By Meyari McFarland
Chapter Four: Meeting Lady Ynes
“That’s Ntombi?” Cadfael asked as the ship glided towards Tilaria’s port.
“Yup, beautiful isn’t it?” Anwyn said with enough joy that Cadfael was tempted to be snappish at her just on principle.
They’d had fairly decent weather the last week and a half so Cadfael wasn’t as sick as he could have been. He could stand by the rail with Anwyn, watching Ntombi as it passed by and then Tilaria as they approached. Cadfael was grateful for that. Unfortunately for Cadfael, Anwyn was all but bouncing by his side, cheerful and delighted in all the ways that he wasn’t.
Still Tilaria, the capital of Ntombi, was beautiful. The walls around the city were as tall and possibly as wide as the ones around Aingeal City. He could just barely see flat rooftops beyond the walls. Where the walls back home were made of sturdy red brick like most of the buildings in the city, these walls were made of white stone that shimmered in the afternoon light. Cadfael peered at the walls, trying to figure out if it was a trick of the light or something more. When he looked at Anwyn, she grinned as if to dare him not to ask.
“Stop that,” Cadfael grumbled at her. “Why do the walls shimmer like that, Annie?”
“Mica,” Anwyn said with a laugh that he’d asked when she never would have. “The stone they’re made of is full of flakes of mica. It’s quite pretty up close. Most of the buildings in the city are made of it. There’s a huge quarry not too far outside of town that they use to get most of the stone.”
“A short answer would have been good enough.”
That got him a glare and the threat of getting smacked in the shoulder but Ula came over so Anwyn refrained. Cadfael leaned into Ula’s side, grateful for her protection and support as the ship tacked and heeled its way into the bay. The port itself was as noisy, busy and smelly as ports always were. He didn’t know enough about ship construction to know exactly how the ships in Ntombi differed from their ship but they were obviously lower to the water and broader. They also had only one mast with a big triangular sail instead of the Wave Dancer’s three masts and square sails. As soon as the towboat arrived with its huge, burly women, Ula abandoned his side, leaving him to Anwyn’s protection.
Cadfael stayed out of the way as much as possible, watching the women on the shore because there wasn’t much else that he could do. Not only was he too small to help out which was why Anwyn stayed out of the way with him, but he was too weak from being so sick all the way there. All of his belongs had been packed as soon as they rounded the point and headed into Tilaria Bay. There was a lot to see so for the most part he didn’t miss his embroidery too much.
The women in Ntombi were much darker than anyone Cadfael had ever seen. Anwyn had warned Cadfael about it during her lectures, but he hadn’t expected skin tones that ranged from mahogany brown to as black as onyx. They were tall and short, young and old, most with hair that fuzzed in curls so tight that it formed a halo around their heads. A few had sleek straight hair that was pitch black but they were fairly rare. It was odd seeing a population where curly hair was the dominant trait, not that Cadfael and Anwyn’s curls were as tight as the women’s here. Cadfael watched and wondered about the people on shore, his lightest shawl wrapped around his shoulders more for protection against their eyes than against the light breeze.
He was going to stick out so badly.
Between his pale skin, red hair and completely foreign clothes, everyone was going to stare. Most of the women wore baggy pants that belled around their ankles combined with simple strips of cloth wrapped to support their busts. He didn’t see a single male on the docks as they tied up so he didn’t know for sure that he was wearing clothes that were impossibly strange but he had to be. Not one single person had blue fabric that approximated the Dana blue kilt and vest he wore. He stayed at the rail as Anwyn went to retrieve his trunk.
“Come on, Caddie,” Anwyn called as she hefted his trunk onto her shoulder. “I see Ynes up on the shore!”
“Go on,” Ula said, passing him his little jewelry chest. She patted his back and encouraged him to go down the gangplank. “Enjoy solid land, Cadfael. You’ve got a month of it before we go home.”
“Lovely. Forty days of dry land and then another three months of throwing up,” Cadfael laughed, the sound coming out rueful but surprisingly amused given how little he was looking forward to that. “Good luck with unloading the ship, Ula.”
She smiled and kissed his forehead. “Thank you, Cadfael. It should be fairly simple. Everything we brought is already paid for so it’s only delivering it all and then supporting the two of you.”
She kept her hand on his back as she escorted him off the ship and up the dock. Anwyn, impulsive as always, had already run all the way to Lady Ynes’ side. Cadfael was intensely grateful for Ula’s escort. Every single sailor or dock worker watched him as he walked by, some of them as interested in him as a hawk spying on an unwary mouse. The littlest girls helping carry loads looked at him as if he was the strangest thing they’d ever seen. The older sailors watched with knowing smiles or, in one case, a wrinkled lip and too-loud comment on how ‘bleached’ he looked. Even the hugely obese woman who stopped Ula to talk about duty payments looked him over, head to toe and back again.
“Go on,” Ula told Cadfael. “I have to deal with this.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cadfael said.
He scurried the rest of the way to Anwyn’s side, heart beating far too fast. It would have been nice to blame the shakiness and quick heart beat on lost muscle tone from the journey but he knew it was anxiety at the way the huge dark women surrounding him stared at him. Anwyn patted Cadfael’s shoulder absently when he arrived.
“And this is him,” Anwyn said proudly enough that it made Cadfael blush and stare at Anwyn’s feet. “He came all the way from Aingeal just to help me with the treaty negotiations.”
“Oh Annie! He’s adorable!” Ynes gasped. She clapped her hands like a little boy delighted at a new toy.
Cadfael looked away from Anwyn’s feet to stare at their host. He looked up and then up some more and finally had to crane his neck to see Lady Ynes’ face. She was well over six feet tall, nearly seven feet, with that black skin that reminded him of dark wood. Ynes reminded him of a big old oak tree, tall and solid in ways that made him feel safe, perhaps because of Ula’s influence but also because she beamed when he actually looked at her face. Her long black hair had been put into hundreds of tiny braids. Each of the braids was tipped by colorful beads that clacked when she moved her head to grin at him. She wore a shirt that seemed to be decorated with leather straps.
“Dana Cadfael, meet Lady Ynes, first daughter of the second house of her Majesty Queen Jaleesa.” Anwyn said, for once in her life using proper manners and the second most formal tenses in Ntombian. “Ynes, meet my twin brother Dana Cadfael, who would probably like to get to your house and relax in the baths after three months on board the ship.”
Ynes threw her head back and filled the area with her booming laughter. The movement made the sunlight glint off a huge double-bladed axe hanging on her back. Now that he got a clearer look, he could see that the straps he’d thought were decorative were instead meant to hold the weapon in place.
Cadfael glanced at Anwyn, wondering why in the world a Lady would need to carry an axe with her everywhere she went. None of the other women in the area were armed, not even the woman driving the carriage that stood waiting for Lady Ynes. Granted, the second house was the military branch of the Ntombian ruling family, charged with defending the country and fighting all the battles, but it didn’t seem appropriate to wear a battle axe to pick up traders from the port. Anwyn shrugged as if that was just Ynes and to ignore it.
“Well, let’s get the two of you home, then, oosh’Anwyn’bram, slo’Cadfael’wum,” Ynes said with the familiar prefixes and suffixes used for close friends and family. She gestured grandly to the carriage waiting just up the street. “Shouldn’t take long at all.”
The carriage wasn’t at all what Cadfael was used to. Back home, the carriages were either simple carts with rough benches or elaborate enclosed affairs that had upholstery, springs and curtains on the windows. This one was low slung between wheels that extended out from the sides. When he sat on his seat, the wheel on his right side extended over his head as high as he could reach. It felt strangely like being in an enclosed space even though the carriage was open to the air and people’s eyes.
Lady Ynes took the seat that faced back the direction they’d come, sprawling across it with her legs spread to what Cadfael considered privately to be in indecent degree. She didn’t appear to mean anything by it; she was just so large that she took up most of the opposite seat. Anwyn and Cadfael took the seat that faced in the direction they were going. Anwyn bounced a little beside him with excitement.
“It’s very well padded,” Cadfael commented, one hand on Anwyn’s arm to keep her from kneeling on the seat so that she could see more as they began moving.
“Latest manufacture,” Lady Ynes said in nearly perfect Aingealese, though her accent was a little thick. “Annie brought some very interesting ideas on how to spring the axels so my cousins in the fourth house created this and a handful of others for us to try out.”
“You speak Aingealese quite well,” Cadfael said, relieved that there was at least one person who had made an effort to learn their language. The one trip where his hosts had flatly refused to learn even a single word of Aingealese had been quite horrible.
“I taught her,” Anwyn chuckled. “Well, I helped her with her accent. They’ve got notes and instructions from Great-Grandmother Anwyn’s visit, too.”
“Oh dear,” Cadfael said, moderately alarmed by that. “Not lessons from Great-Grandmother Anwyn herself, I hope?”
Both Lady Ynes and Anwyn burst out laughing. It was justified, he supposed, but he still blushed brightly at their amusement. He thought his worries were justified too given how much of a pirate their great grandmother had been during her visit here. Stealing the royal jewels and some ceremonial weapons was not the way to make friends. The entire clan had been working to sort the mess she’d created ever since.
“No, no,” Lady Ynes chuckled. “My Great-Aunt Zina’s notes, actually. She spoke with your relative Keelin and learned the language from her. I always found your language quite interesting.”
The driver twitched behind Lady Ynes’ head, glancing over her shoulder at Ynes as if she had just said something quite inappropriate. Cadfael noted that and then shrugged as if he didn’t quite understand Lady Ynes’ interest. Anwyn didn’t appear to have noticed the disapproval but Cadfael certainly had. Given that Anwyn’s general method of dealing with disapproval was to be bright and cheerfully obstinate about not changing her ways it was probably a good thing that she hadn’t noticed.
“It’s not like Ntombian,” Cadfael said in Ntombian dismissively while pointedly looking over Lady Ynes’ shoulder at the driver’s back. “There’s never one clear way to say anything. There are always a dozen words to choose from and a hundred ways to interpret any given statement.”
Lady Ynes’ eyes went wide for a moment and then she grinned. “That’s why I like it. It’s a confusing mess that’s fun to figure out. Granted, there are too many ways to say anything but I’ve always enjoyed puzzles. Aingealese is an entertaining puzzle. It’s as though an obraynjlaqui sat down to steal every single word and concept from every language that’s ever existed and mashed it all together and then decided that it was coherent enough.”
Cadfael spluttered into laughter, nodding his agreement. “That’s close enough to the truth to work! Our whole religion is built around the idea of people choosing their own destiny rather than following what the Tripartate Goddesses decree or the Ladies suggest. Great-Aunt Keelin described Aingealese as a language that stalks other cultures, mugs them in dark places and goes through their clothes for loose vocabulary to steal.”
That got the driver laughing along with Lady Ynes and Cadfael. To his relief the driver seemed to have relaxed with the teasing over Aingeal’s thoroughly irregular language. He relaxed back against the cushions and looked out between the spokes of the wheel. The carriage’s ride really was quite smooth and remarkably quiet, far more so than he would have expected. When he looked at the road, Cadfael realized that it was paved with huge blocks of the same white stone that made up the walls. They were large enough and placed well enough that it kept the jolting to a minimum.
Anwyn filled the silence that Cadfael had left with questions about the spices they’d come to trade for. He didn’t listen to Anwyn’s questions or the answers, more focused on the fact that they’d started going up a slight hill. The stones in the road weren’t laid as smoothly here so the carriage jolted more. Cadfael clutched the seat with one hand, the other arm wrapped around his stomach that quivered unhappily at the jolting.
“Stomach?” Lady Ynes asked right in the middle of one of Anwyn’s questions. “Cadfael?”
“Hmm?” Cadfael started, blushing as he realized that Lady Ynes was staring at him with a kind and somewhat more approving expression than would be expected from someone he’d just met. “Sorry, what did you say?”
“Is your stomach on the outs?” Lady Ynes asked. “We could stop if you need to.”
“Oh, no!” Cadfael said, horrified that she would even think of that. “No, I’ll be fine.”
“Truly, if you feel ill, we can stop, slo’Cadfael’slom,” Lady Ynes said.
The switch from ‘wum’ to ‘slom’ made Cadfael blush brilliantly. He had no idea what he’d done to make Lady Ynes think he was worth cultivating. She truly had no reason to be fond of him other than his relationship with Anwyn who was apparently Lady Ynes’ friend. Still, her approval might help the negotiations so Cadfael didn’t correct her.
“Wh-where exactly are we going? It’s not too far, is it, ish’Ynes’wum?” Cadfael asked after a couple of seconds of blushing under Lady Ynes’ approving gaze. He didn’t quite dare use the same familiar suffixes that Ynes had, sticking to the more formal ones used for those you’d recently met but expected to become close to. He certainly wasn’t going to use the prefix that gave them equal rank as Ynes had. “I mean, general direction.”
“See that big building with all the trees around it?” Lady Ynes said still in Ntombian, pointing over her shoulder.
Cadfael craned his neck, looking around her and the driver of the carriage, before nodding. “Yes?”
“That’s home,” Lady Ynes said so proudly that he couldn’t help but smile at her. “Probably be a good bit different from what you’re used to. Annie’s explained that you Aingealese build compact. We tend to spread out. The whole complex is only two stories high but it has about twice as many rooms as your Dana clan house has.”
“I counted,” Anwyn said when he turned to stare at her. “It’s huge. Beautiful gardens too.”
“I’m going to get so lost,” Cadfael sighed.
“Nah, if you can find your way around our home, Ynes’ place will be easy,” Anwyn reassured him. “It’s a very simple layout. Men on one side in the harem, women on the other side. You’ll be spending most of your time with Ynes’ brother on the men’s side.”
“We’ll be there in a quarter hour or so,” Lady Ynes said. “But we can stop if you need it. Truly.”
The gentle way that she said it reminded Cadfael strongly of Ula’s gentle worries about him during the voyage. He ducked his head and blinked back the irrational tears that he refused to allow to drop. After spending so long on the ship anticipating what was on the other end, Cadfael was surprised to find that he was being treated kindly instead of like an annoying addition to the mission. What little he’d learned of Ntombian society said that men were kept separate from the women virtually all the time. To have Lady Ynes be this concerned over his health and well-being was surprising and very welcome.
“If we’re that close then I’ll be fine,” Cadfael said. “I’m just nervous. Meeting new people always makes me off balance.”
“Well, hopefully things will go well when you meet vlo’Macario’blim,” Lady said with enough doubt that Cadfael stared first at her and then at Anwyn.
Macario had to be important as Lady Ynes had given him equal rank and her blatant adoration of him showed in the suffix. Cadfael swallowed hard. This was obviously the person he had to impress above all others. Anwyn wouldn’t meet his eyes. She determinedly turned the conversation back to the spices in that entirely too cheerful and determined tone of voice that always meant that she wasn’t going to touch that comment with a ten foot barge pole. Cadfael was on his own when it came to dealing with Lady Ynes’ brother Macario.
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