Once again, it’s Monday so I have a chapter of Fitting In to share. :)
By Meyari McFarland
Chapter Nine: Gentle Jinhai
“Hungry?” Jinhai asked from the doorway.
Cadfael started awake, blinking at Jinhai as he tried to remember where he was and how he’d gotten there. The dream of being on the Wave Dancer as Roisin cornered him faded away, leaving Cadfael awake and a little rueful over how badly he’d jerked when Jinhai spoke. From the shadows outside he’d only slept for an hour or so. The mid-afternoon heat was still quite stifling but he had a comfortable breeze coming in through the grills so Cadfael wasn’t as uncomfortable as he could have been.
“Oh, not very,” Cadfael said with a wry smile. “I honestly don’t want to overtax my stomach yet.”
“You were… very sick on the way over?” Jinhai asked. He came over and sat close to Cadfael with enough concern on his face that Cadfael felt a little bad for mentioning it.
“Sea sickness,” Cadfael explained yet again. “I don’t do well on ships, I’m afraid. It’s part of why I don’t like traveling.”
Jinhai studied Cadfael for a moment before gently taking Cadfael’s wrist. His fingers easily encircled the thickest part of the bone. When Jinhai pushed Cadfael’s sleeve up a tiny bit the somewhat slack tone of Cadfael’s skin was quite obvious. Cadfael blushed and pulled his wrist free, tugging the sleeve back down where it belonged. He tucked his feet underneath himself, rather wishing for his normal kilts. They were huge enough that they hid weight loss or gain, not to mention that the sleeves were longer and tighter at the cuff, keeping people from seeing his body clearly.
“You were extremely sick,” Jinhai sighed.
“Yes,” Cadfael admitted. He raised his chin defiantly. “I can still do what I came here to do. I just… need a little time to recuperate.”
“I am sure that vlu’Macario’blim will ensure that you have the time,” Jinhai said. He patted Cadfael’s knee gently. “I was not so sick when I came to wed my wife. Perhaps it was the tea.”
“Oh no,” Cadfael chuckled. “Chinwendu tea is lovely but no. I’ve tried Chinwendu’s tea as a cure. It isn’t enough to calm my stomach for more than an hour or two. I simply don’t do well on ships.”
“You have been to my country?” Jinhai asked, surprised enough that his delight showed.
“Once,” Cadfael said, grinning. “We do a lot of business with Chinwendu, especially the southern families. I always found the language quite interesting. I spent a good bit of time learning it when I was younger.”
That made Jinhai smile so brightly that Cadfael had to assume that he rarely got to talk about his home country. Chinwendu’s customers were different enough from Ntombi and Aingeal that Cadfael was certain that many people here found Jinhai uncomfortable to deal with. Everyone at home had looked at Cadfael as though he was insane as he tried to explain the Chinwenduese tradition of having five genders instead of two.
He never had managed to get across that people in Chinwendu could live as though they were the opposite gender or they could declare that they were neither female nor male. The concept of a person’s gender being a separate thing from their anatomy wasn’t something that made sense in Aingeal. Given the strictly gendered structure of Ntombian, Cadfael was certain that it was just as incomprehensible here. Every single word had a single, unchanging gender applied to it, encoding female and male roles into the very language. In Cadfael’s opinion, fluidity in gender wasn’t something that Ntombi would ever understand.
“I am afraid I have only a beginner’s understanding of Aingealese,” Jinhai chuckled. “It is a very complicated language with many ways to say the same thing.”
“So true,” Cadfael agreed. He studied Jinhai, pleased to see that the older man had relaxed quite a bit with the revelation that Cadfael spoke his language and had been to Chinwendu. “Ah, could you explain something about Ntombi to me? It’s puzzled many of my relatives and I was hoping to find an answer while I was here. It isn’t terribly important, just… confusing.”
“If I can,” Jinhai said with a somewhat confused nod. “What was the question?”
His body language shifted into the more erect posture that was expected in Chinwendu. Jinhai folded his hands in his lap, crossed his feet at his ankles given that they were seated on a bench with cushions instead of thick mats on the floor as would be normal in Chinwendu. He then bowed slightly to Cadfael to begin. Cadfael copied Jinhai’s posture though he tucked his feet underneath himself since he was already curled up on the cushions. The properly kneeling posture coupled with Cadfael’s sitting up straight made Jinhai smile, giving Cadfael hope that he could ease the older man into being an ally despite Aravel’s blunders during the previous visit.
“What do the honorable men here do, aehi-Jinhai-dui?” Cadfael asked in Chinwenduese with blatant enough curiosity that it made Jinhai laugh out loud. “The curiosity is all but killing me. Back home honorable men hold jobs or tend the house for their wives. I don’t understand how the harems here work or what honorable men do while their powerful and respected women are out running the businesses and fighting the wars. It seems as though the slaves must do all the work but that does not make sense to me.”
“You speak my language fairly well, euhi-Cadfael-du,” Jinhai said through his chuckles. He switched to the more formal language with obvious relief.
“Thank you, aehi-Jinhai-dui,” Cadfael said, making sure to use the suffix that gave Jinhai greater authority and status than Cadfael. He was the guest after all and younger than Jinhai as well. “I don’t think that my esteemed but sometimes silly twin actually investigated how things work for honorable men in Ntombi. Her comments on men of low character were not helpful in explaining what I, as a guest, should do while in this esteemed household.”
“Oh, no honorable and adult woman could investigate that,” Jinhai said as he poured himself a glass of the yellow drink and then settled in to sip it. “Any female over the age of five would be unable to explain how things proceed in the harem. They aren’t allowed to do more than visit in the harem, you see.”
Cadfael stared at him curiously for a moment before taking his half-empty glass to sip at. Chinwendu manners demanded that they both drink if one was thirsty. It was probably Jinhai’s way of making sure that Cadfael stayed hydrated, appropriate given how sick he’d been on the way and how hot he’d been earlier, but it was a little aggravating given his worries about his stomach’s stability.
Still, he deserved the minor manipulation for attempting to use Jinhai’s native language as a way to create sympathy for his situation. If he was going to try that sort of stratagem then he had to be prepared for it to be used against him as well.
They sipped in unison, both licking their lips before Cadfael tipped his head to the side in a request for Jinhai to continue. Jinhai’s eyes wrinkled in an approving smile that didn’t quite reach his lips before he nodded. Cadfael had been told many times during his visit to Chinwendu that he had an excellent command over Chinwenduese customs. It was nice to see that the people saying it hadn’t been flattering him without justification.
“The divisions between male and female life in Ntombi are quite profound at this level of society,” Jinhai explained thoughtfully. “At lower levels of honorable society of course men and women intermingle somewhat more but men will still hold themselves apart from women and live largely separate lives. At this level, husbands see wives only in special rooms set aside for such socializing. Men ensure that all bills are paid and homes are maintained while women conduct business and do work such as building, fighting or exploring the world. Had you not been aware of it, slavery here is a method of apprenticeship, a way of joining the household after proving one’s worth. It is nothing like slavery in Chinwendu or other parts of the world. My understanding is that Aingeal is very different in the lives of men and women.”
“There is no separation between women and men, and no slavery in Aingeal,” Cadfael said as he nodded, filing away the news away in his mind. “You are quite correct.”
“That was my understanding,” Jinhai said, nodding as well. “Each great house has a specialty, a thing which they excel at over all others. For the First House, it is ruling. They make all decisions of how the country will be run. In that house the men write the laws based on the women’s decisions and create the budget for the nation. In the Second House, this house, the great mandate is fighting wars thus men here create armor, arrange for equipment and supplies to be sent to battles, manage the business of war while the women fight it. In the Third House, the work is judicial, and onwards through the lower houses. Once one progresses past the nobility, the duties of the men depend on the businesses run by the women.”
“Oh,” Cadfael breathed, allowing his eyes to go wide and his mouth to go round in the traditional Chinwenduese expression of surprise. “Then aehi-Macario-dui is in a position of great power, isn’t he? Or is it aehi-Hamid-dui as the oldest male?”
Jinhai wobbled one hand held on edge like a knife being balanced on its blade. “The eldest son of a Great House will never marry. He is dedicated to the House itself. The other sons, not that I sired any other sons, will marry and create alliances. aehi-Hamid-dui was the eldest son before euhi-Macario-du, however they are currently… allowing power to transition from aehi-Hamid-dui’s control into euhi-Macario-du’s. You will deal most closely with my son, not with aehi-Hamid-dui.”
“I see,” Cadfael said because he thought that he did, finally.
Macario and Hamid, presumably to a lesser degree for Hamid, were responsible for paying for everything around them. They were the ones who would make sure that the deal went forward. Just as the family trusted Cadfael to analyze the treaty and ensure that it didn’t harm Dana interests, Macario and Hamid would analyze their interactions and the potential for the Dana to harm the First House’s interests over time. Weapons were good when one was paying for an army, but making a deal with someone who later became an enemy wasn’t worth it.
That explained why someone male had to come to negotiate the deal with Anwyn. The weapons for spices deal made total sense given the function of the house, but he hadn’t realized that Macario and most likely Hamid were the ones who would determine if it went forward at all. He wondered if Anwyn even realized that was why her work had failed last time, possibly the time before that. What little he remembered of her lectures said that no, she probably didn’t. He’d have to tell her about it the next time he saw her.
That still left a huge number of questions about what people at the lowest levels of society did, both male and female, and how crime was handled but Cadfael didn’t feel competent to ask those questions in Chinwenduese. Jinhai had already said that he didn’t speak Aingealese very well either. Asking about criminal enterprises in Ntombian was terrible idea given that Great-Grandmother Anwyn had been driven out of Ntombi for being a pirate. The last thing he wanted to do was to risk them thinking that they were reverting to Great-Grandmother’s ways, especially when he’d only just gotten back on solid ground.
“Such things work differently in Aingeal?” Jinhai asked just invitingly enough that Cadfael realized that his rapidly tumbling thoughts had to have been visible on his face.
“Very differently,” Cadfael said. “There is no division between men and women’s lives. They are lived side by side, doing the same jobs and seeing the same things. Legally, any job a woman can do a man can as well though in practical terms there are some jobs which require those with um, more strength than a male usually possesses. I believe that the men here could do the jobs I would fail at. Probably with relative ease.”
He gestured at himself, using the thumb at the top of the head hand movement that indicated that someone was short in Chinwendu. Pretty much every time Cadfael had made fun of the fact that he was incredibly short it had amused the people around him. It worked this time too, making Jinhai’s eyes light up with surprised amusement. Jinhai spluttered and sipped his drink to try and hide his laughter. They drank for a while; Cadfael taking small sips while Jinhai drank most of his glass quite quickly. When he realized how little Cadfael was consuming Jinhai frowned.
“The drink does not please you, euhi-Cadfael-du?” Jinhai asked.
“Oh no, it’s quite lovely,” Cadfael said as reassuringly as he could in Chinwenduese. The language didn’t lend itself to being truly reassuring given all the divisions between people’s rank and authority, but Cadfael hoped that his expression made it clear even if the language didn’t allow him to say it outright. “I just don’t trust my stubborn and temporarily difficult stomach.”
“There is medicine that will perhaps help,” Jinhai suggested, using the word for medicine that indicated a professional in health care who was someone other than himself. He even seemed to think that it would be effective from his expression.
“Being on solid ground is the best medicine for me,” Cadfael replied, deliberately using the old-fashioned version of medicine that implied ‘way of life’ or ‘practical thing to do’ because honestly, sea sickness. “Once I stop feeling as though the ground is moving beneath me I’ll be fine.”
Jinhai grinned though his smile wasn’t as wide as it could have been. “I remember that feeling. I had not expected to get used to the motion of the ship when I came to marry my wife. Even less did I expect that I would become so used to it that the solid ground felt as though it moved. I staggered for hours after departing our ship.”
“As one who has made several long sea voyages, always reluctantly, it does occur for everyone,” Cadfael said.
He nodded, hoping that he hadn’t been staggering so far today. Hopefully he hadn’t been but there was no guarantee of that. It didn’t really matter, of course, but Cadfael hated looking stupid. They both looked up as the door opened to reveal Macario who looked at Cadfael with a puzzled expression. Jinhai chuckled and gestured for Macario to come and sit with them.
“You were… speaking Chinwenduese?” Macario asked as he sat between the two of them. He was close enough for Cadfael to feel the heat of his body through his borrowed pants.
“It seemed appropriate,” Cadfael said, once more in Ntombian because he didn’t know if Macario had learned Chinwenduese or not. “I can’t imagine that vli’Jinhai’slom hears it all that much.”
“I do not, indeed,” Jinhai said, Chinwenduese formality coming through in his phrasing and intonation despite Ntombi’s very different structure. “I believe that vluu’Cadfael’slom might benefit from some quite time and rest, vla’Macario’blim. It appears that his sea sickness was more severe than was immediately apparent.”
When Macario looked at him, Cadfael shrugged reluctantly and nodded his agreement. He hated admitting it, but Jinhai was right. “You certainly don’t need to spend time on me, vli’Macario’slom. Some reading, a light dinner, and then an early bedtime would be wonderful as far as I’m concerned. I can always work on my embroidery if you’re busy dealing with the household.”
His mention of embroidery, predictably given Chinwendu’s involvement with large-scale production of silk, made Jinhai perk up. Somewhat surprisingly, Macario looked delighted by the mention as well, which promised another avenue to feel Macario out on what he should be doing and how to make things better between their families. Macario smiled and stood, offering Cadfael a hand to help him up. Cadfael took it. His legs weren’t horrifically unsteady but the gesture was appreciated nonetheless.
“Let me escort you to your chambers then,” Macario said, his hand still holding Cadfael’s. “Your clothes have been washed and several outfits have been found that you can borrow, should you choose to wear Ntombian clothing.”
The pressure of his fingers around Cadfael’s hand was anything but similar to the boys tugging at him, earlier. Both the slightly too firm grip on his hand and the almost possessive look in Macario’s eyes promised something far more than mere friendship or camaraderie as they worked on the treaty. In many ways, to Cadfael’s surprise, Macario’s expression resembled Ula’s towards the end of the journey here, the times when she looked at Cadfael with blatant amusement and approval. It was as though he was seeing that same thing in Cadfael that Ula had, even though Cadfael himself had no idea what it could be.
Cadfael blushed, well aware that Jinhai had shaken his head while smiling in dismay. He wasn’t sure (yet) that he was reading things correctly. Rather than dwelling on the fact that yet another person seemed to find him attractive against all expectations, Cadfael pushed the old feelings of fear and concern away. If he was right, it seemed possible that Cadfael might have another angle to help Anwyn with her negotiations. Granted romance wasn’t something Cadfael was terribly good at given his temper had driven off everyone interested in him female or male, but Macario’s eyes seemed to promise a great deal more than mere friendship. At the very least he could at least indulge in a little bit of flirting if it made things better for them overall.
“That would be nice,” Cadfael said, his voice coming out an octave higher than it should have. “Um, appreciated. Welcome?”
Macario laughed at his spluttering, gently tugging on Cadfael’s hand to get him to move. “This way, then.”
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