Ged and Merti. “My son is going to tell my wife that we’re to set up camp here tonight, to give us time to talk.”
My wife. Despite himself, Atanar thought of Sivoy and her hopes.
“I’ve no wish to delay you,” Ged replied.
Celke’s eyes crinkled as if with a smile. “For Ged and Merti Irhorn, I think my soul-bonded will not mind. But you will, of course, repay us with a song or two?”
Ged gave a deep bow. “It would be my pleasure.”
An hour later, the Sufani camp had sprouted around Ged and Merti’s wagon. Where the road had once been silent, save for the creak of wheels and clop of ox’s hooves, now Atanar was surrounded by screaming children and chattering adults, and he didn’t understand one word of any of it. By contrast, Ged was in his element, exchanging enthusiastic words with nearly everyone he saw. The children’s faces were not covered, but the adults each wore similar robes and hoods as the two scouts, Celke and Jinadu, though Merti told Atanar that such a practice was due to his presence. He was an outsider, after all.
“So are you,” he pointed out as he took Pepper’s harness to set aside for cleaning.
Merti winked at him. “Not any longer. I married a Sufani; I’m as good as kin.”
Atanar took Pepper to a nearby stream, where the others had brought their horses to be watered. While Pepper drank, Atanar studied the terrain. Not a bad place to have stopped, though he could have kept going the rest of the day – and then some. Three days’ travel deeper into Aredia, there were more trees than before; not just the stately pines, but oaks and birch, and a multitude of others he could not name. He spotted several places he could hang the hammock he’d slept in the past three nights.
After Pepper was fed and watered, he tethered the ox with the horses, then returned to Irhorn’s caravan to find the elderly couple deep in discussion with Celke and another Sufani in robes of pale blue – presumably Garrel, Celke’s wife. The four of them sat on benches around a fledgling fire, into which Garrel fed twigs and sticks as she spoke. She’d drawn up the sleeves of her robes so they wouldn’t catch fire, revealing muscular forearms covered in inked designs of birds, flowers, and various other images.
“…taking your life in your hands, traveling so close to the border,” she was saying. “I don’t care to be as close as we are now, but the hunting’s better.”
Ged held a biri, a thin, smoking cylinder of dried thalo leaves, in his fingers; he inhaled and blew out a stream of smoke. “It’s a bad sign when life is easier in the outskirts than in a city proper.”
“For those like us, perhaps,” Celke said. She’d tracked Atanar’s approach as he came to stand just behind Merti.
“Atanar, don’t hover,” Merti said, patting the bench beside her. “Sit down for a moment. He’s been walking for three days,” she added as Atanar lowered himself. “Hasn’t complained once. He’s even helped Pepper pull the wagon out of a nasty bit of mud.”
Garrel studied Atanar with eyes the color of slate. “You are a true Canderi, then?”
He wasn’t, not any longer, but the distinction would probably escape anyone not from Cander, so Atanar only nodded once. “I am.”
“You speak Aredian?”
“A little. Not well.”
“Even a little is impressive.” Garrel dropped another bundle of sticks into the fire. “My tongue was never able to manage the Canderi language. How did a Canderi come to learn our speech?”
“My mother taught me,” Atanar replied. “My role was as…” He searched for the right word, but came up short. “Itang.”
The Canderi word sounded strange in this company. He was met with blank looks from everyone but Merti, who nodded. “Mouthpiece,” she said to the others, waving her hand along her throat and out. “A speaker for the clan when dealing with outsiders.” She gave Atanar an appraising look. “It is a position of great prestige.”
“At-ah-nar,” Celke said, stretching out the name. “Does it mean anything?”
Face hot, Atanar nodded. “A rough translation is ‘star grazer.’ Gazer,” he corrected himself.
“It’s a fine, strong name,” Merti said proudly. “One of the Great Ones carried that same name. Our most revered ancestors who began the clans,” she added to Celke and Aderey’s questioning looks.
“Good luck to you, Atanar Star-Gazer,” Garrel replied, sitting back now that the fire had gained strength. “Only the One knows what you’ll make of this country.”
Ged blew out another puff of smoke, his gaze contemplative as he watched the fire. “Aye, I’ve wondered that, myself. Merti has had some trouble, depending on where we’ve gone, but this boy is of a different cloth, entirely.”
“I feel at any moment he could crack my neck in two,” Celke replied.
Atanar opened his mouth to object, but snapped it shut. He couldn’t say I would never do that, because he didn’t know for certain what he would do. Ged and Merti were taking a risk by keeping him so close, but Merti would not be swayed otherwise. But he could not sit in silence while this Sufani say such things about him.
“I have no desire to harm you,” he told her. “Or any of you.”
She harrumphed. “We’ve fought your kind before, Atanar. Not three weeks ago, a band of your warriors ambushed us and nearly killed my son. Jin escaped only by luck and the One’s mercy, though he’ll bear the scars forever.”
“My wife speaks truly,” Garrel added. “My family—far too many of my people—have run afoul of Canderi warriors in the past, and the fights rarely end well for us. We are no match for your people, Atanar.” She withdrew a biri and lit it upon the fire, then pulled aside her hood so she could draw. “None of us are, I think. The One help us if you ever decide to break the Avalanche Truce.”
“True Canderi would never go back on their word,” Atanar replied immediately. “Of those who have broken faith with you…” Corvac’s eagerness for the kulkri’s bastard version of a hunt made him sigh. “They are not considered true Canderi. They are…” He could not find the right word, and glanced at Merti.
“Exiles, of a sort,” she replied after a moment’s thought. “The kulkri are wanderers, like yourselves in a way. Only they live outside the traditional ways of the Canderi, and as such are not allowed to return to Cander.”
“So we have something in common, then,” Garrel said through a puff of smoke that slipped from beneath her hood. “I wish I could be pleased at the notion, but all I remember is my boy covered in blood.”
“War mongering cowards,” Celke muttered.
Atanar glared at her—reflexively, for he’d had the same thoughts about the kulkri—but before he could speak, Merti cleared her throat. “Do you think he should be marked? I imagine it’ll make our lives easier, but…”
She trailed off, shooting Atanar a look he could only think of as guilty. He frowned at her, but Ged sighed and nodded. “I’ve thought about it, too. I think it’s the best option. And we’re only marked as sixth tiers, so it won’t be too costly, I hope. Trouble is, it’s been so long since we had to worry over such things…I don’t know where to find a Cipher these days.”
“We can’t take him into a proper city until he’s marked,” Merti added. “But he can’t get a mark unless he goes to a proper city.”
Garrel and Celke exchanged glances. “Jin said he spotted a Cipher in Parsa last week,” Garrel offered. “Perhaps you could convince the priestess to help you.”
“For a price,” Celke added. “I hope you’ve some silver to cross her palm. Or gold, depending on how ungenerous the Circle lackey is feeling that day.”
But Atanar was already shaking his head. Although he knew most of the words, much of their meaning eluded him, but he understood enough to know they were speaking of money being spent on his behalf. “I do not wish to cost you any coin.”
“It’s all right,” Merti said, patting his arm. “We’ll manage. And if you keep hunting as you do, we’ll save money on food.”
Ged sucked the end of his biri hard enough so that it burned almost to nothing with that single draw. “Aye, Merti’s right. We’ve got enough coin for a sixth tier mark, but nothing else. Isn’t fair, but it’s how things are.”
None of this made any sense. Frowning, Atanar looked between Ged and Merti. “Sixth tier. Mark. Cipher. What do these words mean?”
In response, Ged tossed the remains of his biri into the fire and rolled up his sleeve, revealing a faded tattoo of a cross on his wrist. The vertical line stretched about as long as his little finger, with a line about half that length bisecting at the center at an angle.
“Tier mark,” Ged replied. “Shows where you belong in the One’s world – and how valuable you are. All Aredians have one. Well,” he amended, shooting a glance at the Sufani who sat across from him. “Most of us. The Circle trains special folks, called Ciphers, to mark each child after it’s born.”
Atanar frowned, trying to absorb this information, which was bizarre, to say the least. “The Circle?” he asked at last.
Ged nodded. “Sort of a formal name for the believers in the One and the many gods. Their priests and priestesses are spread throughout Aredia.”
“Does everyone pray to these gods?” Atanar asked.
“Most people.” Ged was silent a moment, the biri smoke drifting away in the wind, before he spoke again in a resonant voice that sent a chill across Atanar’s skin. “The One is nameless and without form. As a shaft of sunlight pierces a crystal to create a multitude of colors, so did the One provide us with our gods, who are present in our daily lives, who watch over us and protect us when we have greatest need.”
“That’s…very nice,” Atanar said, brow furrowed. It was all madness, of course, but he tried to quell the urge to say such a thing aloud. He was a stranger, not only in this camp, but in this country. It was not his place to find fault with their beliefs – no matter how strange they were.
Instead, he asked, “What sort of god is this ‘One?’” He was met with blank looks, so he tried to elaborate. “Is she a kind god? Angry? Cruel?”
“The One has no gender,” Celke replied. “The One is vast and unknowable.”
“Aye,” Ged added. “The Circle says we have no way of understanding anything about the One except that balance is the One’s highest tenet. That’s why those who follow the Circle have so many gods; they are intermediaries. They were all set in place by the One to watch over us, to protect us and listen to our prayers.”
“Some of us,” Celke murmured, though the words held no malice. At Atanar’s look, she added, “Most Sufani only keep faith in the One. The other gods are…” She waved a gloved hand. “Irrelevant.”
“I would be careful where you toss such volatile words, my love,” Garrel chided, nudging her wife’s side. “They could set the world afire.”
Celke made a dismissive noise. “You believe as I do.”
Atanar glanced at Ged. “You are Sufani, yes? But you do not…think this way?”
Ged exchanged glances with Garrel and Celke, then shrugged. “I’ve found my own path. The Circle’s good at its core; there are some bad notes, but not enough to ruin the whole song.”
“I know this all must seem very strange,” Merti added gently. “But you will come to, if not understand this talk, at least get used to it.”
Ged lit another biri. “Aye, and you should know that for those of us raised with the One and the Circle, the idea of worshiping my ancestors sounds strange. My own ancestors were mortal, and did things that mortals do, some of them terrible. But the gods…” His hand lifted to indicate the camp, the forest, the whole world. “They have knowledge and power that mortals don’t. It makes more sense to trust them rather than people like myself.”
Atanar shook his head. “In Cander, we pray to our ancestors. They were real. As am I. They were flesh and blood and bone, and I am living proof that they walked the world. Where is the proof that your gods exist?”
Ged pressed his hand to his heart. “Don’t need proof,” he said. “I know the gods are real. I feel it, here.”
“Have you no such faith, even in your ancestors?” Garrel asked Atanar.
A wave of regret swept through him. Did he? Or had vorunn taken that, too? He swallowed tightly and did not answer.
Merti cleared her throat. “I think it’s best you get a tier mark, Atanar. It will make life easier for you.”
She did not say, for you will probably have to spend the rest of your days in this country, but he knew it just the same. Atanar glanced at her sleeve. “Do you have one of these marks?”
“I do, indeed.” She showed him the simple cross tattooed on her wrist; it was fresher than Ged’s, but not by much.
“Do you?” Atanar asked Garrel and Celke.
Celke laughed aloud, while Garrel merely chuckled and took another drag of her biri. “No Cipher will knowingly mark a heretic Sufani.”
“We do not believe as the Circle does,” Celke added. “Therefore, in the Circle’s eyes, we are unworthy of their blessings.”
Something in Atanar’s guts tightened as if in warning. “What does it matter if you believe in the other gods or not, if this ‘One’ is the most impudent?”
“Important?” Ged asked. When Atanar nodded, the Aredian man exchanged another look with Garrel. “What, indeed?”
“We have asked ourselves that same question,” Garrel said. “But have yet to find a suitable answer.”
“So…” Atanar struggled to piece this new knowledge together. “If you have no mark on your wrist, you cannot enter a city?”
“Depends on the city,” Ged replied. “There are some places, mostly in the south, in Indigo-by-the-Sea and parts of Redfern, where the tier marks are not strictly enforced.”
Celke’s voice was sharp. “Aye, but places like Lasath and Whitewater City aren’t as lax. They won’t let my people through the gates, let alone in any shops or taverns.”
“Then I was wrong,” Atanar said after a moment’s consideration. When the others looked at him blankly, he sighed. “Aredia is a much harder place than my home.”
“Harsher,” Ged corrected.
“No, he’s got it about right.” Merti gave Atanar a smile that did not reach her eyes. “But it’s not all bad. You’ll see.”