Rest day. I was planning to begin studying the pouvra in earnest, but Sovrin barged into my room without knocking and said, “Put the book down and get out of bed, Sesskia, or I’ll drop you in the pool wearing all your clothes.” She’s big enough that I think she could do it, so I got dressed (I’m sleeping in that long-sleeved shirt and undershorts now, and the shirt is so comfortable I don’t even mind that it’s a little large) and went with her to the bathing room. Most of the women were already there, splashing around in the big pool or lying back in one of the smaller ones. I took off my clothes and put them in one of the cubbies—I forgot to mention this, there are shelves divided into foot-wide cubbies for storing clothing off the wet floor. The large pool slopes at one end, like wading into the surf but without the waves, and at the far end I think it’s about ten feet deep. I swam down to the bottom, forgetting that I didn’t want to get my hair wet, and felt a little current that told me the water was circulating. So Audryn was exaggerating a little about swimming in their own filth, but I still wouldn’t piss in the pool.
When I came up, Audryn had arrived, and there were about ten other women I knew to speak to, most of them from Sovrin’s group. About half the women could swim well, and the others paddled and splashed closer to the shallow end. We ended up talking about the ocean, because some of the women were from Helviran and had either lived on the coast or visited there often. It was strange, talking about a place I knew so well that was exactly like the one they knew in some respects and completely foreign in others. We worked out where Thalessa was, and it seems in this world there had been a few settlements there over the centuries that had eventually failed and disappeared, though no one knew why. I told them about Thalessa, the good things, and I made my job at the fishery sound funny rather than backbreakingly tedious and awful. I didn’t talk about Mam or my sisters, or how the magic woke up inside me, just that I’d left Thalessa at seventeen to travel the world in search of knowledge. And I downplayed the fact that I’m a thief. I don’t know what they’d make of that, but in Balaen it’s not something that engenders trust. So I glossed over some of the ways I’d acquired books, and focused instead on the books themselves. They were all interested in those, of course, and somewhere in the middle of the discussion I gave them my praenoma, and it didn’t feel at all awkward or wrong.
At that point, all our hands were a little pruny, and someone suggested we move the conversation to the refectory, because no one had eaten yet. I had to borrow another comb, which makes me wonder now if there’s any way I can get some things for myself instead of borrowing all the time. Everyone’s very generous, but I wish—I never had many things, but I left all of them behind, and I didn’t realize how much I cared about being independent even on the level of owning my own comb.
We had breakfast, and the conversation continued, attracting some of the men, who hovered around the edges of our company of women, making comments about being excluded that the women laughed at. They all wanted to know about my life, and my culture, and all sorts of things, and I talked until I was nearly hoarse, telling stories that made them laugh, or gasp, or both at the same time. I can’t believe how comfortable I felt. I know I wrote before that I was starting to feel like part of the group, but I meant I felt they’d accepted me as being committed to the same goals and capable of working alongside them. Now I feel as if I’m among friends. I haven’t had friends since
I haven’t ever had friends.
I never thought about it, and now I’m trying not to feel sorry for myself, but how could I, with the life I’ve lived? There have always been people I liked, people I worked with at the fishery, and before that kids I played with in the street, before Dad died and everything went to hell, but no one I’d call friend. It’s a miracle I even know what friendship looks like. And no, I’m still not that close to anyone here, but I know Sovrin and Audryn are becoming my friends, and Terrael just has no concept of not liking people. It’s…unexpected.
There. I’m done being self-indulgent. The point is that I had a wonderful morning that turned into a big, messy, noisy communal lunch, with people stealing food off other people’s plates and whoever was running the kitchen popping out now and then to complain that she wasn’t having any of the fun, though she entertained herself by arranging the food on plates to make humorous or sexually graphic designs. I asked where the food came from, if the Darssan was underground, and they told me about the growing cavern, with light provided by th’an that made sunlight, and about the huge storage chambers where the rest of the food is stored, and the cooling cabinets that contain frozen meat, also maintained by th’an. Then I told some stories about working as a reaper every harvest for the last three years, and the great harvest feasts at the end of the season. By the end, it degenerated into a food fight, but I made my escape before I was drawn into that. The last I saw, Sovrin had upended a table and was rallying her group behind it, armed with rolls provided by their friend in the kitchen and a big tub of mashed potatoes.
Before that, though—it didn’t occur to me to look for Sai Aleynten (I don’t care what he said later, I have trouble not thinking of him as that) until just before the food fight started, and then I realized I hadn’t seen him at all. It made me wonder when he ate, and I asked Terrael about it, and he said, “He eats in his room.”
Two days ago that information would have made me think of him as superior and smug. Now I said, “Isn’t he comfortable eating with the rest of you?”
Terrael said, “I don’t know. He just never eats in here. Even on rest days.”
“I think he thinks he makes us uncomfortable,” Audryn said. “And I think he’s right. Not that we don’t like him, but—I know I’m always conscious that he’s Sai Aleynten, whenever I’m around him.”
“That must be lonely,” I said, and Audryn and Terrael looked a little surprised, like it hadn’t occurred to them to think of it that way. “What does he do on rest days?” I asked.
Terrael shrugged and said, “I don’t know. He doesn’t work, or at least he doesn’t work in the cavern. I have trouble picturing him relaxing.”
“When Sai Vorantor was here, they used to play this strategy game that leaves me cross-eyed,” Audryn said.
“Who’s Sai Vorantor?” I asked.
Audryn and Terrael glanced at each other, and I had the feeling I was about to get an evasive half-truth for an answer. “He was Wrelan before Sai Aleynten,” Terrael said. “He…took a job in Colosse. He and Sai Aleynten were good friends.”
“Still are good friends,” Audryn said. “He comes back sometimes to…talk to Sai Aleynten about things.”
I wonder if I should have pushed them to tell me the truth. Something else happened with Sai Vorantor, I’m sure of it, and I hate not knowing the truth. But I didn’t know how to force them to be honest with me, so I let it go. Still, I plan to poke around a bit more and see what else I can learn about the mysterious Sai Vorantor.
“I think I’m going to read now,” I said. They both looked relieved I wasn’t going to pursue that line of conversation further.
“Not your research,” Audryn said. “That goes double for you, Terrael. It’s a rest day. Give yourselves time to rest. You’ll be more efficient in the morning if you do.”
“All right, but you have to play a couple of rounds of spo-rih-do with me,” Terrael said, which I thought was brave of him, since he was essentially inviting her to pair off with him. He still won’t meet her eyes, though. And I still can’t tell if Audryn knows how he feels.
“And I will read something that has nothing to do with work,” I assured Audryn, and bade them both goodbye just as the first fist-sized mound of mashed potatoes flew across the room.
(to be continued)