A Night at the Dancing Dolphin (pt. 2) (2000)

I see some more friends have trickled in during that tale, greetings to you newcomers and regulars! Come, warm yourselves by the fire. Lena, throw another log on if you would. Yes, I see a few familiar faces amongst you. Good sirs and ladies, shall I tell another tale? Or perhaps you are tired and long for your beds, to retire for the evening?

Ah, you have no sleep in your eyes! Well, very good! My thanks for your praise, good people. As your humble servant, I shall certainly do my best to entertain and inform you.

Certainly you have heard rumors of the Sea Nomads, or, as they prefer, the Cuaha ti Vanen. Well, so have I, and I assure you those stories about their being nothing but thieves and vagabonds out to swindle the honest working folk of Demelldivan and the other civilized lands are just rumors and nothing more. But, this tale I know for a fact to be true. Part of it was related to me by one of their traders, Ailea by name, while we swapped tales in this very establishment under the lone vigil of her swarthy, goateed guard. But, I see by your incredulous stare that you do not believe that the Nomads should be anything but objects of suspicion – or, perhaps you do not believe they would come this far inland? Well sir, I swear to you by the Harp of Oifa that it is true, there is much more to them, and the lady was quite gracious and well spoken. She sat in that very chair that you now occupy, my good sir, while the lone guard stood, arms crossed and stoic, not half a stone throw away.

They had come to our fair city on their ship’s regular trade route. And do not be surprised that Ailea turned out to be a well taught spinner of stories. The Cuaha are a people fond of tales which they share with each other on the lonely ocean nights far from the cries of the gulls and the lands known to Colculan cartographers. But I shall let you form your own judgements from her words, which she uttered to describe her trusted guard, whom I had just had the pleasure of meeting by the convoluted workings of Nolminat, the Vethiani deity of fortune.

“Eian, for that is my guardian’s name, has been with my family’s ship for many years. He came over from the Cileve family ship in a sort of adoption. You see, the Cileve family births, raises, and teaches the members of the warrior caste of my clan. This has been the way of things among my clan since the great Vanen came to our distant and divided people many generations ago and taught us the Jala ti Falien – or the Law of Five in your language, that law upon which all Cuaha society is built. By this law, Vanen created the five castes – Fisher, Religious, Warrior, Worker, and Navigator – and from this law also comes our family division of – three to five – fives to a family, five families to a Clan, five Clans to a Tribe, and the five Tribes of the Cuaha Nation. It is very important. Even the governance of our families and the building of our ships is built from the Law of Five.

But Eian is especially good at his calling. (Here, I saw what she meant, the man was lean yet well muscled in the manner of many of Demelldivan’s sailors, and his dark eyes never settled for long in one place. I also noted that the hilt of his dagger and his short Cuaha sword were very well worn from frequent use.) We have been to many ports the world over, but rarely have either of us set foot on dry land. Still, this is our eleventh or twelfth time in Demelldivan in as many cycles of the stars.

Every time we come here I can detect the subtle differences between this port and every other, though Eian claims there is nothing to distinguish Demelldivan’s harbor from any other we visit. There is something in the way the scent of your fishermen’s fresh catches of salmon, polin, and aliaen mingles with the stench of their cousins who were caught weeks before. Perhaps it has to do with the closeness of the Elves of Covince or the accents of your sailors as they shout and call to each other.

No matter. I do my bidding willingly. I am my family’s chosen representative to the merchants of your town, and Eian is the warrior assigned to see to my safety on land. Thus, we have set out from our ship, our home, into your land-bound homes. But, it takes time to adapt. Even lithe Eian slipped as he set foot on the rough and wooden dock, catching himself on a pylon, obviously disconcerted by the dock’s lack of motion. Most of my people are. Living our entire lives on the rolling decks of our ships has given my people an instinctive feel for the drop and swell of the sea. We sense this rhythm throughout our entire bodies. On land, we cannot feel this. And, being without this rhythm on land is like what goes through the mind of a child just taken from within its mother. First there is a sense of loss, followed by disconcertion and an overwhelming longing to return to the swell and buoyancy of water. I suppose it is like the first time one of you steps off land and onto a sea-bound ship. But fortunately my caste is taken to the land fairly often in our youth, following our parents in their meetings with your merchants, so the transition is noticeably easier for us, though the longing remains nonetheless.

But after my good Eian quickly recovered his balance and instantly fell in step behind me as I set off along the dock, the sound of sailors boasting of their deeds and cursing their captains enveloped us in a rhythm of its own. That is one thing you never hear on a Cuaha ship. No one curses their captain, for one’s captain is usually one’s parent or grandparent. I could tell from his look of thinly veiled disgust that Eian was unsettled. So I spoke quickly to reassure my companion, ‘We will not be long, my friend. The merchant we want has a stall a short distance from here. I shall tell him of our wares and our prices, and then we can return.’

Eian’s voice came over my shoulder as I could almost feel his eyes begin moving restlessly around the area taking in the dockhands and sailors. ‘I understand,” he intoned in a whisper, ‘Same as every landfall we make. Strike fast, strike true, and withdraw is an adage shared by both our castes.’

Perhaps I should explain my position better. My clan follows the same trade route each year, and my family, Irquea, is Clan Vlant’s source of traders, just as Family Cileve is the Clan’s source of warriors. Each member of my caste develops contacts with particular merchants along our route. I happen to have the most contacts in this city, so, barring illness, I make every landfall here. The same is true of my dealings in Menfillan south of here and my brother Aneul’s dealings in the towns of Roctun and Hillhome in the Dwarven nation of Zargonin where we represent the Clan in the wake of our esteemed parents. My brother lives on another ship of the Clan Vlant with his wife’s family the Falenta, who raise the Religious caste of the Clan. We see each other often, though, for all five ships of the Clan travel together, as is done in every clan of the Cuaha.

As we walked down your streets further into the city I kept glancing back over my shoulder at Eian. The Way of his caste has always fascinated me. His eyes roamed continually, never resting anywhere for longer than necessary for him to detect any looming threat. I guess my eyes do the same when I inspect a merchant’s wares or spear a fish. It was as he had said: ‘Strike fast, strike true, and withdraw.’

Then I looked back in front of me quickly and tripped on a loose cobble. Almost instantly I felt Eian’s rough fingers clasp my upper arm just enough to keep me from falling. (I glanced over and saw the warrior in question leaning back against the wall, eyes half closed, and with a faint smile on his lips. Nonetheless, even in his cat-like rest his narrowed eyes still crept around the room, taking in every movement.) Instantly I caught my balance and ran a hand through my hair, a habit I picked up as a child. ‘Thank you, Eian,’ I said. ‘These roads are treacherous, but I am fine.’

Eian released my arm and resumed his accustomed place a few steps behind me. I heard his voice carry over the noise of the crowded Wharf. ‘True. The Dirt-Walker workers don’t seem to grasp the concept of smoothness as well as our Workers do. Perhaps they do not take the same pride in their work.’

‘But pardon him, my newfound friend, he tends to speak his mind without regard for niceties.’ (As anyone would do for any polite young lady, I assured her that no offense was taken. Besides, I had no desire for conflict and there was still more of her tale to hear.)

I adopted the tone used by my mother when I sat at her knee and she spoke of the land-bound peoples. ‘I believe, my friend, it is more that they do not stake their lives on the quality of their work in shaping the roads. No one would necessarily die if a stone in the road is loose. But many may perish if someone trips on deck during a storm. To lose one’s feet is to come too far into Einia’s embrace.’

Apparently, my words had the desired effect, for Eian chuckled, “Ah, Ailea Irquea, Caste Fisher, speaks now as a Religious caste. What a day this is!’

I grinned. ‘This is no more a surprise than Eian Cileve, Caste Warrior, son of Warmistress Cnulei Cileve philosophizing when he is to be protecting the life of Ailea Irquea!’

Then I heard the uncharacteristic rattle of a stone from beneath Eian’s feet. I knew then that the lack of the sea’s rhythm continued to plague him. For Eian is not one to misplace his feet or to move with anything short of full calm assurance. So, as my caste is taught to do at a young age, I began a tale of the Cuaha lords and ladies of old who had made the northern sea routes through the Dragons’ Teeth safe for our ships just to take his mind off the evident desire to run back to our ship headlong.

We found the stall soon after the tale ended. Eian gave it the same skeptical look of distaste he’d given the first rickety ships we’d come upon in Grralt a few eight-days ago. Indeed, the shack was barely larger than the room my parents share on our family ship the Taijaen. But it wasn’t going to crumble any time soon. I assured Eian that the place had been leaning to starboard since the first time my father had brought me here.

But Eian still eyed the building warily. ‘I don’t mean to question your judgement, my dear Fisher, but, are you sure the owner can pay a good price for our wares?’

I nodded. ‘As good as any we can expect in this city. Few self-respecting landbound merchants will trade with us. But Hasic will pay well enough. He knows people who value our goods.’ Then I led Eian into Hasic’s shack.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s