This was inspired by the world in the Kiesha’ra series by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Science Fiction. Potentially M/M. Work-in-progress. Here’s the prologue and chapter one. 🙂
Alarms were blaring and lights were flashing. The air tasted like smoke. A small boy clung to his mother as she pulled him down the corridor. They needed to get out. People pushed and fought violently, everyone trying to cram themselves into what little space was available in the emergency escape pods. The mother forced her way through the crowd as the ship lurched. The boy and his mother fell through the hatchway. A pilot, recognizing them, made room for them among the crowds of evacuees already in the pod. That was the most they could take. They had to take off. Security beat back the throngs of people still trying to force their way into one of the overstuffed pods. Finally the people were pushed far enough away and the hatches were able to close. The pod took off and sped away. Suddenly a great turbulence hit the pod and the mother covered her son’s eyes as the ship behind them tore itself apart, debris shooting out in all directions and fire blazing briefly as the last of the atmosphere escaped. The pod rode out the turbulence in stunned silence as it fell toward the planet below.
She danced like a snake. The torch light flickered across the patterns of her dress like scales as she shimmied and swayed. Her arms wove slowly down, forward, back, around, up, and back down again. Her hips and stomach rolled smoothly. Her legs stepped slowly forward and back, extending, flashes of skin from beneath her long dress. Otherworldly. She was mesmerizing. Haki was entranced. A distant part of him knew that he was staring and that he shouldn’t be, but he couldn’t look away. He was her mouse. Trapped.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” someone whispered in his ear. He nodded, dumbly, unable to look away. Unable to think. His mind was filled with her, filled with her dance. And then she stopped.
The dancer stepped down from her stage and came forward into the crowd. She smiled and embraced with them. She accepted foods and drinks and laughed at their jokes. She glanced at Haki, then looked again, no doubt surprised by the presence of a little Ayet’ti child. Haki blinked, emerging from the spell. Another dancer was going on stage and Haki realised that he needed to go home before he got side tracked again.
He turned his back on the dancers and scurried up the torch lit path through the market square, weaving around shoppers and drunkards and ducking beneath arms. Sometimes it was good to be small. Some of the adults turned to gawk at him in surprise but he ignored them. He had to get home. He worried that perhaps he had stayed too long already. Soon the boy left the lit market streets and plunged into the darkness of the Ayet’ti part of town. He tripped twice on loose cobblestones, the second time skinning his knee. This finally convinced him to slow down. He hobbled cautiously through the dark the rest of the way to his house. Good, no lights. They haven’t noticed my absence then. He circled round to the old tree beneath his window and pulled myself up.
Once inside, he lit a single candle and fetched the glass of water from beside his bed, wetting a cloth to dab at the skinned knee. Once satisfied, he changed quietly into a night shirt and climbed into bed. In the darkness left behind by the extinguished candle, Haki laid back and closed his eyes. One day, He thought, I’ll be a grown up and I’ll learn to dance just like them and no one will be able to stop me. That night, his dreams were filled with the swaying bodies of dancers.
(Nine years later)
Haki carried one rattling bucket in each hand as he marched down the road to the community well. It was a twice a day trip, three if it was laundry day, and the buckets were heavy when filled, but at least the new well was close by. When Haki had been small the old well that he and his mother had hiked to twice a day had been located outside the town. Now a sixteen turns old Haki walked by himself to one of two newer wells near the town center. One well was on the Northern side of town, the other was on the Southern, with the town center almost directly between them. Haki, like most Ayet’ti, frequented the Southern well. It was closer to their side of town. The Northern side of town belonged to the Tuhautu.
Haki sat his empty buckets on the ground beside the well. The well pail was hanging on its rope above the deep, dark hole. He grabbed hold of the crank and lowered the pail down until he heard the tell-tale plunk of the pail hitting water. He cranked it back up, now much heavier, and dumped the pail into his first bucket. It took two pailfuls for one bucketful.
As Haki lowered the pail back down, he began humming to himself. Often the well was crowded with people, mostly women, gossiping as their children played together in the dirt and taking turns filling their buckets. After the birth of Haki’s little sister, Newtrina, their mother had become too tired, too busy, and too sickly for the long journeys to what was then still the old well. Haki had been old enough then to begin handling such chores on his own and so she had sent Haki in her steed. Haki had taken up the well duties and had since learned to time his visits to avoid the crowds. Haki had never been a very social boy and quickly felt overwhelmed by so many babbling mouths. It was even more important to him that he avoid the crowds now since the closer well meant that people could linger rather than having to hurry back. Haki really didn’t have the time for such a production.
His buckets now full, Haki lifted them both and turned to walk back home. He moved quickly but carefully so as not to spill his load.
The sky was grey but the air was warm and humid. He hoped it meant rain. It had been a dry couple of weeks and the roads were dusty, the fields hard, the crops had begun to wilt a little. It could mean trouble soon if it didn’t rain. Haki kicked a pebble down the road before him and let his mind wander as he made his way back home.
The door of his brick house was open to the air and his mother was in the kitchen, preparing his little sister for the day. Haki brought the pails in and set them on the table.
“Your father forgot his lunch when he headed out this morning.” Haki’s mother told him as she wrestled Newtrina’s arm into her tunic. “Here. Yours is in there too.” She passed him a brown packet.
Haki filled a water skin with some of the water then headed back out to find his father.
The market place, in the town center, was bustling. Artisans had their wares out on displays. Bakers had racks of breads cooling beside their stalls. Rich, spicy scents carried over the air from various stalls and the voices of merchants rose above the conversations of shoppers to announce the superiority of their wares. The market, and the town center in general, was supposedly neutral territory, but still there was a clear division between the louder, brighter, and more chaotic Tuhautu dominated part and the calmer, dimmer, and better organized Ayet’ti part. Most shoppers preferred to only deal with their own race, but in some cases, one had to cross lines.
The Tuhautu knew how to use native resources. They knew which reeds to use to weave sturdy baskets and how to harvest silk from the native insects and weave it into textiles. They knew which plants could be used medicinally and where to hunt the best fauna.
The Ayet’ti had seeds that allowed them to grow and sell nonnative plants that were more familiar to them, like corn, and a few stock animals. A pod prefilled with the seeds and animal embryos stored in suspended animation in special womb-like cells had been present in each Ayet’ti ship in space, meant just for such emergencies. It had been automatically released from the ship at the same time as the first passenger filled escape pod.
The Ayet’ti also were the ones who knew how to shape the shrapnel that had been scattered around the land from the destruction of their ship and the metal that was harvested from what was left of the escape pods. This skill with metals was the reason the Ayet’ti had been able to set up camp here in the first place. This planet had been devoid of any significant metal deposits that were accessible to the Tuhautu. It had handicapped the development of their society and presented a big opportunity for trade. The Ayet’ti now safe guarded the knowledge from the Tuhautu and painstakingly ensured that they continued to create metal products far superior than any wannabe Tuhautu metal crafters. The stock animals too had proved invaluable, as there were few large animals and no domesticated animals, other than a single raptorial bird species used to hunt, native to the region. The Tuhautu had quickly recognized the usefulness of these products and therefore had tolerated the presence of the Ayet’ti refugees. It was fortunate for the Ayet’ti because they probably would not have been able to survive that first difficult year on this nearly barren planet by themselves, at least not without a lot more deaths. The three passenger filled, bedraggled escape pods that had crash landed in the Tuhautu homelands had, instead, been given a chance of survival. Since then, the town had grown up around the trade center. Stark differences in culture had prevented the two races from fully integrating but the trade had prevented those differences from turning into war.
Haki crossed the not yet crowded streets to one small brick shop tucked away in a corner, in the Ayet’ti dominated part of the market. Black smoke billowed from the chimney and loud clangs could be heard coming from within. Haki slipped passed the customers admiring the metal horse shoes, picks, pipes, and such tools as well as artistically designed household items like pots, silverware, and even simple clocks in a tent outside the building. He pushed inside the hot, grimy smithy.
Haki’s father was working by the anvil, pounding a piece of metal into shape. Haki covered his ears, wincing, and waited until his father had doused the piece in water before approaching.
“Mother sent your lunch with me.” He told his father, separating out from the packet his and his father’s lunches.
“Oh, yes. I realised I’d forgotten it when I started working. Set it in the back then head out to help Garret. You’re late again, it’s nearly midday.”
“I apologize. I was helping mother.” His father was always complaining about how long it took him to get here in the mornings.
Haki went into the back of the shop and went through a door into a little area where odds and ends were stored. He left the lunch in a little cubby hole that his father often used then went back outside to the stall where Garret was selling the wares. Haki’s father had originally meant for Haki to work with him in the forge but had given up on that when they discovered that, not only did Haki have a low tolerance for the sounds in the forge but he was also terrified of going anywhere near the flames or bellows and didn’t have much strength in his arms for swinging the hammer. The strength could be gained his father claimed, although Haki secretly doubted it after a few months of trying and failing disgracefully, but the other problems had so far proven insurmountable.
Garret was busy with a customer when Haki took his place beside him and began to work. Garret smiled at him when he noticed then continued on. For the rest of the day Haki sold wares and discussed prices with customers and occasionally brought out new wares from within the shop to add to the stall display. They took turns breaking away to eat lunch and occasionally chatted about Garret’s newly pregnant wife when there was a lull in sales. When the sun began to near the horizon, Haki and Garret packed up the stall and brought everything inside. Haki’s father was sitting at a table discussing politics with another man and his wife when they came in. Haki went up to him and waited for them to notice him. His father turned to him expectantly.
“We’ve packed up the stall. I’m going to head out.”
“Alright then.” His father sighed. He was often frustrated with Haki for spending too much time on “women’s work” and not enough time with the other men but after Newtrina’s birth, Haki’s mother had been weak and Haki had gotten used to helping her. He felt guilty if he didn’t help her. She always seemed so tired. Besides which, he valued his time alone with her and his sister.
Haki hurried down the thinning Ayet’ti streets, closer to the Tuhautu part of the markets. While the Ayet’ti liked to get things up and going at dawn and closed up by sunset, here merchants set up shop later in the day then on the Ayet’ti side and things were still in full swing now, and would be, more or less, until late in the night. The Tuhautu weren’t nocturnal but they tended to be late to rise and late to bed. It was more a cultural thing than a biological thing, from what he understood. Mornings weren’t for business in their eyes. It was their belief that mornings were to be taken slowly. A small few opened their stalls early for Ayet’ti customers but most would wait a few sun phases.
Haki stopped at one of the last Ayet’ti stalls, open still to compete just a little longer with the Tuhautu stall next door, and perused what was left of their vegetable supply. There wasn’t much, but it would be good enough for a simple dinner. He bought the vegetables and a basket to put them in from a nearby stall, since he’d forgotten to bring his own. Then he ducked his head and crossed into Tuhautu territory.
Tuhautu had the same ancient ancestry as the Ayet’ti. They had both evolved from a species called Homo sapiens. While the Ayet’ti had remained space wanders (until recently in their ship’s case) and had changed very little from their ancestry, the Tuhautu had colonized their planet millions of years ago and had evolved to the conditions here. There were enough differences now between the two races that they had become separate species; they could no longer interbreed. There weren’t all that many visible differences. The Tuhautu had smaller eyes than the Ayet’ti that fell at a slight slant towards the nose. Their sense of smell was better. Their noses were broader and flatter, with slits at the outsides of each nostril, allowing them to exhale without disrupting the trail of whatever it was that they were smelling. Their canines were a little longer and they had two pairs in their upper jaw instead of one, two canines side by side on each side. Their hair grew in a ponytail shape, with longer, thicker, and courser hair near the back of their head and softer, shorter hair on the top and sides of their head, stopping at the forehead in females and cascading down with soft light hairs to the brow bone in males. They were also much more draught tolerant than Ayet’ti, requiring less water to live comfortably.
A Tuhautu baker recognized Haki as she laid out a fresh batch of breads and smiled at him.
“Greetings, Yana.” Haki said to the old woman, smiling back.
“Greetings, Haki. I have a fresh batch of wajii buns here that I just put out.”
Wajii buns were a traditional Tuhautu food. A rich, buttery dough swirled around a spicy meat or dried fruit filling. They were a secret favorite of his mother’s and the taste had been passed from her to Haki, through many shared late night snacks.
“Wonderful, I’ll have three, please.” He paid the woman and she wrapped the buns in waxy paper before handing them over to him.
“Mmmmm. They smell delicious.” He told her, taking a deep breath.
“Well, what do you expect from the best baker at the market?” She joked.
“Can’t argue with that.” He responded. She inclined her head slightly, the Tuhautu way of politely receiving a compliment, albeit in this case, a compliment that was technically from herself.
“And how is your mother doing? I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“She’s well, but she grows tired easily these days.”
“Hmmm. Poor thing. I swear, there is no harder job than becoming a mother. And how is the little one?”
“Ha Ha Ha! And I’m sure that doesn’t help matters. Not so little anymore these days, is she? How old is she turning?”
“She’ll be four in a week.”
“My, does time fly.”
If Haki’s father had known how familiar he was being with this Tuhautu woman he would have been furious, but Yana was an old friend of his mother’s and had been one of the woman to come to his mother’s assistance during Newtrina’s difficult birth, despite the intolerance of the other two Ayet’ti women present, and one of the few who had continued to help afterwards when His mother had been left bed ridden and feverish for a week and his father had been away all day. Twelve summers old Haki had been more or less left to pick up the slack, and if it hadn’t been for Yana and the occasional help from neighbors, he would have surely been overwhelmed. He’d had to do away with his childish habits, like sneaking off at night to go to the markets and playing ball in the fields for hours with his friends when he should have been at lessons, in exchange for maintaining the house and being there for his mother. Yana had cared for his mother’s health and helped her to care for the baby, sometimes even staying in his mother’s room overnight. She had also helped Haki shop and cook meals, often even bringing dinner with her, already made. Haki’s father had been away for most of this time. He had already begun to drink too much and stay out too late at the taverns. Haki’s mother said it was because his father had been scared and he didn’t deal with fear well. Haki’s father had been a great man in the older times. He’d been a pilot on a great ship in space. Haki couldn’t remember much about the ship they’d lived on up until he was four turns old, but he’d been told that medicine was much better there. So he supposed it made some sense that his father would be upset when his wife became ill.
Then his father had come home one night, after Haki’s mother had begun to improve and was well enough to leave the bed, and began yelling about “some strange Tuhautu scum”, that had been seen by the other men, hanging around the house and demanded to know what Haki’s mother thought she was doing, letting a Tuhautu into the house. Haki’s mother responded that if he’d been around more he would know what was going on and how dare he call the woman who had saved his family ‘scum’. Haki’s father had slapped her across the cheek and left the house again. He hadn’t come back for a week. Haki’s mother had cried all night.
“Yes. Time does fly.” Haki said, moving aside to let another customer in.
A young Tuhautu man was behind the counter with Yana, taking orders. He stepped up to tend to the new customer.
“Has Capo said anything about the weather?” Haki asked. Capo was Yana’s husband. His joints always ached before the rains and he claimed he could tell how soon a storm was coming by how much he ached and could tell the direction it would come from and how long it would stay by the taste of the air. He’d been surprisingly accurate in the past.
“Yes, good news! He says we’ll have rain, either tonight or tomorrow morning!”
“Goddess, I hope so. The river’s run dry. There’s nothing to irrigate the fields with.”
“Well, don’t you worry, boy. The rains are coming.”
The young man had paused in his work and was standing a foot’s width from Haki, staring.
“What?” Haki asked, confused. The man hadn’t seemed at all interested in him a moment ago.
“You believe in the Goddess?”
“Oh, he picked that up from me.” Yana interjected. “This is Sarora’s boy, Haki. You remember, Sarora’s the woman who had that horribly difficult birth I helped with a few years back? This is my grandson, Raja.”
Haki inclined his head in greeting and the young man did the same, still staring at Haki with the curious look on his face.
“Well, I need to head back. I have to get water before it’s too dark. Thank you for the wajii, and it was nice to meet you.” Haki added, looking back at Raja, who was still staring.
“Okay. I wish you well, love.” Yana told him, blowing him a kiss. Haki smiled.
“Thank you, and you too.” Haki said, turning. Raja seemed even more confused as Haki walked away.
When Haki was young, his cousin, Rali, once told him that at the bottom of each well were the skeletons of hundreds of little boys and girls who had fallen, or perhaps had even been pushed, down into that deep bottomless hole and that the water they drank came from their bones. He’d said that the Tuhautu believed that they had to sacrifice little children to the water God, or else the rains wouldn’t come. Even better if they sacrificed little Ayet’ti children.
As a child, before he’d met Yana and actually spent time with a Tuhautu, Haki had believed this, as doubtless, many other Ayet’ti children had, since he highly doubted Rali had come up with the story himself. He’d been too terrified to go with his mother on any late day runs to the well because he was always imagining evil Tuhautu in the shadows, coming to get him. His mother would be safe, he thought, she was too old to be sacrificed. So he’d stayed at home while she’d went alone and had hid in the pantry until she came back. Obviously, that’d stopped when it had become his job to go get water for the dinner, but by then he’d realised how ridiculous it all was.
Now, still, the idea of children’s bones in the dark well gave him the shivers. Not from sacrifices obviously, but there had been instances of children climbing on the roofs of the wells, not with their parents’ permission, obviously, and last month the roof of the southern well had had a hole in it that had needed repairs… Haki shivered. The dimming light and long shadows were getting to him. He filled his last bucket and stretched.
“So, you’re that child that had to do all the cooking and fetching and such for his mother after she gave birth.”
Haki jumped and turned, nearly knocking over his buckets.
“Oh, sorry. I thought you saw me.” The young man from Yana’s stand was a couple foot’s widths from him, looking slightly chagrined. Then he ruined the look by laughing. “You look so frightened. Hahaha!”
“And that’s funny, how?” Haki asked, embarrassed and quickly becoming angry about being embarrassed.
“It’s not. Sorry.” Raja tried to keep a straight face, failing miserably.
“Right.” Haki bent to lift his buckets and leave.
“Here, let me get one.” Raja rushed forward and took one of the buckets, leaving Haki (literally and figuratively) off balance and suddenly stuck with company for the journey.
“I’m fine.” Haki said, unsure what else to say.
“Where was your father?” Raja asked.
“What? You’re here to see my father?” That seemed unlikely.
“No. I mean then. Where was he then?”
“That’s none of your concern!” Haki was definitely angry now.
“Oh. Sorry. I was just wondering…”
“Well, don’t wonder.”
There was an awkward silence. Haki expected him to leave but he continued to walk beside him, carrying that damned bucket.
“So… I scared you pretty good. What were you thinking about?”
“Children’s bones. In the wells.”
Yet even that wasn’t enough to get him to leave.
“So. Um. You’re really close with my grandmother, then?”
Haki wasn’t sure how to answer that. “My mother and she knew each other before my mother was pregnant. She used to buy from your grandmother’s stand. And then, when my mother got sick, well, Yana saved us, really. So I saw her a lot.”
There was another silence.
“So…” Raja spoke again, apparently unwilling to give up. “You never did answer. Do you believe in the Goddess?”
“Um…” Yet another question Haki didn’t know how to answer. “Ayet’ti don’t have a Goddess. We’re not religious.”
“Is that no?”
“Um… I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s something at least. Most Ayet’ti I’ve meet would have spit at me over that.”
“Most Tuhautu wouldn’t have asked. Most Tuhautu wouldn’t be speaking to me.”
“True.” Raja turned and smiled at Haki.
It was quiet again, but for some reason, this time it wasn’t awkward.
“Oh, one more question.” Raja said, as they neared the house.
“When you were a child, did you ever go to the Goddess festivals?”
“I’m fairly certain that I remember you from there. It was one of the Lights festivals, I can’t remember what year, but we were young. You were the only Ayet’ti child, surrounded by Tuhautu. You were watching the dancers. There was one dancer you really seemed to like. I asked you if you thought she was beautiful. Wasn’t that you?”
“Did you ever go?”
“Thought so.” He smiled. “This your house?”
“Yes.” They were standing in front of Haki’s doorway now.
“Well, I’ll leave you then. Good evening, Haki.”
“Good evening. Thank you.”
Haki watched in shock as Raja smiled and left.