Intersection – Book 1 of the Eye of the Ocean Series (excerpt)
The South Bay Temple Dance Master tapped her stick to signal the end of the dance. Others in Ulanda’s beginner class giggled with relief at having made it through without too many mistakes, breath surrounding their heads like clouds of incense.
Light snow fell, the first of that winter, the crystals like pollen on the Dance Master’s yellow robe. A knot of several other people stood watching, shadowy figures in hooded white cloaks.
Ulanda blew on her fingers, then pulled the sleeves of her knitted tunic down over her hands and grabbed the ends to make mitts.
The Dance Master was watching her, not her five classmates. “Ulanda!” Her voice took each syllable and shattered it. “From the second chorus, the first position, without drums.” The neural net feed they had been using for music snapped off, and the frozen square was quiet.
Slippers had caked the dusting of snow into broken shapes on the tiles, obscuring the colored placing squares. Her feet were already numb. She licked her lips and tried to hear the ci-ci drums in her mind.
Third time through and her lungs felt as frozen as her feet. The snow fell harder, hiding the tiles entirely. When she looked up from the closing turn, only the Dance Master and the strangers remained, the other five in her class were gone. There were no footprints and she wondered if they had been there at all.
Fifth time through, at the end of the last turn, she fell. The Dance Master helped her up, and then wrapped the ends of her thick woolen robe around, leaving only Ulanda’s head out as though she had grown from the teacher’s middle.
One of the white-cloaked forms moved closer, snow breaking away from the cloth of the hood. Eyes the green of the ocean looked at her.
“Ulanda, will you dance for me?”
Tilting her head back to look up, all that was visible of her teacher was the wrinkled throat and chin and the ends of the yellow hood. “Must I?” she whispered.
The chin nodded down to her. “You must.”
Another of the cloaked forms drew closer. “Sarkalt,” Ulanda heard him murmur, “it’s too cold. Let the child go now.”
But the Dance Master’s stick tapped. “Ulanda, again.”
The warm rain stopped and the runoff from the roof into the flooded courtyard slowed to single drips. In the distance, Ulanda heard the drums for the la’cellini, the dance of thanks, that in the common cycles, took an hour or more for the temple dancers to complete. Part of the K’sini festival, which in marshy Kalin, happened at the start of the rainy season.
And the dream that had woken her? The beginning of the broken promise. Drums and winter ice, and a snow-covered patio, not this hot, airless now where there were no promises left.
Patyin was curled against her back, part of the heat. He stirred, then stretched. At his urging, the glowglobe at the side of the low bed floated up, brightening as it did. “Did you say something?” he asked. “Is it morning?”
He always asked her, never checked the net for the time. “No to both,” she said. “You haven’t been asleep long.”
“Then the dances haven’t finished. Good.” With a grunt, he reached to the opposite side of the bed, looking for something. The bottle of wine. Empty. He let it drop. “I told Gei we’d meet him on the jetty before the procession started.”
“If he’s still at the K’sini. Have you checked with him?”
He shrugged. “He’ll be there. Or we’ll be there, and he won’t.”
Ulanda leaned against him, her hair falling over his chest in a dark shower. If she was hot, he was on fire, like a stick of incense burning, his skin scented with cedar. In Kalin, she thought, incense should be made of marsh grass and mud, not cedar.
Wetting the tip of one finger with her tongue, she traced the outline of his lips. In her face, his breath was samp grass and bitter almond from the local wine. “The procession is boring. Stay and make love to me instead.”
“Time enough after we get back. Tomorrow. Or is it today already?” He looked mildly pleased with his wit.
“If it’s tomorrow, we don’t have to go.” Ulanda smiled into his eyes as though as pleased as he was at his wit. She didn’t need to watch what her fingers were doing: darting along his skin, barely touching in light strokes that might end with a pinch or a tickle. His shoulders, his arms, along his ribs.
When he gasped, she covered his mouth with hers, her cheek against his nose, holding his breath in. Chest heaving, he pushed her away.
Instead of the passion she wanted, he only looked puzzled. She laughed, and with the back of one hand, stroked his red sweaty face. From a simple fire to a live coal. When he reached to return her touch, she thought he would finally pull her to him, but he only coiled a long dark strand of her hair around one finger.
“Did I mention boring?” Drawing the strand free, she brushed his chin with the straightening curl. From his chin, letting the hair go, she drew her forefinger down his throat and then his chest, the thick, white curls parting under her long fingernail. He was the typical ice blond of the southern islands.
He tried to capture her hand as she moved to his belly, pushing the light cover away.
“I don’t know if I like you when you act like this,” he whispered, this time managing to take her fingers in his.
“Did I ask you to?” she said as she lay back again.
He chuckled as he swung around to get to his knees and then straddled her. “No, I guess you didn’t.”
After they made love, he gathered her to his side, her head in the crook of one arm. A moment later, he was snoring.
Her short sleeping wrap was on the floor next to the bed, and careful not to wake him again, she disentangled herself from his embrace and slipped it over her shoulders. From Wisopil Province, bought years ago and half the world away, the robe was indigo dyed cotton, soft against her skin. Piltsimic weaving. There was nothing in Kalin Market to compare.
As she watched Patyin sleep, her hands smoothed the few wrinkles from the wrap lying on the floor. And from smoothing, to brushing the tips of her fingers across the surface of the weave. Closing her eyes, she saw what her fingers couldn’t feel, or her mind find in the sound of the rain. Patterns in the weaving, the nights and days of her life. And still, the threads crossed and re-crossed, relentless.
She balled her hands into fists, wanting to strike somebody, anybody. Patyin. Sudden rage filled her throat. She couldn’t breathe.
It’s not his fault.
Memory slammed into her. Ri-altar. Niv. And her words to High Priest Sarkalt.
Days of rain had turned the small back courtyard of the house into a shallow pool, ankle-deep. She splashed through her reflection, dark with a halo of golden light from the glowglobe she let follow her. The air smelled only of the nearby river, brackish water and fish and hemp from the nets. Beyond the courtyard wall was another house, the roofline dark against the clouded sky. A baby cried and was hushed. Further away, in the direction of the river jetty, a dog barked. From the town center came the roll of the ci-ci drums, drowning out the sounds of the river.
Ulanda didn’t remember the end of the dance on the snowy patio all those years ago, but only waking the next morning, expecting the crowded warmth of the temple’s dormitory, and the company of her friends.
Instead, she had been in a small room with two other children, only their noses and hair showing above the blankets. Blond heads, Ri-born, most people at South Bay Temple were native to the world. Shivering even with the blanket around her, she had stood and looked out the single window. The ocean was white-green under the crack of light that was the dawn. She was in the Priesthouse, in the acolyte’s quarters.
Despite the drums, Ulanda heard Patyin get up and call her. And again, louder. Then again through domestic net, which she blocked. The sound of the commode, a mouthful of water gargled and spat out. Then the thud from the front door hitting the wall as he left.
When the rain started again, covering the sounds of the festival, she went back inside. Tea and then bed, she thought, taking the knitted lace shawl hung by the door and wrapping it around her shoulders as she headed to the kitchen in the covered rear porch, the glowglobe still following her.
Suddenly, the glowglobe darted past her and brightened. She looked up.
Leaning against the post supporting the porch awning was a man. Faded indigo blue pants and vest, the vest open to the mat of dark curly hair covering his chest and rounded belly. He was tall for a Piltsimic, to her shoulder, but easily three times her mass.
“You’re supposed to be in Camka.” He spoke in plain-tongue, not Ri-native.
The fear she had only just then felt disappeared. She wasn’t sure what replaced it. “I take it this isn’t a casual encounter.”
“Does it look like one?”
“May I offer you tea, then?” She made a sign with her fingers that meant acquiescence, a temple-based gesture that had no Ri equivalent. An allowance, an admission that she was open to the possibilities of his being here.
He grunted. “And talk.”
“About what?” Then in the poetry of high-formal: “The curl of the tea leaf off the bush? The release to the steaming water?”
He laughed, shaking his head, the dangling lobes of his large ears flying. “Sure. Tea leaves.”
The last was in Ri-native, with the accent of the Yulse Calsai, a long chain of islands that circled a quarter of the world in an arc that pointed on both ends to Risani, the main island. There was an easiness even in those few words that suggested he might have been born on Ri.
Three oral languages without using a neural net, and one that wasn’t oral and usually only known to people who had dealings with temple. Plus, a fifth, assuming he knew Piltsimic-native, a language she didn’t. An educated man. His directness—or rudeness—she discounted. Both were Piltsimic traits.
Ulanda poured fresh water into the kettle and took it to the ceramic fire-ring set into the tile floor. Next to the fire ring was a tea service and a basket of twigs and dried marsh grass twisted into knots in the Kalin fashion.
Live coals remained under the ashes from the tea she had made earlier for Patyin. A knot of the grass rekindled the flame, but she let that die, watching the fire-spent embers, still in the shape of the long leaves, go dark. Let him wait. The Piltsimic had come to her.
The stout man watched silently, then grunted as he knelt with the tea tray between them. He added more grass to the coals, then a handful of twigs, and put the kettle on the ring. “Well?” His low voice turned the word into a growl.
Flames had spread out against the round bottom of the kettle before she spoke, this time in Ri-native. “Why should I be in Camka?”
“Because I went there first and wasted a day.”
She raised her eyes to his. So, his being here had history behind it and some effort, and a purpose that discounted her bare feet, disheveled hair, and rain-spotted bed robe. She knew she was being watched, had been since she’d left temple service, would feel eyes on her, a brush of net, a too-friendly neighbor. This was the first time someone had approached her directly though.
“Wasted a whole day?” she asked, careful to keep her voice light and playful. “And now much of the night. Did you come with the temple people for the K’sini? I heard they came by flitter, not boat.”
“Never said I was with them.” His small, dark eyes narrowed. “You’ve been here, what? Two months? Plan on staying long?”
In Kalin? On a mud flat turned shallow river for a few hours after the daily rain? And with the real rainy season and the floods due to start soon? She looked away with a shrug that mirrored her thoughts on the matter.
From the smaller jar of tea, she took a pinch of the leaves and dropped them into the fire. Sparks and the scent of the leaf, anticipating the flavor. She could turn his Piltsimic directness back on him. “Where were you before you went to Camka?”
He opened the other tea jar on the tray, sniffed, shook his head, and put it down. “Where I was before only matters if you agree.”
She moved the jar back to its proper place on the tray. “Agree to what?”
His inspection of the teapot was next. An unglazed yellow clay base, marsh flowers carved into the clay, and the cuts outlined with a shiny blue glaze. Locally made, and like the furnishings, had come with the house.
“A job,” he said without raising his eyes from the teapot.
“I have one.”
“Two dance students so far, not enough to pay the rent on this place.”
He wasn’t wrong. And one of the students, Kati, was Patyin’s sister. The girl didn’t have the body type or the talent needed, but she danced with her heart. For Kalin, it might be enough. “Are you offering something better?” she asked.
“And the boy? His father is Master of Scribes here in Kalin. No mean position.”
“I was going to say wishful thinking on my part.”
“Done a lot of that, have you?”
“Am I doing it now?”
He snorted. His broad thumbs were tracing the pattern of the glazing on the tea pot. Finally, he put it on the lip of the fire-ring and took the jar of tea she had just opened and held it under his nose. “This stuff is pitiful.”
“Patyin likes it. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste.”
“Have you acquired it?”
“How many times do I have to say no?” She got to her feet and went to the cabinet. “I’ve wine. It’s local, but…”
He shook his head. “Another acquired taste?”
“After two months in Kalin? Yes.” In the cabinet were several bottles, something Patyin hadn’t known, or he would have taken them. With them were fruit, two mangos and five bananas, and a bunch of wilted kale she had meant to cook for her dinner. Then, under the kale, an oiled paper bag, anise seed cookies, most of them broken. The few whole ones barely covered the surface of a plate, and she arranged a rosette in the center from the larger pieces, sprinkled loose seeds over top, and brought them to him.
The Piltsimic picked out a whole cookie and ate it in one bite. And another, but this one he held up instead of eating. “What are stale cookies supposed to contribute to the dialogue?”
He ate it. “Crumbs, it is.”
A sharp whistle, the water near to boiling, and she slid the kettle off the fire. “Is this the point where I get to hear who is doing the offering?”
He moved the plate of cookies to his lap. “Call me Bolda.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Your offer?”
“What? The substance or the who?”
She made an exaggerated motion of allowance. “As I don’t know either, whichever or both as contributes to the dialogue.”
He chuckled through crumbs but didn’t answer.
“I’m gratified I amuse you.”
“Well, it’s not me you have to amuse.”
So, it wasn’t him. She felt disappointed but knew it hadn’t been likely. “At such great personal effort, you must trust that I can amuse.”
“For more than two months at a stretch? Amuse might not be the right word. You’ll catch his attention like fingernails on a plaster wall.”
“Such confidence in my skill, I’m overwhelmed.” She put another pinch of the objectionable tea into the dying flames. “It is my dancing we’re talking about, isn’t it?”
“Just one dance.”
Smoke from the burning tea caught the back of her throat. She couldn’t breathe. Out of the harmony of the rain on the roof, the water running from the kitchen awning onto the courtyard, came the sound of the individual drops, each distinct, each a place in creating another harmony, the one she had looked for earlier and hadn’t found. A resonance with the air, with the weave of her robe, with the tiles, with her heartbeat. And in the sound, the ci-ci drums.
Will you dance for me?
“No,” she managed to say.
“According to Patyin, it’s a dance you perform well. Although I doubt, he has much basis for comparison.”
“No.” This time she signed it with her fingers as well.
“Is that my answer or your opinion of the boy?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“You get a standard contract. If things don’t work out, your expenses will be paid, and if you need it, some help to make other arrangements.”
“I said no. I’m not a courtesan. I don’t have the temperament for it.”
The last cookie eaten, he fanned his face with the empty plate, then put it on the floor next to him. “Like I didn’t know that. Temperament!” He chuckled, then, “This is getting boring. It’s too hot to argue.”
“Saying no isn’t arguing. Your being here, what you know about me, who I’m sleeping with and what they say…” She took a breath to steady herself. “All that says…”
“Says what? Temple? Temple doesn’t hand out second chances. You screwed up, live with it.”
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“Asam e’Bolda of the Imperial House.”
Cedar. Black joss sticks burning. Prayers Patyin would have made to the Empress. “You misjudge me. I’m no fool.”
“Is that so?” Without taking his eyes off her, he got to his feet. “Is there anything you want to pack? Maybe get dressed? Say goodbye to anybody?”
“Now?” she said and felt the fool she had claimed she wasn’t. Of course, now. A day wasted.
She heard the front door open and stay open. Patyin. She didn’t take her eyes off the Piltsimic. Behind him, the silvered curtain of water running off the awning blurred as she lost the edges of her vision.
But there were two sets of footsteps in the hall and a change in the air again, more people, the sound of their breathing, their emotions. Possibilities.
She turned her head and had to blink rapidly before being able to see Patyin and Gei, shoulder to shoulder, in the hall.
“Ulanda?” Patyin slurred her name. “What? Who’s that?” With the words came a net query but it slipped away. He was too drunk to focus.
“I thought you said she’d be alone,” Gei said. He sounded sober.
The Piltsimic said something in a language she hadn’t heard in a long time. From the courtyard where she had stood earlier, two forms rose out of the darkness and were in the bedroom before she could make sense of what she was seeing. The sound of scratches on the floor tiles, not footsteps.
From the hall, Patyin and Gei would see what was making the noise. They backed up. Then her sight of them was blocked. Dark robes, a glint of ochre chitin.
“I told you it was too hot to play games,” Bolda said.
As though that had been a key, she suddenly caught the Piltsimic’s tight net lead. And the node? What she felt wasn’t a lead from a domestic net system, but a much higher level, and hauntingly familiar.
He knocked her from the net lead like swatting an insect. It faded, then suddenly was there again. He looked amused. “So, you haven’t forgotten everything.”
“I haven’t forgotten anything.”
A grunt. “We’ll see about that.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Don’t be stupid. You can’t stay here.”
And through his lead and then in the air, the sound surrounding them, was the whine of a flitter. It landed half in the courtyard, half in the next yard, the mud wall between flattened under it. From where she knelt on the covered porch, black hull tiles gleamed dully in the rain. She stood to see better. Around the eye of the ship were markings, glowing slightly in the rain-dimmed light. The wings of the Empress’ signature.
He wasn’t wrong about staying in Kalin, not now. If he would even give her the choice. The ti’Linn guards said he wouldn’t.
“I want a permanent position of record in the Imperial Household. Steward Third Grade, open classification,” she said, eyes still on the Empress’ signature. Her heart was in her throat as she turned towards the Piltsimic. It was all she could do to keep her voice from breaking. “Are you authorized to offer that? As a signing bonus, not dependent on anyone putting up with me.”
Putting up with her was bluntly true about most of her relationships and bluntness was a Piltsimic trait. From the look on Bolda’s face, she thought she might have impressed him for the first time.
A snort. “The exact wording I was thinking of.”