Once again, it’s time for a Novel Monday and the next chapter of Fitting In.
By Meyari McFarland
Chapter Eight: Little Boys
“Wearing pants in public feels very strange to me,” Cadfael observed as they walked the kids from the baths out into a sheltered garden area that had high walls painted with colorful geometric designs.
The gardens were quite lovely with the same close-cropped grass that he’d seen in front and shrubs that had obviously been well pruned and shaped. Not a one of the shrubs looked truly natural, though. Instead of round or square shapes as would be normal back in Aingeal, the shrubs here had been carefully molded to take on artfully windswept appearances, as though they were on a mountain top far away. Behind them were trees that had also been pruned for a similar appearance, giving the garden the feeling of someplace rugged and wild.
Except for the corner they were in; a low brick fence separated the boys’ play area from the rest of the garden. They had little benches and a sandbox, a big box full of outdoor toys like carts on wheels and various sorts of wooden steeds. There were little buckets and shovels too. The one slave tending to the plants bowed when they came outside but returned to his work immediately.
“Why?” Taji asked, tugging Cadfael’s hand to get his attention. “Why? Why?”
“Because I’m used to wearing kilts, Taji,” Cadfael explained with a little grin at how serious the boy was. “I’ve only worn pants for sleeping in before.”
That prompted Umar to stare up at him and tug his hand to get attention too. “Why? Kilts are for girls, not boys!”
“Skirts are for girls,” Cadfael declared with enough conviction that Macario started laughing and the kids all stared at him in awe. “Kilts are for boys. They’re sewn totally differently. Women’s hips ruin how the pleats lie on kilts.”
“Really?” Umar and Taji breathed, eyes wide with awe.
“But why?” Nanjir asked. “Can’t the pleats be shaped for girls bodies too?”
“I can show you if you have some fabric to play with,” Cadfael said. “It works differently.”
He gratefully sat on one of the benches as Nanjir and Ochi ran back inside to get their sewing kits. They had some scarves that they’d been practicing embroidery on that were long enough and more or less wide enough to use as demonstrations of what he meant. Umar and Taji watched with wide eyes as Cadfael carefully pleated the scarves in the center for form the center front of a child-size kilt but they drifted off to the sandbox as Ochi repeated the process for the back side of the kilt. The scarves were just wide enough to make it possible.
“But how do you get in and out of the kilts?” Nanjir asked while staring at Ochi and his pretend kilt.
“See how it’s open on the sides?” Cadfael said, pointing to the bits that hadn’t been pleated. “You fold this part down and that part down, however deep you’re comfortable with, and that makes the opening. The waistband has sashes that wrap around from the front and back to hold it on. One always wears an underkilt and petticoats with a kilt so that one looks proper but the little peek of fabric at the sides is considered… attractive?”
“Very small gaps,” Azizi commented from the doorway.
Cadfael started, looking around for Macario and only then realizing that he’d disappeared. There were several other slaves in the area now, three of which were cleaning up the little table close to the sandbox. Azizi smiled at him, nodding once again at Ochi’s mock kilt.
“Your brother had much larger gaps at the sides of his kilt,” Azizi explained.
“I know,” Cadfael said, smiling wryly because he certainly wasn’t going to explain that the reason Aravel preferred as large of gaps as possible was because it made it easier to be with women. “Vlo’Aravel’blim tends to be rather um, fond of freedom of movement. I tend to be quite shy so I prefer very small gaps, just large enough to get the kilt on.”
Nanjir ran over to tug at his father’s hands, bouncing on his toes with excitement. “Can we make kilts for our dolls? Please?”
Azizi looked at Cadfael, raising an eyebrow to ask whether he was willing to teach the boys. Cadfael nodded and smiled, more than happy to spend some quiet time sitting and sewing, even if it did include sewing lessons. His nod made both Nanjir and Ochi cheer. Ochi threw his hands up in delight, allowing the pleated scarves to fall to the ground. He started crying over that which necessitated cuddles and some hugs while Nanjir ran to get their dolls and scraps of fabric from somewhere.
As soon as Nanjir and Ochi had settled on either side of Cadfael, Azizi headed over to the sandbox to supervise Umar and Taji’s play. Cadfael put them out of his mind, happy to forget everything other than the quiet joy of shaping fabric into something beautiful and useful. The world still lurched a bit as he worked but that probably had more to do with the lingering effects of having been on board for so long. Either way, Cadfael ignored his head, the way his stomach occasionally complained and the rising heat as he taught Nanjir and Ouchi how to make kilts properly.
Nanjir and Ochi had advanced enough skills that teaching them wasn’t difficult at all. They couldn’t measure and cut the fabric by themselves but once it had been cut for them they did very well aligning the kilts and shaping them with their fingers so that there was the correct amount of spread from the top to bottom. He looked up from helping Ochi get the pleats laying right for his doll and realized that all four of the boys had been left alone with him.
Sometime during the lesson Azizi had disappeared too, but Cadfael had no idea when. There were slaves in the area keeping a watchful eye over all of them but that was all. That he’d be trusted to watch over the boys surprised Cadfael so badly that Nanjir peered up at him with a curious expression. Cadfael shrugged the concern off and checked his work, smiling at how neat and even his stitches were.
“Very nice,” Cadfael told Nanjir. “Your stitches are very even. I wasn’t that good when I was your age.”
“How about mine?” Ochi asked, holding up his doll and its new kilt.
Cadfael made enough of a show of examining the quality of Ochi’s sewing that Taji and Umar ran over from where they’d been playing in huge sandbox to see what was going on. It really was very good work with nice even pleats and solid stitching. Ochi held his breath until Cadfael smiled at him and patted his head gently.
“It’s very good too,” Cadfael replied. “You got all the pleats very even all the way around. That’s one of the hardest things about making a kilt.”
“Yay!” Ochi cheered. “I did it!”
“You did,” Cadfael laughed. “Very well, too.”
Ochi beamed and then laughed as Taji and Umar climbed into Cadfael’s lap to tug at his shirt and braid. They were covered in sand which necessitated everyone getting a good brushing off, by which point Macario came back with a tray covered with fruit, small rolls that looked as though they had been steamed and a huge pitcher of a yellow drink that Cadfael didn’t recognize.
“Lunch time,” Macario said. His expression suggested that he was pleased with how things had gone during his absence.
The boys cheered as they ran over to dance around Macario’s feet. He settled the tray on the table in a shady spot by the wall, smiling his approval as Cadfael gathered up Ochi and Nanjir’s sewing supplies and their dolls. Cadfael moved slowly, not wanting to overexert himself in the heat. It really was quite warm in the garden. He managed to hide the wobble in his knees by putting Nanjir and Ochi’s sewing things away, buying himself enough time to make his legs cooperate with the walk over to the table.
Lunch was as energetic as any meal with small children ever was. Macario took Ochi and Nanjir while Cadfael minded Taji and Umar, more out of necessity than desire. The boys wanted to climb into his lap to eat and that started a minor fight between the twins. Cadfael solved that one by letting them snuggle against his sides and watching as the boys ate.
The buns were steamed and filled with a spicy meat and fruit combination that had sauce that Cadfael was quite curious about. It looked as though it must be quite tasty but Cadfael didn’t get more than two bites before his stomach quite violently rejected the thought of food. He managed not to throw up right there at the table by swallowing quite hard repeatedly. Fortunately, Macario was focused on Nanjir and Ochi so he missed that. Unfortunately, the buns were very sticky and got all over the little boys’ faces, hands and clothes.
“Hmm, I think we’re going to need to wash up, boys,” Cadfael said once the boys had eaten. He carefully didn’t look at the plate of food that was going to go to waste due to his stomach’s rebellion.
“Awwwww,” Taji complained.
“Unless you want to turn into a giant ball of sand you do need to wash,” Cadfael said, tapping Taji’s slightly sticky nose with one finger. “Back to the baths?”
“There’s a wash basin over here!” Umar declared, pointing towards the wall of the house.
Umar showed Cadfael the little fountain that the boys used for washing up. It was tucked into a wall on the house, with water that spilled over and splashed into a basin that was just the right height for small children to use. There were towels tucked into an alcove next to the fountain so apparently they were quite right about it being a wash station.
Just as Umar and Taji were as clean as Cadfael could make them Ochi and Nanjir ran over to have him help too. Macario watched from the background, straightening up the table. The slaves were watching closely as well, all of them apparently waiting for something to happen. Cadfael fought a smile. If this wasn’t Macario’s way to testing to see if he was going to nice or horrible then Cadfael was six feet tall.
To his relief, Ochi and Nanjir were much less messy than their younger cousins. By the time they were clean the garden was warm enough that Cadfael felt light-headed when he stood up. He braced one hand on the wash basis, breathing slowly and carefully so that he didn’t pass out. Nanjir caught his hand, staring up at him with a frown that was entirely too mature for his age.
“Are you okay?” Nanjir asked.
“I’m a bit tired and overheated,” Cadfael admitted. “Maybe we can go inside where it’s cooler? Would that be all right?”
“Uh-huh,” Nanjir said fiercely enough that he sounded like a girl. “Inside! Come on. Your brother passed out when he got too hot. Don’t want that to happen. You’re nice, not like him.”
“What’s wrong?” Macario asked as Nanjir pulled Cadfael towards the door.
“I’m a bit overheated,” Cadfael called back to him, smiling wryly and then laughing as all four of the boys came to push and pull him inside. “Can you bring their sewing things? They shouldn’t stay outside.”
Macario nodded. Cadfael just had time to see Macario turn to the slaves before they were inside. Nanjir pulled Cadfael through the house, towing him along like a row boat directing a much larger ship into port. Ochi ordered the slaves and servants they passed to leave Cadfael alone while Taji and Umar held doors and chattered to everyone they passed that Cadfael was too hot and needed to go somewhere cool to rest.
They weren’t wrong so Cadfael didn’t say anything. His blush was taken as proof that he was desperately overheated however. By the time they ended up in a cool room with soft cushions and wide windows covered with elegant carved grills that let the wind blow through, Cadfael was convinced that he’d never stop blushing ever again.
“Are you going to be okay?” Macario asked as the boys’ fathers came to collect them. He brought a tray with a glass of the juice from outside.
“Eventually,” Cadfael said. He sipped the yellow drink that he hadn’t had a chance to try outside, raising his eyebrows at the tart flavor. “This is wonderful. But yes, I will. In a few days I’m sure I’ll be used to the heat and my stomach will have recovered from the trip here. It will take me a little while to recover. I always do very poorly after sea voyages so passing out or being too weak to do anything much is to be expected, I’m afraid.”
Macario frowned at Cadfael. “You get that sea sick?”
“Yes,” Cadfael said, daring a second sip of the juice and then sighing as his stomach reacted poorly to it. “I do. It can’t be helped. That’s part of why I didn’t want to come here. I knew that I’d lose a lot of weight and be significantly weaker by the time we arrived.”
The revelation that Cadfael got severely sea sick made Macario’s jaw drop open. After a moment he snapped his mouth shut and glared at the door as if furious over something. From his expression, Cadfael thought that Macario was thinking about yelling at someone. Cadfael snorted and nudged his foot with one toe. When Macario looked at him, still frowning, Cadfael laughed and shook his head.
“Really, I’m not surprised that you’re testing me,” Cadfael said in Aingealese. Macario blushed hard enough that his cheeks turned two shades darker. “If Aravel truly was that horrible during his visit then it makes sense. You don’t want to have a repeat and for heaven’s sake, Anwyn did say that this was an important trade negotiation. You need a sense of what we’re like and Aravel obviously didn’t do a good job impressing everyone here.”
“Oh, he impressed us,” Macario replied, also in Aingealese. His accent was quite good, if a little thick on the ‘r’s. He settled back on the cushions to study Cadfael. “It just wasn’t a good impression.”
“So shocked by that,” Cadfael sighed as he set down the drink half-finished. “He’s usually so good at this sort of thing. Not that it really matters. Annie told me to be myself and have fun, which I think I probably will once I feel better. She’s the one handling the negotiations as far as I know. I was told that my part was to analyze the treaty for flaws once it was complete and that will take a little while.”
Macario stared at him, that half-hostile, half-approving look back in his eyes. “What do you want to do in the meantime?”
Cadfael sighed and looked at the room so that he didn’t have to meet Macario’s eyes while he thought about it. If Aravel had been himself, he would have first tried to spend time with the women, which from what Cadfael had seen was absolutely forbidden. Then he would have tried to do things for Macario and his family, but Aravel’s attempts to help usually involved him being over-enthusiastic and taking charge of whatever it was until he got bored. Macario didn’t look like the sort to appreciate someone taking his authority away, no matter how cheerful they were about it. And if Aravel had pouted, which obviously he had, then he would have been absolutely miserable to deal with.
It was decidedly odd to find that Cadfael was more comfortable somewhere than Aravel. Nice, certainly, but odd. He turned back to Macario, gently rubbing his stomach. So far it hadn’t demanded that he vomit up the food or drink he’d had today but Cadfael knew that he was likely to have another couple of days of his stomach being touchy about everything before he could eat and drink normally.
“Honestly,” Cadfael said, “I’d appreciate the chance to just rest for a few days before doing anything like negotiations or treaty analysis. I’ve been throwing up at least three times a day for the last couple of months. Keeping any food down has been a horrible challenge so I’m not exactly at my best.”
“You weren’t sick with an illness?” Macario asked as if alarmed for the boys. “Something contagious?”
“No, it’s just sea sickness,” Cadfael explained. “I truly don’t do well on things that move. Even the carriage we rode to get here made me a bit nauseous. Frankly, I’d love to just rest and relax, perhaps play with the boys. They’re adorable. I certainly need to work on putting on weight. I know I lost far too much weight on the way here. My clothes had to be taken in.”
Macario stood up, waving for Cadfael to stay where he was. He stomped out of the room, firmly shutting the door behind him. Cadfael shrugged and relaxed. There wasn’t much that he could do about whatever Macario was upset about. If he was reading things right then Macario had a great deal more power than Cadfael had initially assumed. Someone, somewhere, was going to be yelled at. He didn’t know why yet but there was going to be yelling.
Cadfael looked out the window, not that there was much to see beyond well-trimmed grass and the huge rose hedge. He could just remember Anwyn talking about how things worked in Ntombi and the ways they differed from home. The harems had been something that Cadfael had paid a great deal of attention to, not that Anwyn had offered him much information on them. All she’d said was that the men and women lived separate lives, with the men safely staying in harems while the women took care of all the business of Ntombi. That didn’t make sense of the amount of authority that Macario and Hamid seemed to command. Maybe there was more to it than Anwyn had been able to discover.
Every trip to Ntombi so far had resulted in the family back home asking questions about who made things and how the economy worked. Cadfael had to wonder if maybe the harems were the answer to those questions and Macario was the key to figuring out the harem.
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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Or you can just wait and I’ll post the rest week by week. :D