The houses of Het Ikoped were only a few days distant when Ledin, the caravan master, called us to the fire pit before supper. I arrived before the others and helped Ledin set up the stakes for the lanterns. Purple shadows stretched from our feet, for the twilight in summer came reluctantly and full of color. I liked the palette: orange sky, violet shadows, black hills in silhouette at the horizon's edge. Here in the north, colors are cleaner, steadier.
With the lanterns casting yellowed light and the fire, new-built, casting orange, the two of us sat to await the others. I glanced at Ledin; its composure crafted a mask of its face, but its dark green eyes glittered. I knew then that this would be the night, and I grinned.
One by one the rest of the caravan joined us: sturdy eperu, neuters, the only sex of the Jokka that could withstand the grueling travel of a trade caravan. Last of all came little Thodi, our orphan found two circuits back.
Thodi wiggled around to sit by me, resting its slim head on my shoulder. I realized, bemused, that it had grown.
"Friends," Ledin said, tufted ears canted forward, "you've known for a while that I had more planned for our venture than simple trade. Tonight, at last, I think we are ready for the plan." It withdrew from its pouch a folded square of cloth; with great drama, Ledin opened it and displayed it for view -- a map of the known continent, which when seen thus demonstrated just how little we Jokka knew of our land. "I want to explore the northwestern region."
The others leaned forward, and the fire jumped to their eyes. I knew mine held a similar flame. Exploration? To see places not seen before? Feel perhaps a cooler breeze than the ones on the sandy soil beneath us now? To touch foot to places no Jokkad had ever walked? I had never heard of anyone taking up such a charter. Jokka did not travel.
"We are approaching Het Ikoped," Ledin continued, placing the map on the ground and anchoring it with a few stones. "I propose this het be our base. We will buy supplies there for a year's travel and go where we can before we have to turn back."
"Why only a year?" someone asked.
My ears tilted backward. "Because we have only enough shell for a year's supplies," I offered. I saw Ledin nod. I was the only eperu in the caravan besides Ledin itself who had an interest in money, and so I helped with our finances. We were not a rich caravan, and supplies for a year, unless carefully chosen, would bankrupt us.
"Anyway, we will return in a year, take on cargo, and run the trade route for more shell before returning to resume exploring. I am hoping we will discover resources on the journey that will enable us to take fewer supplies on the next run, but we cannot make assumptions. We will be the first." Ledin sat back, resting its slender hands on its knees. "What say you all?"
They hardly needed to answer: the hunger in their faces and the way they leaned almost into the fire said enough.
Ledin laughed. "Very well, then. Let's make food and get back on the road!"
The eperu scattered, chattering amongst themselves . . . leaving me there with Ledin and Thodi.
"You well, little one?" I asked it, ears tilting toward it.
Thodi wrapped its arms around my waist, rubbed its chin on my shoulder. "I can hardly believe it, Ekanoi! Since I've been with the caravan, you've been taking me places I've never seen. But now to be taken places that no one has seen?" It shivered. "This is happiness!"
Ledin heard and chuckled. "It may be that Jokka have passed that way before, Thodi. Indeed, it may be that Jokka have touched foot and hand to every span of this continent. But if so, we haven't heard of it. And everyone knows that Jokka do not--"
"--travel," Thodi finished, and grinned. Its face had a fineness of feature reminiscent of a male, one which had prompted not a little conjecture among the others over what sex Thodi had originally been . . . and what sex Thodi would become. Its first puberty was probably several years past already. "But look at us! We travel!"
"Caravans trade," I corrected. "Travel implies no reason for the journey. There are no idle journeys. Only caravans and trade."
"So we trade. Still we move places." Thodi played with the chain of striped brown pebbles and tarnished silver at my waist. "What will we bring back, ke Ledin? Will we make maps?"
"That we will," Ledin said. "And we will bring back whatever is beautiful and useful." It stood, brushed off its thighs, then bent down and touched the child's sloped nose. "Maybe we will find something of such great value we will be able to return to the towns and put down a stone to found our own House . . . a House of such riches we will doze-dream on piles of shell."
Thodi giggled. "But why would we want to stay in one place?"
"That's a good question," Ledin said.
"Some of us could stay at the House and doze in the piles of shell," I said. "The rest of us would run the caravan. Then, when the caravan comes back, we'd switch. . . ."
Thodi pressed its hand to its mouth. "That's silly."
"Yes," I said.
And, "Who can know the future?" from Ledin, who ran a hand through my mane before saying, "Enjoy the evening."
The two of us remained before the fire. I idly stroked Thodi's soft, dark curls; it continued playing with my waist-chain. "Do you think I can do something brave and useful on the journey?" it asked me.
"Like what?" I asked.
"I don't know. I could catch so much food for us off the trail that we don't need to touch our stores at all? Or maybe help defend the wagons from marauding beasts!"
"Marauding beasts, is it?" I said, laughing. I ran my finger down its nose. "Why would you want to get in the way of such things? I bet they're large and hairy and mean."
"Like the anadi!" Thodi crowed.
"And how do you know what the females are like?" I asked, amused. "You've probably never seen one."
"I would if you let me go with you and Ledin into town," the child said, frowning.
"Probably not," I said. "We usually talk to the males. They run the Houses. Besides, how else could we protect you from the anadi's dripping fangs?" I feigned a pounce, baring my own fangs.
Thodi snorted. "Anadi poison is a truedark tale!"
"Are you sure?" I asked, all innocence.
It frowned at me. "Aren't you?"
I grinned. "I don't know. I'm not anadi."
Thodi shivered. "Me neither! Thank the World. Females don't have any fun!"
Ah, bald truth. "So why do you want to wound yourself in the brave defense of the caravan, little one?"
"I was hoping to earn my ring soon," it said, looking up at the silvery hoop hanging from my left ear.
I chuckled. "You know we can't give you a ring until after your second puberty, or you'd have one already."
"But I could have already gone through my second puberty, and not known it!"
I hugged it and sighed. "You must be patient, ba Thodi. You will know when you're not a child any longer."
It wiggled in my arms, then deflated, resting its cheek against my flat chest. "I guess so."
"You should go help Mekena with supper, ah? It's your turn tonight."
Thodi nodded and drew itself to its feet. It had an almost anadi-like obedience . . . something for which I was thankful, if also somewhat concerned. Shaking my head, I rose and ambled back to my wagon. We'd be rolling in an hour or so, and the creak in the right wheel would soon drive me sun-crazy if I didn't fix it now.
I stopped inside the store to savor the flat floors for a few minutes. At no point on its year-long circuit did the caravan traverse anything but broken road and uneven ground. The general store in Het Ikoped had stone tile floors, cool and smooth against my callused toes.
Perhaps youth was blind to such subtle pleasures, for Thodi trotted past me and began poking into barrels and glancing into bins.
"Ba Thodi, be careful, ah?" I said, proceeding to the back counter. The emodo there wore his tan mane in a handsome braid, and his clear purple eyes rested on me with polite interest. His light tunic covered most of his skin, but what I could see of it was a supple dark brown with lighter spirals. "Good afternoon, ke emodo."
"And to you, ke eperu," he said. "May I help you?"
"Ke Ledin's caravan just came into town," I said. "We were wondering if you were interested in barter?"
"I might be," he said. "Your caravan is outside?"
He nodded. "I will talk with your caravan master, then. What were you hoping to trade for?"
"I'm not sure yet," I said, glancing around the store. "I would appreciate some time to make a list."
The male smiled. "Please, take as much time as you need. I will be outside."
I nodded, watched him walk out, then pulled out one of the three slates the caravan owned. The piece of stone in my hand had cost half a trunk of furs -- somewhat expensive, but far less than one of the specially treated slabs of wood would have been. With a thin sliver of chalk in my hand, I drifted through the store, noting what would be useful for the journey. Grain and dried fruit. Dried meat. Fire-coals and tinder, soap, fat for cooking, fodder for the animals. . . . The tally grew.
I sat on a trunk with the slate and rubbed my head.
"Bad, Ekanoi?" Thodi said, thumping onto the trunk beside me.
"Difficult," I said. "We will have to unload everything we brought at an excellent price to afford all that we'd need for a year's journey. The grain is more expensive than it should be."
"Is he cheating us?" Thodi asked, eyes wide.
"No. . . . Probably something happened this year. Bad harvest, or a caravan missed this het." I shook my head. "Come on. Let's go talk to Ledin."
Thodi followed me out to the caravans. We passed the emodo on the way, and I did not like his obvious cheer. I reached Ledin's wagon and glanced inside. "Ledin?"
"In here, Ekanoi."
I climbed onto the platform, helping Thodi up after me. Ledin was seated on one of the trunks, a slate resting on its lap and one hand tangled in its mane.
"We will not have enough, will we," I said.
Ledin shook its head.
I took the slate and glanced at the numbers. My tail twitched. "Is that all? This is barely more than we paid for it."
"I had to sell, quickly," Ledin said with a sigh. "I heard at the wayfarer's house that Batasil's caravan is only a day away."
I grimaced. Batasil could have dozed atop a pile of shell had it chosen to; it preferred instead to trade, and had twice the number of wagons we had, full of luxury goods that commanded such exorbitant prices it could afford to sell its basic goods at cost. Ledin was right: we could not compete with Batasil.
Yet the prices on the two slates missed one another by two wagons' worth of goods.
Thodi looked from Ledin's face to mine. "Does this mean we're not going?"
"No . . . ," Ledin said. "Just that we will come back in half a year instead of a year." It smiled and cuffed Thodi lightly on the shoulder. "Sa, what's with that face? At least we'll have a party tomorrow night. Batasil throws wondrous parties."
That was the final injustice: that hating Batasil was impossible. Its affable nature and easy generosity with what it considered its fraternity of neuter traders precluded hatred. I finally found a wry chuckle. "That it does. Shall I go buy half a year's supplies, then?"
Thodi followed me off the wagon. "Ekanoi! Half a year? That's nothing! We'll barely get into the wilderness!"
I waited for it to catch up to me, then rested my arm over its shoulders. "We have no choice, little one. We can only stretch our shell so far."
"But can't we borrow some? Maybe from Batasil?"
"Ke Batasil to you, little one. Be polite. And no, we can't borrow money from Batasil. We would spend too long paying it when we got back."
I rubbed my forehead, wondering just how much to explain about the worth of shell over time. "Because we would have to pay it more than we borrowed, because that would be shell Batasil wouldn't have while we had it."
"Ke Batasil has other money though, so what does it matter?"
I laughed. "Just trust me, ba Thodi. Borrowing money will only make us poorer."
Thodi sighed and leaned against me. "I was so excited."
"Ba eperu, listen to me," I said. I stopped, faced it and rested my hands on its shoulders. "We're still going. We're just coming back a little sooner than expected, that's all. Understand?"
Thodi rolled a lip between its teeth, then nodded, ears splaying.
"Good. Now you start looking forward to that party, ah? Batasil is going to have things to eat and drink so exotic you won't remember their names in the morning. A real adult's party."
One tufted ear pricked up. "Really? An adult's party?"
Thodi hugged me tightly. I rested my chin on its head, chuckling softly. "Come on. Those supplies want purchase."
The other eperu helped me roll the barrels from the general store to our caravans while the emodo supervised the transfer of goods. By late evening he stood with me and I counted into his hand the balance of our payment while Ledin watched. We marked our tokens and exchanged them, marked them again to record the transaction . . . and then Ledin and I turned to our wagons, half of them empty and the other half carrying our supplies.
"And that," Ledin said, "is the beginning of our venture."
I handed it the transaction token and chuckled. "May the Brightness, Void, and World bless us all."
"But mostly the World," Ledin said, grinning. It squeezed my shoulder, then padded into the purple dark.
Batasil's caravan rolled into town the following day, bringing with it clouds of amber dust. I watched with Thodi from the vantage of Feda's wagon, the one with the perch built above the frame. Feda had sacrificed the mobility of the sails built onto every wagon frame to have that perch, but it commanded a spectacular view. Thodi and I arranged the remaining sails to give us as much shade as possible, and sat there well over an hour while Batasil's wagons crawled into town.
"They're big," Thodi muttered.
I nodded. Our wagons had been built to the standard trade size; only a few businesses made them. Batasil made its own rules, though. "Big and full of strange things. Maybe we can get it to show you some of its rarer goods."
Both of Thodi's ears perked. "That would be fun."
I grinned and tickled its side. "After the party, though. We'll leave tomorrow night, so maybe tomorrow in the afternoon."
"Then I guess I'll take a nap now," Thodi said, and hugged me.
"I've been feeling a little sleepy lately," it said, and at my expression added, "It's the heat."
The heat? It wasn't so bad today. I shifted my tail in a shrug. "Of course. Make sure you're awake after sun-down, though!"
"I wouldn't miss it for anything!" Thodi grinned, then clambered down from the perch. I heard its footsteps as it hopped off the bed of the wagon and padded away.
Some time later, I went to bathe and change into something more festive. I didn't have much to choose from, but what I had would not embarrass the caravan. The tarnished silver and brown pebble chain I left around my waist -- it was almost as old as I was, and had belonged to my sibling before her contract had been sold. I added a few matching strands of beads to my tail and mane, leaving the latter loose. I hooked a bronze and blue long-cloth at my hips with cord and silver chain, letting the panel of linen fall to my ankles and separating the hind-panel so it fell on either side of my tail.
Outside, the other eperu of Ledin's caravan had gathered near our fire pit, talking, their best jewelry flashing in the orange firelight. Ledin among them all was loveliest: it had been anadi at birth, and then emodo before it had finally Turned eperu, and had kept the best of all the sexes.
"Bright night!" Ledin said, catching my elbows. "It is good to see you in finery."
"You too," I said, pushing aside one of its curls so I could see its face. It had accentuated the spirals on its cheeks with ground malachite. "We will show a good spirit to Batasil."
I glanced back -- one of the eperu, only half-dressed and wearing an expression of great perplexity, stood panting. "What is it?"
"Thodi is asking for you."
It succeeded in passing its confusion to me. Frowning, I said, "It is in my caravan?"
The eperu nodded, and I strode that way. No light illuminated my wagon, and all its sails had been pulled flush to the frame; I could not see inside. I approached from the front, climbing over the driver's bench. "Thodi?"
A tiny whimper answered me, and my ears flattened. Had it hurt itself? I took the lantern down from beside the bench and lit the wick, then slid into the wagon and held the light up.
Thodi was sitting on my trunk, knees curled to its chest, hugging itself and trembling. It showed no obvious signs of illness, and I stepped closer. "Ba Thodi?"
"Ekanoi," Thodi whispered, and unfolded.
And I saw them . . . the tiny points of its -- her breasts.
I sucked in a breath and hung the lantern from a hook on the ceiling frame. Sitting beside her, I said, "Oh, Thodi."
"Does this mean . . . I'm going to be anadi?" she asked, chin trembling.
"Ssh, don't weep," I said, touching her jaw. "Thodi . . . I'm sorry. It means you already are anadi. Your body is just changing to fit that now."
"But I don't want to be female!" Thodi reached for my waist. "What will I do?"
"What all females do," I said, ears splaying. "You'll go to a good House, be pampered, fed choice foods, rest on pillows by cool pools of water--"
"And have babies until my mind dies and I get as stupid as a soup-beast!" Thodi wailed and began sobbing, nose wrinkling back from fangs that wept acrid tears.
I embraced her, trying not to cringe. "That doesn't happen to all anadi. . . ."
"Just most of them! Ekanoi, please . . . take me with you! I don't want to go to a House and be a pampered anadi breeder. I want to trade, and explore and travel. I want to see new places! I want . . . I want to be eperu, not anadi!"
"You can't argue with your body, Thodi," I said. Gently I disengaged her arms and held her away from me. "You are anadi now. And as much as I want to, we can't take you with us. You'll die out there. Breeders are too fragile for traveling. That's why only eperu trade."
Yellow tears streaked Thodi's lower chin. "Wh-what now?"
What indeed. I sighed and wiped the tears away with my thumbs. "Now . . . we talk to Ledin. It will know what to do."
Ledin looked once at Thodi, then said, "My wagon."
We followed it, sat inside as it pulled all the sails to the frame and then entered, sitting on the trunk across from us.
"This was not in our plan," I said, mouth quirking wryly.
Ledin chuckled. "No, it wasn't." It reached for Thodi's hands and squeezed them. "This is your second Turning, isn't it?"
Thodi nodded, despondent. Her mane fell in tumbled curls over her shoulders, hiding the evidence of her coming change.
"I told her we couldn't take her with us," I said.
Ledin shook its head, paint on its cheeks a-glitter. "No. We don't know what's out there. Even if we did, half a year's journey would be too hard on an anadi." It paused. "We will have to get you someplace you will be safe."
"I don't want to be safe," Thodi said. "I want to be happy."
"I'm sorry." Ledin's voice softened. "I cannot be responsible for you on such a trip. You would sicken, Thodi."
"How do you know?" Thodi asked, ears flattening, voice almost a snarl. "No one ever lets the anadi out to see how long they last!"
Ledin leaned back. "I was anadi for a while."
A white flush clouded Thodi's ears and she looked away.
I touched her shoulder. "We only want to do what's best for you. Letting you die is not part of that."
Her small shoulders slumped. "What will you do with me?"
Ledin sighed. "I suppose I will ask Batasil to take you on its return circuit. Ask it to broker your contract for us, make sure you are released into an honorable and prosperous House. A place they'll take good care of you."
"If anyone can find you a good place to live, it's Batasil," I added.
Thodi let out a long breath. "I guess I don't have a choice," she said.
Ledin shook its head, and I remained silent.
"Sell me, then," she said with a tremor in her voice, and walked out of the wagon.
I rose to follow her, but Ledin's hand on my arm stayed me.
"Let her go. Her weepiness might be anadi frailty or just shock, but she's been raised eperu. Let her have dignity."
"Dignity for freedom -- I call that a poor trade, Ledin," I said, ears sloping back.
"I know," Ledin said. "We'll do all we can to provide for her." It stood. "Come with me to talk to Batasil?"
I hesitated, then flicked my tail in a shrug. What else could I do for Thodi?
So as our eperu mingled in the purple shadows and yellow light of Batasil's caravan circle, Ledin and I sat in the lead wagon with cups of steaming tea. Batasil had insisted on pulling out great armfuls of plush pillows for our rumps, draping us with expensive silks "against the wind," bringing out the nicest set of pottery it owned for our use. All so obviously out of its desire to share its wealth with us that I just couldn't be angry . . . or even jealous.
"Now, you wanted to ask me something?" Batasil said, sitting across from us in the nest of pillows and silks. The incredible lace veil it wore pinned behind its ears draped over its shoulders as it leaned toward us.
Ledin put the tea cup aside and rested its hands on its knees. "A few towns back we picked up an orphan, ke Batasil. It Turned today."
"Let me guess," Batasil said. "Anadi."
Ledin nodded, and Batasil's ears drooped. "I'd hoped to be wrong. . . ."
"But you knew we would hardly be coming to you about a Turning eperu," Ledin said. "And had it Turned emodo, we would have left it here to await our return, and escorted it to a better town ourselves. But an anadi . . . " Ledin shook its head. "We can't wait. She needs a place now. We were hoping you could take her back with you, make sure she was traded into a good House."
"You cannot do this yourselves?" Batasil looked surprised. "You would trust me to do this?"
"We are heading to the northwest," Ledin said.
"We don't know. That's why we're going."
Batasil blinked a few times, then laughed. "Oh, ke Ledin. You were always a risk-taker. Living on the edge of profitability. I think you like to be hungry!"
"We are eperu, ke Batasil. We can go hungry. Thodi cannot." Ledin tapped its knees nervously. "We will not be back this way for half a year. Will you take her for us? Please, ke eperu."
"Of course!" Batasil seemed surprised. "Do you even have to ask? I could no more leave an anadi to privation than I could allow a baby to suffer. I will make sure she is taken care of."
"Thank you," Ledin said, letting out a breath.
Batasil shook its head. "Nothing. It is nothing. Now go, enjoy my food and wine. Leave your troubles for the evening, and bring me the female tomorrow before you go."
We left the wagon, but neither of us had the spirit for a party. The Trinity had made the eperu so that we needed no true sleep . . . but I wished for that brief oblivion that evening, if only to keep from wondering what would have happened had I become anadi on my final Turning at second puberty. Would I have comported myself as well as Thodi?
I counted stars, and thought not.
In the morning, we escorted a sullen Thodi to Batasil's caravan. Batasil stood waiting for us, more conservatively attired in only half the jewelry it had been wearing the evening before, the long-cloth at its hips a gauzy thing of lace and beads and gossamer. I did not doubt that this wealthy eperu, so accustomed to traveling through high circles, could find Thodi a home where she might sleep in a pile of shell if she so desired.
As Ledin and Batasil talked, I turned to Thodi. "Why don't you leave us messages?" I asked.
"Messages?" Thodi said. She held her arms crossed at her chest.
"You know our trade route. If you want, you can have a courier keep news of you for us at one of the het."
"Would that make you feel better?" Thodi asked, and I couldn't decide whether she was bitter or honestly inquiring.
"I would like to hear from you," I said. My ears canted back. "I will miss you, ba Thodi."
"Ke Thodi, now," she said. "I am an adult." She lifted her chin. "Goodbye, Ekanoi."
She turned from me and strode away, head still high.
I sought some sign that Thodi did not blame us for our actions, but she never looked back at me. When I swallowed, I was surprised to taste bitter tears. Furtively, I licked my fangs clean and waited for Ledin to finish talking with Batasil.
Ledin and I walked to our wagons, where the eperu were harnessing the beasts and making preparations for our grand venture.
"I'm sorry, Ekanoi."
I glanced at Ledin. "It's not your fault."
"I know. But I grieve with you anyway. The life of an anadi is difficult to accept when you have been anything else. Even emodo have more freedom."
I resisted the urge to look over my shoulder. "Did . . . did we do the right thing?"
"We did the necessary thing." Ledin's mouth nearly made a smile. "Whether that's right or not . . . I don't know."
It left me for its wagon, and I went to mine: empty now of all of Thodi's things. I sat on the driver's bench and pressed my hand to my mouth to keep from weeping.
But the beasts wanted harnessing, and I still needed to snap the sails back to make shade against the morning sun. I did my chores and fell into line behind Ledin's wagon as we made our way out of Het Ikoped and into the unknown.
Het Ikoped presented the same face to us when we unhitched our wagons there in the early spring, but I saw something different in it anyway. I saw how small it was, this collection of brick and stone houses erected against a vast sky. I saw the broken road leading southeast from its edge as a paved walkway to civilization, and Jokka, and places crowded with the familiar.
I saw that we had changed, and the world had not, and that was good.
No exotic goods clustered our wagons. On our journey we'd discovered rocks and thin slopes, and on the horizon autumn copper and scarlet suggesting hills, perhaps even a forest. We hadn't reached it before we ran out of supplies. We'd skinned the animals we'd eaten and saved their pelts, and we'd collected a few bundles of shiny rocks -- nothing stunningly valuable, save to the eperu who'd seen their origins.
We would have done it again, even knowing we would have so little at its end.
I finished watering my pack animals and jogged to Ledin's wagon.
"Well," it said, standing on the bench and breathing in the familiar air. "Shall we see what grain prices are like today?"
I laughed. "We should be trying to purchase useful cargo, Ledin. Not spending shell on dreams. It's time for prudence."
Ledin sighed. "Prudence. What fun."
"No, but necessary."
It hopped down beside me. "Let's go find a drink before we turn entirely to prudence, friend."
I glanced around Het Ikoped again, thought of how small it was, and shook my head. "So tiny. Maybe a drink will make it seem big again."
"Unlikely, but worth trying."
We walked toward the wayfarer's house, talking quietly, intent only on ourselves -- probably why the male almost knocked us over.
"Pardon me!" he said. "You are with the caravan, ke Ledin's caravan?"
We glanced at one another. Ledin said, "I'm Ledin. May I help you, ke emodo?"
"Ah, yes. I have been waiting to discharge a message to your caravan's members." He opened a bag and withdrew a large package. "This is yours. Will you mark my token?"
Ledin rummaged in its pouch, and the two went through the transaction process.
"Thank you. Be well!"
We watched him go, and Ledin handed me the package: soft leather, dyed a dark blue. "What do you suppose?"
"I don't know," Ledin said. "But let's go gather the others and find out."
Ten minutes later, the eperu of the caravan crowded around our fire pit as Ledin opened the package. It withdrew a piece of parchment, bleached pale, so fabulously expensive as to draw gasps of astonishment from the others. Then three stone boxes, each three hands tall.
Ledin's eyes widened. "Void and Brightness," it whispered.
I looked. The paper's surface gleamed, colored chalks fixed with a layer of gum. The vibrant rendering depicted an anadi . . . Thodi, her skin gleaming with soft tans and lavender, dark hair mussed over her face. She stood with her hips thrust back and her chest forward, one arm lifted above her head, and she was beautiful.
Ledin traced the words beneath the image, and read aloud for the eperu of the caravan who could not. "To Ledin and Ekanoi and all the eperu of the caravan. I told Batasil to give you everything. Please bring back something pretty from the wild for me. Thodi Pazaña-eperu, Het Makali."
Ledin opened the first box and almost dropped it. I grabbed Ledin's wrists to steady them, for I'd seen the gleam of the box's contents. Shells, hundreds of them, each as large as my thumb. The second box held the same.
"Trinity!" one of the eperu said, holding the second box reverently. "How much money must Batasil have charged for Thodi's contract?"
"Whatever it was, it must have been astronomical for this to be left after Batasil's commission," Ledin said.
"And she left it all to us," I said softly.
Ledin gingerly set the first box on the ground and opened the final box. In it another piece of parchment rested atop a set of gleaming jewels. The parchment read: "This is for Ekanoi."
I withdrew the gems and found in my hands a heavy waist-chain of bright silver, cabochon sapphire, and pearl. It had two clasps, meant to be hooked to an anadi kaña's navel ring . . . and surely only a kaña, the Jokkad deemed most valuable in a House, could afford such a thing. Somehow I doubted the silver would tarnish.
Ledin said quietly, "This is more than enough shell to return to the northwest. Enough shell to buy supplies for several years."
"Do we want to spend it all?" one of the others said.
Ledin lifted one of the spiral shells, flawless cream and coral-pink. "We wouldn't have to." It looked up. "Are we ready to go back?"
As with the first time, it needn't have asked.
I stood as they talked of the faraway forest and its riches, walked away to sit on the bench of my wagon. I set the heavy chain in my lap and caressed it. As I stared at its elegance, contemplated its weight, Ledin came by. It met my eyes, then handed me the parchment with the drawing and left.
I studied the rendering, touched its shining surface with my fingertips. Thodi smiled back at me, mischievous, a little sultry. Not happy, perhaps . . . but content. In her navel she had a ring, heavier than the one we would have put on her ear had she remained with us. Remained eperu.
My sibling's waist chain I stored in my trunk, with my other finery. Around my hips I draped instead a fortune's worth of female jewels. And then I went to do my chores and join the celebration by the fire.
Copyright © 2001 M. C. A. Hogarth
M. C. A. Hogarth lives in stormy Florida on a plot of land owned by the neighborhood sandhill cranes. She spends days with databases and telecommunications equipment, and comes home to art sketchbooks and notebooks of poetry and fiction. You can read more about her work at her Web site.