By Meyari McFarland
Chapter Seven: In The Baths
Cadfael stared at him with enough shock that both Hamid and Macario started laughing. They were quiet laughs and not hostile at all but Cadfael still blushed. Hopefully the blush was hidden under the flush from the heat of the bath but Cadfael doubted that. He didn’t think that he would ever understand how someone could look at him and assume that he was nice or popular. No one in any of the countries he’d ever visited had thought he was nice. His behavior always made it clear that he wasn’t popular, at least not in ways that Cadfael was comfortable with. Popular for women to flirt uncomfortably with was completely different from Aravel’s generally adored state.
Rather than draw attention to his blush, he shifted position a little so that he wasn’t quite so deep in the water. The pool had benches built into it all around the edges. Hamid and Macario had both settled on the far end away from the steps, soaking in water up to their necks. Cadfael was too short for that and the water was considerably hotter than he was used to so he eased back closer to the steps so that his upper body and arms could be out of the water. Cadfael shook his head before looking at both of them.
“Seriously, what did Vlo’Aravel’blim do?” Cadfael asked a bit more desperately than he intended. “He’s the perfect, cheerful, beloved one in the family, not me.”
Hamid snorted and shook his head at that. As hard as it was for Cadfael to understand Aravel offending everyone, it appeared to be twice as hard for Hamid to accept that he was normally loved and well behaved. Macario leaned back against the tiles, eyes mostly shut but Cadfael could see how he watched Cadfael’s reactions. This had to be a test to see if Cadfael would behave in a fashion that they found appropriate.
Cadfael wished wildly for a moment that he’d had time to question Aravel in depth on what had happened during his visit. At the very least it would have been nice to know what the expectations were for male behavior in Ntombi. If they were truly that different from what was expected in Aingeal then Cadfael could offend everyone without even trying, as Aravel apparently had.
“I can’t imagine why,” Hamid grumbled. “That boy was absolutely impossible. Pouting, stubborn, rude, infinitely distractible, just… horrible. We were so glad to see him leave.”
“We don’t mean to offend,” Macario said somewhat placatingly, while glaring at his uncle for his open rudeness. “Vloo’Aravel’ziq truly was quite difficult to deal with. His behavior was far out of bounds, to the point that none of us could interact with him comfortably. Towards the end of the trip we lived in abvlaynvla whenever he left his rooms.”
“Fortunately he rarely did so other than to bathe towards the end of his visit,” Hamid said, glaring at the door to the baths as if expecting Aravel to arrive at any moment. “It got to the point that we would not come to the baths if he was here.”
When Cadfael stared at Macario to ask for confirmation of that, Macario shrugged just enough to shift the water around his shoulders and nodded. Cadfael huffed, scooting a little more out of the water so that the heat didn’t go to his head. He really shouldn’t soak too long, not after keeping so little food down for so long and being so much weaker than normal. Neither Macario nor Hamid seemed to think there was anything strange about his skinniness or the way he edged out of the water, so Cadfael didn’t mention it. With the whole problem of Aravel’s poor behavior, Cadfael was somewhat afraid of admitting that he wasn’t at his best. Better that they think he simply couldn’t handle hot baths.
“That’s so odd.” Cadfael shook his head because the thought of Aravel acting that way simply didn’t make sense at all. “Normally that’s me. I have a temper that’s legendary in the family. I’m rude and snappish with practically everyone I talk to. Of course, not a one of them listens to a word I say unless I’m terribly rude so really, they do bring that on themselves. It’s just… odd. Vlo’Aravel’blim being grumpy; I can’t quite wrap my mind around that. He’s always so cheerful and sweet at home.”
Their discussion stopped as four little boys ran into the baths, laughing and squealing as men who had to be their fathers tried to stop them from running around the room and slipping on the damp tiles. Two of the children looked to be about six or seven years old while the other two were about four years old. They were twins, alike enough that it would have been hard to tell them apart if it weren’t for their different clothes and mildly different hairstyles. All four of them wore simple wrap tops without sleeves and loose pants like Macario’s that were cut to end at their calves. It looked like the fabric was sturdy, though it was hard to tell given that the children’s clothes had been dyed in bright colors with exaggerated flower and leaf patterns.
Their fathers had full-length pants and sleeved tops, one in shockingly bright pink and the other in a pale creamy orange that quite flattered his coloring. Like their sons, they appeared to be twins. A third older man who looked remarkably like Macario except that his skin was significantly lighter followed them. He smiled at Macario and Hamid. When he spotted Cadfael he stiffened and glared as if expecting something horrible to happen at any moment. Cadfael turned and looked at Macario who started laughing at the sheer disbelief that had to be on his face.
“He is that beloved in Aingeal?” Hamid asked, his lips twitching with amusement at Cadfael.
“Vlo’Aravel’blim can do no wrong,” Cadfael said while waving his hands in front of him forcefully enough to spray droplets of water halfway across the pool. “Literally, he only has to smile and bat his eyes and everyone, female and male, falls over themselves to give him what he wants. He’s hugely popular. This is just… unbelievable.”
The older set of twins stopped in their tracks as they saw Cadfael. He couldn’t stop his jaw from dropping in sheer shock that the boys seemed afraid that he was going to do something to hurt them. Both of them clutched their fathers’ pants legs, staring at Cadfael with such suspicious expressions that he dropped his face into his hand and groaned. Aravel couldn’t have offended the children. He couldn’t have. Children adored Aravel and he adored them too. Anytime you needed to find Aravel back in the Dana Clan house you listened for the sound of children laughing and Aravel was sure to be there. How in the Tripartate Goddesses’ names could he have offended the children too?
“Is he going to be mean?” one of the boys asked his father.
“The other one was mean,” his twin agreed.
“I don’t know, Nanjir, Ochi,” the man said with a hard look at Cadfael who whined quietly and curled in himself because he had no idea how to fix this mess. Children; how had Aravel offended the children? “We’ll see. Come get clean now, boys. No bath time without scrubbing first.”
Nanjir and Ochi allowed their father to herd them over to where the younger twins were giggling while their father tried to take their clothes off. It didn’t take very long before Nanjir and Ochi were laughing too, helping their little brothers (cousins?) wash their backs and then helping wash their fathers’ backs in a noisy tangle of laughing kids and adults that made Cadfael smile fondly. He scooted a little deeper into the water only to shake his head and sit on the edge of the tub when his head swam like fish going upstream against a flood.
“Too hot for me,” Cadfael murmured.
“Some more scrubbing, I think,” Macario said.
Hamid flapped a hand at the two of them, his eyes entirely too intent when Cadfael wobbled on standing up. He didn’t fall down but only because Macario slipped a hand under his elbow to stabilize him. The washing helped, letting Cadfael cool down, as did the fact that the next pool that they settled into was considerably cooler than the first one though it was still pleasantly warm.
When he settled in beside Macario, Hamid was there along with the older man who had to be Macario’s father despite the fact that he was clearly Chinwenduese rather than Ntombian. The smooth black hair, paler skin and slanted eyes were a give-away. They looked entirely too much alike for them not to be related to each other. Macario patted Cadfael’s thigh under the water as they settled into the bath, making him start instead of calming him down.
“Vloo’Cadfael’slom, this is my father vla’Jinhai’blim,” Macario said, his chin raised defiantly at his father’s start of surprise at the friendly form. “Vla’Jinhai’blim, this is Dana Cadfael.”
“Who actually isn’t as horrible as his brother vloo’Aravel’ziq,” Hamid commented. “Seems quite reasonable, in my opinion. He at least has some command over proper manners, unlike that brother of his.”
“What did he do?” Cadfael all but wailed. “Did he offend everyone from the first moment he opened his mouth?”
Jinhai laughed, as did Hamid and Macario. Macario wobbled one hand while shrugging as if to say that more or less, yes, Aravel had offended everyone the moment he arrived. Cadfael stared at him, trying to find something to say and completely failing because it was so impossible to comprehend. Aravel had never in his entire life offended this many people. The few times that Cadfael had seen him offend anyone the incident had blown over as soon as Aravel clasped his hands in front of his chest and apologized with those wide eyes that looked so utterly innocent. The fact that Aravel actually tended to be incredibly innocent despite his flirting probably helped but somehow it hadn’t worked here.
“I just… I cannot comprehend this,” Cadfael huffed in Aingealese because he couldn’t find words in Ntombian that conveyed his shock. “He’s perfect. He’s always been the perfect boy. Everyone adores him! How in the Tripartate Goddesses’ names could he have misread the tides this badly?”
Hamid’s eyes went narrow as Cadfael switched languages while Jinhai just frowned slightly. All three of them, Macario included, started snickering at the final befuddled question. None of them had a chance to explain their amusement though, as the kids and their fathers arrived at their pool. The kids tumbled in, splashing around until they found laps to sit in.
To Cadfael’s surprise Nanjir ended up in his lap. Cadfael suspected that it was because Nanjir found his pale skin and freckles fascinating but that was okay. He didn’t mind cuddling a small boy as long as he didn’t kick, pinch, or bite. The way Nanjir stared at the freckles on Cadfael’s shoulders did make him a little nervous but all Nanjir did was pour water on Cadfael’s shoulders so he shrugged it off, instead looking to Macario who grimaced over Ochi’s head.
“Vloo’Aravel’ziq … assumed that he would be ah, allowed free access to the women’s side of the house,” Macario said carefully enough that Cadfael realized that he was choosing his words carefully so that he wouldn’t say things inappropriate around the children. “That’s not allowed here. Men and women don’t interact unless they’re married and even then our lives are quite separate.”
“He got quite put out over that,” Hamid confirmed. “One would think the boy had never gone without female company in his entire life.”
“From what he said,” Jinhai said, “he hadn’t.”
“Still wasn’t appropriate for him to do all those… things,” Hamid huffed. “Pouting and waving at the women through the grills, trying to sneak outside of the men’s quarters where he wouldn’t be safe. It was scandalous.”
“That would throw Vlo’Aravel’blim over the rails,” Cadfael said as he nodded slowly. “Men and women mix together freely back home. They can have the same jobs, go to the same schools, live without restrictions. More or less. I mean, there’s common sense keeping yourself safe but Vlo’Aravel’blim’s always been able to spend all his time around women if he wishes. And generally he does. I’ve never been comfortable around women so I prefer to stay home where it’s safe.”
Cadfael carefully didn’t say that most of Aravel’s time with women was spent on romance or sex. He didn’t want to traumatize the kids either. From the expressions on the adults faces it was quite clear that they already knew that Aravel had a lot of sex. It was equally clear that they profoundly disapproved of that, making Cadfael quite nervous about his little thing with Ula on the way here. Granted it had been mostly for his own protection but what if they all looked down on Cadfael for it? After all, a baby was on the way because of Cadfael’s decision to take things farther than simple snuggling.
Maybe the heart of the matter was a fundamental difference between how men and women interacted. Aravel would have resented having anyone tell him that he had to stay in the men’s quarters and not talk to whomever he wanted. Given his attitudes about sex, he would have truly resented being kept away from women he found interesting. Maybe Anwyn had been telling the truth when she said that all Cadfael had to do was be himself. He seemed to fit in better here than back at home, that was certain.
“Mingle freely?” Jinhai asked.
“Yes,” Cadfael said. He smiled as Nanjir squirmed, pulling one arm around his chest so that he could stare at the freckles on Cadfael’s forearm and hand. “You see, legally, men have equal status to women. We’re able to hold jobs, own businesses, choose our own marriages and live our lives completely as we wish. In practice it doesn’t actually work that way, but theoretically speaking, a man could live his life just like a woman could, going out and doing business just like them.”
From the looks on the adults’ faces, none of them could imagine how that would work. Cadfael suspected that Hamid didn’t want to try to figure it out while the boys’ fathers looked as though they thought it was a horror. Jinhai and Macario, however, had faintly thoughtful expressions. Jinhai’s shaded towards distaste while Macario’s shaded towards curiosity.
“Ow.” Cadfael started as Nanjir pinched one of the freckles on his arm. “They don’t come off.”
“They look like they should,” Nanjir said, peering at his skin with his nose practically pressed to Cadfael’s arm. “They’re like little spots of paint.”
“Freckles,” Cadfael explained, grinning at Nanjir. “Darker spots on my skin. That’s all they are. Sort of like moles but not bumps on the skin.”
All four of the boys swam over to poke at his freckles and play with his hair. Cadfael grinned at their questions about Aingeal and what people looked like and why anyone would have hair that looked like fire. Ochi seemed quite fascinated by Cadfael’s hair, pulling out the stick holding it up so that he could gently card his fingers through Cadfael’s hair, making it splay outwards in the water like scarlet sea weed.
Cadfael kept them from pinching or tugging his hair by telling stories of the Dana Clan house and its many passages and stairways as they moved from pool to scrubbing some more to another pool that was delightfully cool. The boys turned out to actually be six and four respectively with Nanjir and Ochi being older and little Umar and Taji the younger. By the time the slaves set to work on drying and styling Cadfael’s hair, their fathers Azizi and Dankov had offered stories of their wives, Ynes and Macario’s younger sisters. They were apparently nearly as tall as Ynes and warriors as well. He couldn’t help but be amused by how much Azizi and Dankov seemed to love their wives. It was sweet.
“Ish’Ynes’slom never married?” Cadfael asked as he sat patiently under the slaves’ careful ministrations on the mass of curls drying along his back. They seemed quite certain they could turn it into something less than a frizzy mess so Cadfael let them work without objection.
“No,” Macario said. He was busy braiding his surprisingly straight hair with his father Jinhai’s help. Rather than one braid, he was making a whole series of braids about the size of Umar and Taji’s little fingers. “She always claimed that she hadn’t met a man who was interesting enough but I think it’s more a matter of enjoying her work as the General of the Armies too much to take the time for courting another house for an appropriate son.”
“I really should have listened more closely to Anwyn’s lectures on the way here,” Cadfael sighed. “I didn’t realize that Ynes was truly a general.”
“She’s first daughter of the second house,” Jinhai said proudly. “Of course she’s a general. She’s the strongest general Ntombi has had for three generations.”
Macario rolled his eyes and smiled at Cadfael as his uncle, father and brothers-in-law started comparing stories of Ynes and her sisters’ greatest battles. The boys took the distraction as opportunity to start laughing and playing tag together. Rather than listen to stories of battles that Cadfael would never see or learn about, he went with Macario to get the boys dressed and then out of the baths for playtime somewhere else.
Taji pulled back as Cadfael followed them towards the dressing area, eyeing Cadfael nervously. “Not going to grab?”
“What?” Cadfael asked, stunned.
“Your brother was rather rough with the boys,” Macario explained. “He frightened them fairly badly with how… strong and forward he was.”
“He was mean,” Ochi complained while hugging Taji. “It was scary. He’d grab us and spin us around and laugh. I didn’t like that.”
“Uh-uh,” Taji agreed.
“Oh dear,” Cadfael sighed. “No, I won’t be rough or grab you, not unless you’re doing something dangerous. I’m not as strong as my brother is and I was quite ill on the way here. I just thought maybe you could help me dress. I’ve not worn your clothes before.”
That made all the boys smile. Nanjir proudly pulled out their clothes explaining that these were pants and this was a top and it tied this way around your body while making an absolute mess of the bow. Macario laughed as he unpicked the knot and retied it for Nanjir. Taji and Umar helped Cadfael pick a set of pants that more or less fit him. They were too long and dragged a bit at the heel but loose enough that he almost felt like he was wearing sleep pants or a kilt. All four of the boys argued over which shirt would be best for Cadfael to wear, Nanjir measuring the sleeves against Cadfael’s arms until they found the one that the slaves had set aside. All four of them pronounced it perfect once Cadfael put it on. Cadfael could hear Hamid, Jinhai, Azizi and Dankov chuckling about that in the background.
As he helped little Umar pull on his pants and tie them securely, Cadfael found himself smiling. Even if they didn’t truly trust Cadfael, they were treating him well enough. It was strange and wonderful after being miserable at home for so long. Macario and his family at least seemed willing to give Cadfael a chance to be himself without too many preconceptions other than Aravel’s mistakes. The freedom to be himself without worrying about what his family might think was dizzying, or maybe that was lack of food combined with his sea sickness weakening him. He caught Umar and Taji’s little hands as they left the baths, following Macario.
Maybe the stay wouldn’t be as bad as he’d expected.
NOTE: You can find explanations of the various prefixes and suffixes, as well as a sorta-dictionary, sorta-story on Ntombi over here.
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