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After breakfast, Maylani, Saviayr, and I stop by Nadina’s house. Maylani wants to buy fabric from the marketplace to make a new dress for her wedding. The material we weave and dye ourselves is not of fine enough quality for such an occassion. Of course, Nadina’s advice is indispensable.
A servant leads us into the great room, where Nadina’s mother plays with Nadina’s youngest brother, who was born nine months ago. When her mother informs us that the girl is still getting ready, Maylani pulls Saviayr over to a window to talk. I sink down to watch the baby boy on the rug.
“Good morning, Raiba,” Nadina’s mother says, rolling her “r”s in a proper, aristocratic Iranine accent. “We have missed you recently.”
I visited every day when their second youngest child was born. While Maylani and Nadina practiced their music and embroidery, I played with and helped care for the baby. Since Maylani went away this past year, I have not visited at all.
“Forgive my neglect,” I apologize.
She pats my knee. “Ah, I understand. You and my Nandi have never been close. Perhaps we will see you more now that Mayli is home, and our little one can enjoy your company?”
The baby crawls toward us. He crawls into my lap, and warmth melts through my heart. “I’d like that. But I don’t know if she’s staying on the island after her wedding,” I caution. A new sadness adds to the heaviness in my chest. I love children. Since the medicine woman thinks I cannot have my own—one of the many things the plague took from us—any time with other people’s children is precious. Maylani’s absence could keep this opportunity from me. This wedding keeps getting worse and worse.
It doesn’t matter, I reprimand myself. I try to strangle my sadness and force myself to smile. Hopefully practice will make fake smiles feel more natural.
“Ah, yes, the wedding,” the mother nods. “My Nadina has talked of nothing else since she returned home last night. So this is the young man.” She casts a glance at Saviayr. I follow her gaze instinctively, and find Saviayr looking our way. The hard set of his forehead, the tightness of his lips that has been present every time I’ve seen him, is gone. The corners of his lips just barely tilt up. Our eyes meet, and the softness in his drains the tension out of my shoulders.
This is my Savi.
The baby squirms in my lap and babbles. I look down and grin at him.
“I hope he is good enough for Mayli,” Nadina’s mother frets.
“He is the best,” I promise. I hope she is good enough for him. Then I feel guilty for thinking that about my cousin. Maylani isn’t inferior. She cares about her family and friends deeply, even if she doesn’t usually show it. Most of the time, especially since her mother died, Maylani is focused on making the family laugh and soothing Tatanda’s dark moods.
If I try to take myself out of the situation, I have to admit that a thoughtful, gentle husband could be very good for Mayli.
Nadina breezes in with a giggle and we take our leave, heading to the marketplace in the valley.
For such a small island, our marketplace is relatively large. On any given day, there are about ten stalls in addition to the five permanent craftsmen—the baker, smiths, weavers, scribes, and sandal makers—who own small shops. Brightly-colored fabrics, rugs, and baskets dangle from the stalls and fill the open shop windows with violet, red, blue, and green. Sea gulls and pigeons cry greedily and vendors shoo them away with shouts. The salty tang of sea air, never fully missing anywhere on the island, is stronger and fresher here.
Maylani talks with every person we pass. “By the spirits, how are you! I haven’t seen you in forever. I’ve been away visiting Izyphor, you know. Oh, you’d love Izyphor. They have this thinly-sliced roasted meat that is delicious. Their bright blue dye is so unique and beautiful. And they have this one tradition where—” and she goes on and on. “And you know, I just got home yesterday, with my fiancé. Meet my Saviayr. He’s quite a catch. The royal Yrin couldn’t live without him. Our marriage is in three days. Tell everyone!”
Watching her display Saviayr like a prized possession, I start to frown. My sadness and frustration return. Nadina’s constant giggling intensifies the affect. Combined with the heavy odor of spices and the humidity, the market’s atmosphere is oppressive. I can’t remember why I agreed to come. I’ll stay home in the event of future outings.
Sandat joins us, impeccably groomed as always. He replaces Nadina at my side with possessive authority, and I cannot decide if he is a welcome improvement or not. Instead of giggles, I now have a harangue against Maraiah as my companion.
“I wonder what Mayli is thinking, uniting herself with one of them.” Sandat frowns fiercely. One of the vendors, instead of calling his attention to her wares, halts with her mouth open mid-word and draws back. “They are nothing but lazy heathens. It’s more trouble for Izyphor to pay for their food and shelter than they are worth. Do you know they regularly eat the corpses of their dead babies?”
My hands clench. My short fingernails dig into my palms. “No,” I argue. How dare he accuse us of such an abomination? No Maraian would even think to have a nightmare about eating human flesh—and our innocent babies are executed by the villainous Izyphorns! Aia-Thaies, save! The blood of our murdered children cries out to You. Rescue Maraiah from their oppressors. My heart races and clenches at the same time.
But, as always, Sandat misinterprets what I say. He takes my “no” as an admission of ignorance instead of as disagreement. “It’s true. I’m sorry to tell you, but they are truly are the most vile people to walk Orrock.”
He goes on, but I can listen no longer. If I do, I might dishonor Tatanda more by being truly unfeminine and attacking Sandat. I glance around, praying for something to distract me. Aia answers my prayer immediately. Leaning against the scribes’ shop is the strange man with ebony skin and ancient eyes from last night. Unlike a normal person, he makes no effort to hide his staring when I see him.
When we are about to pass him, I stop. “Lev.”
His white teeth stand out sharply in his dark face when he smiles. “Peace to you, Raiballeon.”
Maylani glances back and pulls on Saviayr’s arm to stop. “Who is this? Another old acquaintance, Raiba?”
“This is Lev. I met him yesterday.”
“When?” Maylani asks as Sandat gives Lev his most disdainful glance. He asks Lev, “You just met yesterday, yet you dare address the lady when she is in the company of your betters?”
Lev tilts his head and lifts one eyebrow. “Child, who is this noisome boy?”
I ignore Sandat’s exclamation of disbelief. “He is Sandat…a friend of my cousin. And this is Nadina, my cousin Maylani, and Saviayr.”
Sandat exclaims, “Noisome boy! Indeed! Who do you think you are—”
But the moment I say Savi’s name, Lev straightens up. “He is?” He talks over Sandat as if the Iranine boy does not exist. “His name is Saviayr? Why?”
Savi looks at me with an eyebrow raised in question, then answers, “It’s a common Maraian name nowadays, and has been for the past twenty-three years. It means ‘Saved from the Water.’”
“Obviously.” Lev rolls his eyes. “But why is it your name?”
This time, Savi looks at Maylani, Sandat, and Nadina before beginning. He raises his chin at Sandat’s squinting eyes. “Surely you know that the sultan and the royals are afraid of us Maraians,” Saviayr says, almost more a challenge to Sandat than an answer to Lev, “because we don’t die off like their other slaves. Most of the time, you know, the people they enslave don’t last long, so the Izyphorns go conquer new people–but that didn’t happen with Maraiah. Izyphor was afraid we’d be too numerous and rise up against them, so they ordered that every month-old Maraian baby be placed in a waterproof box and floated down the river.” Saviayr’s lips curl up. “That way it’s up to the divinities whether the child lives. Anyway, I survived, and my adopted parents gave me this name.”
Maylani covers her mouth with her fingers. “By the spirits, that’s horrible!”
“Those poor babies,” Nadina frets with a nervous giggle.
A spark of something I haven’t felt in a while stirs in my chest. It’s fury that this is happening every day, it’s conviction that I have to do something about it, and it’s dangerous. I try to stomp it out.
Sandat crosses his bare arms over his chest and glares at Saviayr. “That’s ridiculous. Obviously your people committed a grave wrong and the Izyphorns are giving you a just punishment.”
“Sandat,” I interject, pulling out my chanavea, “they are my people, too.”
He huffs air out through his nose. “See, I refuse to believe that. You are surely Iranine–or at the very least, Izyphorn. Your charm means nothing. If I tied my sandals at the side, that would not make me a woman,” he argues. “Wearing their necklace does not make you swine like them. Only dirty blood does that.”
“Enough.” Lev speaks every word calmly and emphatically. His expression reminds me of the rage of the sea during a winter thunder storm, when the water could freeze you or lightning could burn you. “You, rat, will watch what you say about my chi—the Maraian people.”
Sandat swallows and raises his chin, a gesture that fails rather spectacularly to make him seem intimidating. “Is that a threat?” he challenges.
Lev shakes his head in incredulity, but his tone remains placid. “Are you really so stupid that you need me to answer that question?”
For the first time since I have known him, Sandat is speechless. I can’t stop the smile that fills my face.
Lev turns to Savi next, and warmth infuses his voice. “As for you, son, well said. Now, Raiballeon, do you remember what I asked you yesterday?”
“I…” I glance at my cousin, who looks distinctly disturbed, and decide not to answer.
“My question is the same,” Lev continues anyways. “Do you believe your name?”
Something twists inside my mind, an understanding that wants to be born, but I still have no idea what he means. Instead, I remember Nihae and Elesekk thinking that I’ve changed.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Saviayr asks. “Who are you?”
Sandat recovers from his muteness and grabs my arm. “Come on, Raiba.” He gives a tug. “He’s obviously a madman.”
I pull against him. “No, Sandat. Lev, what do you mean?”
Lev smiles, and now his expression reminds me of a refreshing breeze giving relief after a long, sweltering summer day. “I’ll leave you now. It was an honor to meet you, Saviayr, a pleasure, girls, and something quite different, boy. Peace to you, Raiballeon, Saviayr,” he tells us, not waiting for a reply before starting off.
Before Saviayr and I can finish responding, “May it also return to you,” he has somehow disappeared between the buildings and stalls.
“Raiballeon.” Mayli looks at me like she’s never seen me before. “You sure changed when I was gone. I mean, it’s a good change. You’re so much more talkative now.” She smiles. “The old Raiba never did anything half as interesting. We do need to find you better friends, though, people who aren’t so…rude or weird?”
I give a quick nod. My eyes meet Savi’s, and my pulse quickens for a second. His forehead wrinkles. I don’t have an answer to his question, I don’t have any idea who Lev is or what he’s talking about, so I redirect my sight to the ground. It’s better that way. I shouldn’t be looking at him. I shouldn’t.
One benefit from our encounter is that Sandat ignores me for the rest of our excursion. Everyone else does the same. Mayli buys enough of a well-made yellow fabric for a dress and we stop by her favorite seamstress, to whom she gives instructions. “Make it in the latest Izyphorn fashion,” she requests. “Their dresses are single-shouldered, usually with the—” she mimes the cut of Izyphorn dresses—“strap on the left shoulder. And for the skirt, hmm. Can it have…two-inch pleats, you know, and come down only a hand’s breadth below my knees?”
Rarely have I been so happy to return home, or felt as lonely after an hour with my cousin. My soul is so tired, I feel like I could sleep for a full day, and it is not even midday. I retreat to my room, where I sit by my window and crochet Mayli’s bridal shawl until lunch.