TO MY REVIEWERS:

mao-chan8583-I hope you still like where I'm going!

calibrit486-Good guess! I hope you'll stick around, even once Kalean has left.

Casey Dragora-Thanks for the review. If you check the first chapter, you'll see the pronunciation guide I added.

Michelle Izmaylov-I'm glad you liked the beginning. You'll have to let me know what you think of the rest now!

Thanks to you all for reading this and giving me the confidence to go on. I know this chapter was a little short… but then I was busy today, and Yjadd didn't have much to do. Don't worry- tomorrow, quite a few things are going to be happening.


Day 8

I stand looking in the mirror, and see a strange girl looking back at me. She has pale blonde hair, long like mine, but it hangs down her back in a single long plait. The creamy-brown skin and green eyes are also like mine, but loose strands of hair frame her face and give her a wilder, freer look. Her tunic is reddish-brown; the length of it and the embroidered neckline showing that it was made for a girl.

Beneath the tunic, she wears breeches, loose about her legs but tucked neatly into her boots. The breeches are brown, too, but of a more yellow shade. Hesitantly, I lift the necklace my mother gave me for my naming and tie it around my neck. My reflection looks back at me, an exotic creature from a distant land. I can't help smiling at the effect; the people at home would be scandalised, of course, but I know I look my best this way.

A knock on the door of my room turns out to be Kal. I let him in, and twirl to show off my new look. I see a doubtful look in his eyes, but he swiftly disguises it with a smile and a thumbs-up. I accept the act. Kal was brought up under the same rules I was, and he isn't Doresoth. If I felt uncomfortable putting the breeches on, he probably felt even worse seeing me wear them.

"I spoke to Ralun," I tell him. "He said I should spend today with you."

"He said as much to me," Kal agrees. "What do you say we visit the temple? We could get you a blessing for your journey."

I consider this. I could use all the luck I can get, and the lure of seeing a real temple for the first time is irresistible.

"Let's do it!" I exclaim. "Race you to the street!"

I'm already out the door of my room as I finish speaking. Kal chases after me and catches up, but in the narrow corridors he can't overtake, and I easily beat him to the outside. After accusing me of cheating, he takes the lead once more, this time guiding us to the temple.

Today as we walk through the streets I notice the difference in people's reactions to me. Many older people give me disapproving looks, but others smile broadly. More young men whistle as I pass. The clothes seem to have changed my attitude; whereas yesterday I ignored them, today I call back.

"I can see an earth-spirit!" one youth calls as I pass. All spirits are beautiful, but the way he says it makes it seem more like a challenge than a compliment. I glance over my shoulder as I call back:

"And I can see a rock- it's on top of your neck!"

His friends laugh, able to appreciate my response. Kal rolls his eyes, then grins at me. I grin back.

We arrive at the temple without incident, and I stare in wonder at the vast building before me. A stone wall surrounds a bustling courtyard, and from there decorated steps lead up to a set of double doors. The temple is a round building, faced in white marble, its blue tile roof a round cone. Mosaics in reds and golds are set into the floor of the courtyard at intervals, their polished surfaces clearly protected by spellcraft. Stalls around the edge of the space sell religious artefacts; mestiyr stones abound, as do bird feathers. I see several necklaces that are not unlike mine, but closer inspection shows that they are not so well made, their string poor and the feathers clearly stolen from some unfortunate chicken.

"Come on," Kal says, and we go to stand in the queue of supplicants waiting to enter the temple. People stand all around us, all with their own wishes to make. For some, it is plain why they have come: a man with an eye patch, a child on crutches. For others, richly dressed and followed by an entourage, the reasons are less clear. I begin to play a game with Kal, inventing reasons for others to visit. The guesses grow slowly more and more wild, until that becomes the game.

"He killed his wife and seeks forgiveness from Moina," I suggest, looking at an overweight man in rich purple silk.

Kal shakes his head. "No. He is a woman, who killed her husband and disguised herself as him, but is now in danger of discovery."

I scrutinise our target, wondering how to outdo my friend. "I say that he is a spirit, a mesti, and a female one at that."

"Or he could be a mesean," Kal proclaims. We look at each other, then back at the overweight man now making his way slowly up the temple steps.

"Nah," we agree.

The day winds slowly on. It is late morning by the time we finally enter the temple, and see the cool interior. A stone altar lies in the exact centre of the temple. Around it, tiers of seats rise, and I observe curiously the tiled images of the First Gods on the walls, the four elements shown in all their glory.

"What will you be asking the Gods?" a pleasant voice says, and it takes a moment for me to realise I am being addressed. I turn to see a young priest, robed in purple, smiling at me.

"Oh… um…" I stutter, suddenly rendered unable to speak by my surprise. Fortunately, Kal steps in.

"We come to ask protection for my friend here, as she is going on a long journey," he replies.

"You want the shrine of Sother, then," the priest tells us, pointing to an archway in the opposite wall. I abruptly realise that this round room is only one part of the vast complex.

Kal and I follow the man's directions, and find ourselves in a plain white corridor. It leads us past several rooms which we identify as chapels to the Second Gods, until we find ourselves outside a room whose door is marked with the symbol of Sother, a double-ended arrow. I push the door open and step inside.

The room is painted white like the corridor, but on one wall is a mural showing an image of the God. It seems to me to be almost real; his laughing eyes seem to follow me around the room, and I could swear he was about to speak. Behind him, green hillsides stretch off into the distance, and I feel as if I could just walk into the image and move on through it.

"Come on!" Kal urges, sitting by the small altar. I do likewise, looking up at the mural as I say my silent prayer.

Sother, God of all Travellers, grant me fortune on my voyage. Let the road be easy, and let there be a warm place to stay every night. Let no bandits or robbers harass me on my way. Guide my way, Sother of the roads. So ask I, Yjaddetht Doresoth, of you.

For a moment, I think I can almost hear a reply in the air, as if Sother himself is about to speak to me. Then the feeling passes, and I am left staring at a mural.

"Are you done?" Kal asks. I nod and get shakily to my feet. It suddenly occurs to me that I have one more day in Athten, one more day with my best friend in the world. I should make the most of it.

"Let's go find something else to do," I suggest, and Kal agrees.


Day 9

I am going to be strong. I am an adult, and I can control myself, and I am not going to cry.

Too late. The tears are already flowing freely down my face. The fact that Kal's cheeks are equally wet is little consolation. We stand looking at each other, him with his sack over his shoulder and me wearing my pack. Ralun will be joining us soon, and then I'll have to go away. Only now I don't want to. I want to go home with Kalean, see the look on Mama's face when I come through the door.

Oh, Gods and spirits, what am I doing? I wonder. What possessed me to leave home? Why was I so eager to leave behind the people I love?

Kal breaks first, throwing his arms around me. "Love you, Yjadd," he whispers. I return the embrace.

"May all the spirits be on your side..." I begin.

"...all the days of your life," my friend finishes. I find myself looking up into his eyes. I'd never realised he was taller than me before. We'd always been together, and in my mind we'd been the exact same height for all that time.

"I'll visit you," I promise him. "I'll look out for the kindest priest in the world, in his small roadside chapel."

"I'll be waiting," Kal agrees. "I'll watch for the greatest bard ever to sing a note."

Why is it so hard to say goodbye to him? Maybe because it is not a goodbye. It's a farewell, and we both know it, deep down. For all our promises, we may never meet again. There's so much to say, so many things I was saving for later.

And now there's no time left.

Kal turns away to look at the gap in the wall behind him. A flood of people flows in and out. Soon, he will join them. He turns back to me, and smiles.

"I'll never forget you," he tells me. "On the spirit of my name."

I say the same, echoing the words. Don't go! my mind screams. What am I going to do without you, Kal?

Suddenly, I kiss him. My lips touch his, a jolt of power passes between us, and then I'm stepping back, wondering why I did it but not regretting my actions. Kal reaches out and strokes my face. I can sense the things that have built up inside him, and know that like me he is regretting what he has never said.

"Goodbye, Kalean Sathtdil," I say, formally. Kal seems to understand.

"Goodbye, Yjaddetht Doresoth," he replies, and then he's gone, another figure in the crowd. I watch as he passes out of the town walls, following his bobbing head until it is so mixed in with the other travellers that I cannot tell which one he is.

"Watch over him, Sother," I plead, salty tears still flowing down my face.

"He's gone, then," Ralun's voice says gently. I turn to see the old bard watching me with sad eyes. He lays a hand on my shoulder, staring into some far distant country within the borders of his head. "It's always hard to bid a friend farewell."

"I'm going to see him again," I declare, my voice shaking. Ralun looks down, seeming to notice me for the first time, and smiles abruptly.

"You could," he concedes, before exhaling heavily. "But before then, we have places to go. Are you ready to go?"

The eagerness to travel springs up unbidden, unfolding from within me, and I nod firmly.

"Let's move," I say.

Apart from the one journey from my village to Athten I've never travelled any distance before, and most of that walk was through the forest, which restricted the views somewhat. So to say that my breath is taken away by the vistas I can now see is an understatement. The road we are following leads away from Athten in a different direction to the forest road, heading instead for the coast. Ralun and I are passing through vast tracts of cultivated land, rich crops and orchards to either side of us as we follow the cobbled road. Beyond the fields, I can see the silhouettes of hills in the distance, and shadowy trees marching up them into the clear blue sky.

"We're going to Tarekan," Ralun tells me as we walk. "It's a port town. I've been here in the Kingdom of the Sun quite long enough, and I have a hankering to see some good, old-fashioned cold weather, so we're taking the first ship to the mainland."

My eyes goggle out. "The mainland?"

Ralun frowns. "Yes, girl, the mainland! What sort of education have you had?"

I frown. Like all children in Paniyj dai Tikte, I have been taught about the spirits and their ways, and the Gods. I know the line of Kings, and the songs that are taught to bring caution and wisdom. Since Mama was a weaver, I know about looms, wool and dyes, and how to use them for a specific task. I tell these accomplishments to Ralun, whose face grows more and more pained with every revelation. When I have finished, he groans aloud.

"Please tell me you have some knowledge that is relevant beyond the borders of this land?" he pleads. "Can you read? Write?"

I angrily protest that I can, too, read, and that I was the best person at sums in the village apart from Kal and his father.

"Kal taught me," I explain. "He was taught by his father, who knows because he was our village's trader!"

Ralun regards me with something approaching amusement, and mutters something in a language I don't know. Then, as we continue on our way, he begins to tell me about the geography of the world in which we live. I listen, enraptured, as he explains how Paniyj dai Tikte is an island, separated from the main continent by a narrow channel of water. The mainland lies to the north, a vast block of land separated into kingdoms mainly by way of natural features in the land.

"Although the effects of conquest and treaties mean that some of the borders lie in unexpected places," Ralun warns me. "I'll have to try and get a map, to show you where the divisions are."
He goes on to explain that there are many different religions, different lands favouring different beliefs. As you go further north, the world grows colder, until you reach the northern mountains and Baenpas. Beyond there, Ralun tells me, no people can pass. Snows and wild beasts on the mountains make it all but impossible, and if you go high to avoid them you die from lack of air.

The old bard tells me that I will have to learn many languages, and points out that event then I will run into differences of opinion.

"For example, a large stand of trees in Enimar is a forest, but a large stand of trees like the ones in this country would be a jungle."

"Yjungel," I repeat faithfully, before asking what the difference is in the trees.

"You'll see when we get there," Ralun tells me, and I shiver with anticipation. Enimar! I can't wait to see such a far-off, exotic place.

South of Paniyj dai Tikte, Ralun tells me, is a great ocean which stretches to the southern fields of ice. However, if a sailor were to go west as well as south, he would find himself in the desert land of Yeindar, which is long and thin and curves until its northernmost point almost touches the mainland. To the east of the mainland lies another vast continent, and between that land and the Kingdom of the Sun is an archipelago of smaller islands.

I try to draw the pictures in my head as Ralun tells me about them, but I fail dismally. The whole thing is so large, so... distant, and I can't picture it. The day passes slowly as Ralun tells me fact after fact. I know I'm forgetting half of it; I don't know how he can remember it all. He answers my myriad questions patiently, not fazed in the least, keeping a steady pace up along the road.

Time passes, and suddenly the sun is setting. Ralun stops and glances around. We are standing in the middle of a deserted road, the cobbles long since gone. There is nothing to see for miles around other than fields. I look to the old bard for guidance, and he smiles.

"Your first lesson was geography," he tells me. "Now for the second lesson; setting up a camp."

On his instructions, I take my cloak out of my pack. It's been in there all day, since the weather was mild and walking kept me warm. He shows me how to make my pack into a pillow, and wrap myself up in the cloak to keep warm.

"We'll get you a proper blanket when we reach the mainland," he promises. "But that'll do for now."

He digs into his pack and pulls out some flat rounds of bread. He passes me one and I tear into it, but I stop when he stands and goes over to one of the orange trees beside the road. I watch aghast as he pulls a couple of the ripe round fruits from a tree.

"That's stealing!" I protest as he throws me one.

"Two won't be missed from a whole orchard," he points out reasonably.

I can see the point of his argument, but still I put the orange aside, eating only the bread for my dinner. Ralun eats his fruit with every sign of enjoyment, before turning over and going to sleep immediately. I lie awake, unable to drift off. There is something unusual and new about this experience. I can feel the ground digging into my back, and wriggle. Suddenly I'm lying on a mattress of soft grass, springy and fresh. I can smell the night air around me, and feel the warm wind blow. My mind grows drowsy, and I feel peaceful. I feel something else too, something wonderful and open and new. I wonder what it is. At first I try to stay awake, to work out what I'm feeling, but I've been walking all day and now I'm tired. My eyes close despite my efforts.

Then, just before sleep claims me, I find the word I've been searching for.

Freedom.


Day 10

"Tar minaio, kar veloti. Yjarn…"

"No!" Ralun snaps. "Jarn. Juh. Say it!"

"Yjuh," I repeat dutifully. Ralun shakes his head in exasperation.

"Honestly, girl, how can you ever sing in another language if you don't master the sounds? Every land but this one uses a jay, and you'll simply have to learn to speak it."

I scowl, kicking up dust from the road as we move. "I am trying," I mutter sullenly. "It's not my fault I can't do it."

The old bard slows to a halt, and I stop beside him. His grey eyes stare into mine intently.

"Juh," he says, opening his mouth wide so that I can see how his mouth moves.

"Chuh," I attempt. "Yjuh. Yjchuh. Juh. Juh… I did it!"

Ralun smiles, pride written all over his face. "And th?" he asks. I obediently make the soft sound, followed by the hard one he showed me earlier.

"Excellent," he praises me. "Now, sing again."

We resume our easy pace as I sing the song, which comes from the kingdom of Yeinar and is in that language. Ralun keeps stopping me, correcting my pronunciation more often than my note.

"You've got a good singing voice, Yjadd," he tells me sincerely. "But we can't have you singing in an island accent as thick as treacle."

Puzzled, I point out that he has told me sounding exotic can be helpful.

"Exotic is one thing. In comprehensible is another entirely. Listen to me; do I sound local?"

I shake my head. Ralun couldn't possibly be mistaken for Satht Da'yri from his voice.

"But you can understand me," he finishes triumphantly. "Now, I'd best start teaching you a few words of Kalimere, since that's where we'll be getting off the boat."

We walk down the rough road in the warm daylight, me trying to twist my tongue around the strange foreign words. Ralun's attitude to teaching me a language is to tell me "hello", "goodbye", "yes" and "no", then start talking to me in complex sentences. I muddle along for a while, getting half my answers in the right place and half in the wrong, until slowly some of his meanings begin to soak in. I still have no idea what he's saying, but at least I have a vague concept of what he's talking about.

We stop at the roadside for lunch, eating more of the flat bread that we had for supper the night before. All the while, Ralun keeps telling me things, imparting knowledge which I must be ready to regurgitate the moment he demands it. I briefly think of Kal, and wonder if he's home safely yet. I try to imagine telling him some of the things I've learnt from Ralun, and smile at the look I can visualise on his face.

We set off for the afternoon refreshed and in good spirits. The old bard continues to test me on Kalimere, until suddenly he smiles and claps a hand on my shoulder.

"You've done well, girl," he tells me happily. "I wish I'd met pupils as apt as you in my younger years… ah, well. Now, can you sing me a song from this island?"

"Why?" I ask, curious.

"Because you'll already have a way of singing songs, and I want to make sure it's a good one," he tells me. I realise the sense of what he's saying, and search my memory for a song I can sing. The sun glows high above us, and suddenly I know the perfect song. Nel Tikte Imle, The Sun is Born. Taking a deep breath to fill my lungs, I begin to sing brightly.

"Hen eyjkte haineak, (The moon was lonely,)

Panisoa zerthtek nel yjer. (Heaven saw the sadness.)

Baremek la galeak, (It knew that she hid it,)

Nel yjerki yjet kam aster... (The greatest and most terrible sorrow...)"

I spend the rest of the morning singing songs for Ralun, all the ones I can remember from my lessons, until my throat is dry and I can't force another word from it.

"You're good, for someone untrained," he concedes. "But there's a long way to go yet." He sighs, and looks ahead. "At least we'll have a proper roof over our heads tonight."

I follow his gaze, and see a small round farmhouse by the roadside. It's further off than it seems; the sun is setting by the time we get there. I walk through the bare yard, avoiding the chickens which scratch at the dusty ground. Ralun reaches the door and knocks. A portly woman answers it, and doesn't seem too keen to let us in. Ralun offers to sing if she'll give us a bed and a meal, but she glares at him. The old bard launches into a flowery speech. I watch the increasingly bored farmwife. Her dress is old, and a little threadbare. Suddenly, I know how I can help.

"If I may?" I ask, cutting in. I turn to address the woman without even waiting for an answer. "If you have any chores that need doing, such as mending or patching, I would be happy to help while we stay."

This is the key. The woman's eyes light up, and although she still behaves reluctantly I can see that it's an act. Finally, we persuade her to let us in, and as we enter Ralun takes the chance to whisper congratulations in my ear. I positively glow with pride.

I'm not celebrating once the woman starts to pile me with clothes that need mending. I spend the evening sitting in a corner darning whilst Ralun sings for our supper. The farmer comes home, and has a furious discussion with his wife in one corner over our presence. Evidently, she sways him, since he does no more than scowl at us occasionally. Supper is a bowl of thick stew, before Ralun is dispatched to the woodshed. I am about to follow him, when the farmer's wife holds me back with a shake of the head.

"Wouldn't be right," she tells me firmly, leading me to a blanket set up near the fire. I thank her drowsily, before wrapping myself in it. I feel guilty about Ralun, but there really isn't anything I can do… sleep overcomes me, and I wander into dreams full of trees screaming "juh" in screeching voices.


Day 11

"How much further is it to Tarekan?" I ask Ralun, breaking into his language lesson. The old bard frowns crossly.

"We should arrive midday tomorrow," he informs me. "And please don't interrupt me. You asked to become my apprentice; you should give me some respect."

I apologise, realising that he is correct. He's doing me a favour; the least I can do is work with him. He accepts my apology and relents.

"I am glad to have you with me, Yjadd," he tells me. "Getting us into that farmhouse last night... you're a natural."

I beam with pride, although it is tempered somewhat by my remembrance of being woken up at dawn only to be thrown straight out of the door. Apparently, the farmer had told his wife that we were to stay no longer than we had to, and she had agreed.

That isn't the only discomfort I'm feeling. After two days of solid travelling at a fast pace, my legs are sore and aching, my feet burning with pain. My new breeches are chafing at my legs, and my lungs feel cold after all the hard breathing I've done. The weather is still warm, I'm hot and sticky, and more than ready to simply pack it in and go home if only home wasn't so far off.

Kal, I wish you could see me now, I think dryly. My friend would think my predicament hilarious, and he'd probably persuade me to agree with him after a while. But instead of Kal's humorous company, I had Ralun droning on beside me in a language I couldn't speak and probably never would. The words buzzed like flies in my head, refusing to settle and leave me in peace. I wanted to sit down with a cool drink and think of nothing for a while. Some hope.

Sother and Barel, help me with this, I plead silently. Perhaps the gods of travel and knowledge hear me, but if so they are not listening. The words don't come any easier.

Ralun and I stop at midday, not to eat since our supplies are dwindling, but to rest before we continue. I lie back on the grassy verge and fall into the deep blue sky above, smelling the living world around me.

"Tell me how the world was made," Ralun commands. I open an eye to look at him, and he looks back with a challenge in his face. Guessing that this is his way of seeing how well I can tell a story, I launch into the tale.

"Before the beginning, there was nothingness, which was filled only by Meski. Meski was all; there was nothing else. But with none to talk to in the passage of time, Meski grew lonely, and began to speak to itself. In the mind of Meski grew four voices, which were named Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Aeons passed, and the four voices grew more and more separate until they had forgotten they were all one. They spoke of many things, telling each other their dreams and desires.

"I see stone and soil," said Earth. "And many mesti and doreyj, growing to fade once more."

"I see wind and skies," said Air. "And velvet black with perfect blue, stretching on forever."

"I see warmth and light," said Fire. "And leaping flames in the darkness."

"I see rivers and streams," said Water. "And endless seas that pass beyond the horizon."

The four decided to create their dreams, weaving them from the nothingness that was all around. Each poured a little of themselves into everything they made, and when they were done three realms had been created. Panisoa, the world of the heavens; Panimes, the world of spirits; and Paniyri, the world of flesh and blood. Together, they made creatures to populate Panimes and Paniyri, all woven from nothing and their own minds, and they looked down at the worlds they had created and saw them as beautiful. Soon, creatures began to emerge in both realms who looked to the four and named them the Gods and the Elements, a title which the four accepted happily from their people.

However, despite the beauty of its sister realms, Panisoa remained bleak and empty. So the four Elements decided to populate it, not with their creations but with their children. They mixed their essences, to create eight offspring. These children grew up to become the Second Gods; Barel, God of Knowledge and Fate; Moina, Goddess of Justice and Law; Kathtin, God of Death and Rebirth; Garis, Goddess of Chaos and Change; Oleten, God of Order and Stability; Mestala, Goddess of Nature and Life; Panon, God of Days and Seasons; and Leila, Goddess of Wisdom and Empathy. These eight children grew to adulthood and, like their parents, watched over the people below.

But, unlike their parents, the Second Gods were in the image of mortal spirits, and so one by one they fell in love. More children were born, the Third Gods, with the powers of their immortal parents and the temperaments of their mortal heritage. At first, these children were accepted in Panisoa by their parents, but then tragedy befell. The son of Kathtin and a mortal woman, was rejected by the village in which he was born. Angered by this, he became Yjeten, the God of Hatred and Fear, and began to work against his cousins for the detriment of all. He began to work harm on those in Panisoa, and so with great reluctance Moina and Leila banished him to the other two realms. There, he began to spread the seeds of fear and hatred amongst the people, who turned on each other. Seeing this caused his cousins much grief, and they begged to leave Panisoa and walk the realms, setting Yjeten's evil to rights. The Second Gods agreed reluctantly to this, and so now all of the Third Gods walk among us, seeking to repair the harm done by their cousin in his rage. Yet at the end of it all, the nothingness was Meski, and the Elements were Meski, and all that is, was or ever can be will always be Meski, for ever and always."

Ralun smiles as I finish the tale.

"I've heard it told better," he muses, "But not from an amateur such as you. I take it you know most of the stories about your Gods?"

I reply in the affirmative.

"Good. I'll have to start telling you some other myths and legends; you'd be amazed at how many different ways the world came into existence."

"Where do you think it came from?" I ask him, curiously. The old man shrugs.

"Couldn't say. Gods, for all I know you're right, and we're all the figment of someone's imagination. Or maybe we're more than that. Either way, I think I'm real, and that's enough for me. Now come on, we'd best get going if we're to reach Tarekan tomorrow."

We set off once more, and the language lesson resumes. The rest has given me a chance to relax, but soon I am feeling worn down once more. Tonight, I'm sure we'll be sleeping by the roadside again. The faint flag of excitement I feel at the idea it rapidly being swallowed by the seas of worry that swarm over me.

What have I got myself into?


Day 12

The morning of the next day is cold and damp. I wake up on dewy grass, and shiver in the moist fog that has filled the air during the night. I've never seen a fog like this before, and comment on it to Ralun.

"It's because were nearing the sea," the old bard tells me. He sounds grumpy, which is unsurprising. "You tend to get more fogs and mists near the coast. It'll burn off when the sun is higher."

Sure enough, as the morning grows older, the white shadow fades away to reveal another gleaming day. I can hear strange cries in the air, the mewling sound of what Ralun tells me are gulls. The road regains cobbles once again, and more traffic starts to appear from different directions. Ralun is once again trying to give me a language lesson, but I can't pay attention, fascinated as I am by our fellow travellers.

Here, there is a worn-looking man on a cart, taking a great mound of farm produce to market. There, a young man with a bundle over his shoulder, clearly leaving home. The people going to Tarekan are very different from the ones going to Athten, and I wonder why aloud.

"Different kinds of town," Ralun says briskly, abandoning his Kalimere speak to answer my question. "Athten was built up as a place for farmers to meet, and its modern nature reflects that. Tarekan is a port, a place for sailors, and things are very different there."

"How different?" I enquire. Ralun looks at me frankly.

"A lot less civilised," he admits. "Sailors tend to be less community-minded than farmers. Ports can be rough places. Which reminds me, I'm going to find an inn to stay at tonight, and I want you to stay there until we leave. I can't let a young girl go wandering the streets of Tarekan alone."

I glower, and protest that I can look out for myself, but Ralun is adamant. I am not going to explore the port, and that is that. Still simmering with mild resentment, I resume studying my surroundings as Ralun drones on in Kalimere. The road is widening, and the stone underfoot seems more and more worn with every step I take. I start to wonder exactly how big and old Tarekan is. I'd been imagining something like Athten, but I'm honest enough to admit that perhaps that was because I have only ever seen one town. My anger at my travelling companion forgotten, I find myself looking forwards to my first sight of Tarekan.

In fact, my first glimpse of it is the smoke rising from its chimneys. A dark blur soon begins to appear beneath the smoke, and I watch as the features of Tarekan emerge from the distance. The buildings are like those of Athten, and remind me a little of the small houses at home, but beyond that it is like nothing I have ever seen before.

There is no wall around Tarekan to hold it in, and so it has sprawled outwards, spreading like water across the bay. There is a great bustle of noise and activity, people coming to and fro on many roads in and out of the town. Even from a great distance, I can smell rotten fish, and my eyes instinctively seek the source. They skim over the decrepit roofs of the buildings, and then they see…

"The ocean!" I scream excitedly. "Ralun, I can see the ocean!"

It is big and blue, looking as smooth as glass from a distance. I can see white sand on the shore next to it, until it reaches Tarekan where wooden docks fill the coastline. Ships bob up and down in the water; big ships, small ships, too many to count, a jungle of masts and hulls. I can tell that my eyes are wide enough to pop, but I can't help it.

It's amazing.

As we approach the port, I can smell the dead fish even more strongly, and I start to gag. There's something else in there, too, which has to come from the sea because I've never smelled it before. I try to stay close to Ralun on the packed streets. Luckily, I seem to have a natural instinct for navigating through the crowd, or I would have lost him. People file past without even seeing us; it's so impersonal that I feel a little scared. Then Ralun seizes my hand and squeezes it tight, and I feel a bit better.

I can tell that the old bard has been here before, because he takes us straight to an in called "The Mestile". The sign has a picture of a strange creature, half-woman, half-fish, who is floating in the sea. I frown. I've never seen a picture of a Water Spirit that looked like that.

"It's a mermaid," Ralun tells me. "A lot of sailors believe in them, but since the myth isn't native to this land the innkeeper just used the nearest word you have."

Mermaid. I commit the word to memory, along with the image. Maybe they really are a type of mestile.

Inside, the inn is dark; the windows are all too small, and some of the shutters are closed. Still, it's not too gloomy, because of the white-plastered walls and colourful images on the ceiling. I sit in a corner seat studying the murals while Ralun talks to the barkeeper. After a while, another man comes out and greets the bard like an old friend. Ralun speaks at length, and I see him gesture to me a few times, before he comes over and sits down opposite me.

"I've spoken to the innkeeper," he tells me. "We'll be staying here tonight and… what are you looking at?"

Wordlessly, I point to the ceiling. Ralun follows my gaze, and groans. Above our heads are pictures of a large number of people doing things that most people would rather do in private.

"Sorry," the bard apologises. "But a lot of the people who stop here are very… direct."

I shrug. "I think it's interesting," I say. Ralun seems to be baffled by this, so I tell him to just carry on with what he was saying.

"Um… yes…" he mutters. "Well, I'm going to go and see if I can find us passage. I've arranged some lunch for you; it should be here in a minute. Can you stay in this room for the rest of the day?"

I nod reluctantly. Intriguing as the ceiling is, I can see myself getting very bored of it by the end of the afternoon. Ralun seems to sense this, because he smiles apologetically as he leaves.

After a minute or so, a young woman about my own age appears and plonks a plate down in front of me. I examine the contents. Bread, cheese, and some fruit- a reasonable lunch. I thank her politely.

"Hey, it's no problem," she grins. Her eyes flick over me. "So, you're with ol' Ralun, huh? About time he took an apprentice."

I ask her how she knew I was an apprentice.

"Because I know Ralun," she replied easily. "He's like an uncle to me, and he sure ain't going to be doing any of that."

I look around the nearly-deserted inn, and ask if she'll sit with me a while, but she shakes her head.

"No, Da'll have my head if he catches me slacking. But say, if you're ever back this way, drop by and ask for Allietht, okay?"

I agree happily, and tuck into my lunch as she leaves. I haven't had a decent meal for quite a while, so I'm fairly hungry, and the whole thing vanishes fast. I then sit back, contented.

After about an hour, I'm feeling much less patient and happy. I sit watching a group of three sailors in one corner. They came in about twenty minutes ago, and they seem to be having fun. I can see cards in their hands. They're playing some kind of game with them. I watch from afar, trying to work out the rules, then decide that it's pointless. There's a much better way to find out.

The men seem quite surprised when I ask if they'll teach me to play, but they willingly let me join them. I take a seat at their table, studying them carefully. Two of them seem to be fine; they look villainous and flirt with me as I sit down, but I can't see any harm in them. The third man worries me, though. He is a northerner, like Ralun, but with dark brown hair and eyes, and every time he looks at me his mouth twists into an unpleasant sneer.

I introduce myself, and the men do likewise. The sneering northerner is Brad; the man with rough stubble on his chin and a new shirt is Kimain, and the third man who has a moustache is Jolin. To my surprise, although he looks like Satht Da'yri, Jolin is clearly from somewhere else entirely.

Kimain is dealing, and he swiftly passes each of us four cards, telling me as he does so the basics of the game.

"You have four suites; Rock, Wind, Flame and River. The cards go from one to sixteen, and you have to try and get four cards of the same numerical value, one from each suite. The closer you are, the better you score."

I quickly pick up the general idea, and Brad suggests slyly that since I'm such a fast study, we should play for money. I feel dubious, but Jolin seems to think it's a good idea, so I put a few coins into the middle and take my cards.

They're terrible. I have two Rock cards, two and ten, along with the four of Wind and the fifteen of Flame. I'd have to swap a lot of cards to get a decent hand, and everybody would know…

Unless I bluff it now. It's a risk. If anyone calls my bluff, I'm going to lose for certain, but I decide that's what I'm going to do. I smile at the three sailors.

"I'm staying," I tell them.

Brad swaps one card; the other two do the same as me. Doubt enters my mind. What if they have really good hands? What if I can't do this?

Then Jolin folds, and I realise that they're all thinking exactly the same as me. They don't know what I have. The realisation causes a slight smile to spread across my face, and I notice that Brad and Kimain are watching closely. I look at them with innocent eyes, and try to seem like a country bumpkin.

They both fold.

When I turn my cards over, Jolin bursts out laughing. Kimain and Brad simply stare as I pocket the money.

"Well done, kid," Jolin chuckles. "I reckon we've got a natural here!"

The rest of the afternoon passes fairly well. I loose quite a few times after that one win, sometimes very badly, but I still manage to hold my own enough to double my money by the time Ralun returns.

The bard walks over to the table where Kim is explaining to me some of the more complicated rules of the game, and shakes his head in disbelief.

"You really were born for this, weren't you?" he sighs. I look up at him with large, innocent eyes, then crack up laughing.

"Well, of course I was," I tell him, and only then do I realise that it is absolutely true.


Day 13

I wake at dawn, eager to be going. I dress by the pinkish light that streams in through the shutters, noticing that my breeches are starting to look rather tattered and worn. I should really get another pair.

Despite my early start, I find Ralun waiting for me in the bar room with breakfast already on one of the tables. I sit down and start eating with a wide smile.

"The ship sails in two hours," my companion tells me without any ado. "We have to be on board by then."

I nod in between mouthfuls of bread and jam. "What ship is it?" I ask.

"A trading ship called the Jasmine," the bard replies. "I've sailed on her before, and I know the captain."

I ask why he calls the ship "she".

"All ships are she," he shrugs. "It's traditional. Now, I've told the captain that I'll be bringing my apprentice, but I haven't told him you're a girl. He's made a bargain now, and he'll stick by it, but you should know that there might be trouble."

"Why?" I wonder, licking sticky fruit jam off my fingers.

"Women are supposed to be bad luck aboard ships," Ralun explains. "And sailors are very superstitious folk."

I frown. "Why are women bad luck when the ship is female?"

Ralun chuckles. "Jealousy, I think. In some places, the sea is seen as female too."

I shrug. "Well, in that case I shall just have to tell the ship and the sea that I'm not out to steal their men. The last thing we need are jealous mesti after us!"

Ralun sighs. "You are something else, Yjadd."

"I know," I reply smugly, finishing my breakfast.

Tarekan in the early morning is a very different place. There is something fresh and alive about it, a cheery business that makes even the old, grubby streets seem to be gleaming. Ralun leads me downhill along the narrow roads to the dockside. Here, I can see almost no women, and the buildings all seem to be warehouses and taverns. The stone of the harbour leads seamlessly into the wooden docks, and Ralun begins to count off the walkways we pass. A few passing sailors whistle at me; I flirtatiously blow kisses in return, secretly enjoying the attention. Nobody would whistle at me back home. Being attractive is a new prospect, and one that I find curiously fascinating.

"Here we are," Ralun declares, and I look around to see that we are walking onto one of the wooden docks. A few yards beneath our feet, the sea crashes wildly, and to take my suddenly worried mind off this I study the ship we will be travelling on.

The Jasmine is a large ship, with a fat belly and vast white sails. Curiously, I observe the cranes and levers that are loading boxes and crates on board. There are some black markings on the side, and I realise that the ship's name is painted in another language. Then I see that the prow of the ship has been carved into the shape of a beautiful woman, her torso blending perfectly with the keel. Her face is proud, her sightless eyes staring up and forwards. I don't know about ships, but I instantly recognise that this delicate figurehead is, in a way, the face of the vessel.

"Ralun!" calls a voice, and a slender man with steel-grey hair strolls down the gangplank, his arms spread wide. He claps the old bard on the back, his face a picture of good-natured happiness.

"Glad you could make it!" he bellows. "We almost had to set sail without you! And who's this?" he asks, turning to me. I can actually tell the moment he realises I'm a girl... his face sags into a worried frown.

"A woman?" he groans. "Ralun, why didn't you tell me your apprentice was female, for goodness sake?"

"Because you wouldn't have agreed to take me, you old wavebasher," Ralun replies equitably.

"Damn right I wouldn't!" the man snaps. "My men'll mutiny over this!"

Just then, I saw a familiar face at the top of the gangplank. "Kim!" I yell, and the sailor looks around in surprise before waving to me. He makes his way down the ramp to stand with us.

"Don't tell me you're sailing with us," he begs, after taking in the scene. I shrug apologetically.

"Do you think your mesti will let me?" I ask. He frowns, his face serious. I know he understands me; Kim may be twice my age, but he is Satht Da'yri, and so he understands about the spirits in a way no foreigner ever could.

"Most times, I'd say no," he says slowly. "But I reckon a girl like you could convince them."

The captain frowns. "You know her?" he demands. Kim nods.

"She's the one who took my money at cards yesterday," he explains. The captain turns to study me once more, his face thoughtful.

"If you can placate these damn mesti of yours, you're aboard," he decides, eventually.

"Captain Lakji, you are not going to regret this," Ralun assures him, pushing me up the gangplank.

"I already am!" the man bawls after us. "You lying old..."

His last words are lost to me as I step on board and immediately fall over. The crew members who are on deck laugh cruelly as Ralun helps me back to my feet. The ship is tossing and pitching; it simply won't remain still. I can feel bile rising from my stomach.

"It takes most people like this, the first time," Kim tells me, seeing my green face. "It'll pass eventually, mesti willing."
I glare at him. We're gaining an audience, silent sailors all coming to see what a woman is doing on board. I can feel hostility in the crowd, and shudder inwardly. Then I see Jolin and Brad standing amongst the mob, and the young sailor gives me a surreptitious smile. My confidence buoyed by this, I manage to stand up straight, and walk shakily to the prow. The sailors part before me, giving me space to move through. I make my way to the rail, and lean over to see the figurehead. Then, making sure that my voice is loud enough to carry, I begin to speak.

"Ship Jasmine, I am sorry, but I need your help. Will you carry me across the sea to Kalimere? I promise not to steal your sailors on the way, Lady Mesti. Surely we can be friends, since you and I are both in the care of Sother?"

It may simply be the motion of the sea, but I could swear I saw the head of the carven woman move in a slight nod. I can hear muttering behind me, as the sailors discuss my words. I decide more is needed to convince them, and turn to the sea.

"Mestile of the sea, I ask that you let Ship Jasmine carry me to Kalimere safely, since that is the only way to leave Paniyj dai Tikte without magic."

The sea gives no discernable response, but the muttering behind me sounds less hostile and more curious. I turn to face the mob of sailors and smile wanly.

"Thank you for letting me travel on this beautiful vessel of yours," I say. Now I'm not imagining it. The sailors seem to be turning, breaking away to return to their own tasks. Jolin and Kim walk over to me, smiles on their faces.

"That was brilliant!" Jolin declares. "I just know we'll be safe on this voyage now."

"Yes, that should have persuaded our mesti," Kim agrees. I smile, but suddenly loose my footing and fall to the deck as the ship lurches on the waves.

"All aboard!" calls a voice.

"Cast off!" comes the reply, and suddenly the dock is moving away. The ship is swaying from side to side, and my stomach flips over. I barely manage to make it to the side before my breakfast exits the way it came. Even when there is no food left in my belly, it keeps on heaving, bringing up raw acid to burn my throat.

"I see you've never been on a ship before," Ralun says behind me. I groan weakly, unable to speak. I'm slumped on the floor, my back against the rails. I've never felt so ill in my life, and we only cast off five minutes ago!

"Try this," the old bard suggests, handing me a handful of dry leaves. I put them in my mouth and start to chew; moments later, a blast of coldness takes away the foul taste of my own vomit.

"What is this?" I ask. Ralun smiles.

"Mint leaves. They generally help to settle my stomach a little."

I'm about to reply, when another spasm seizes my belly. I manage to take the mint out of my mouth before I am leaning back over the side, my throat being scraped raw by the contents of my stomach.

It's going to be a long journey.


Day 14

Dark. Wood. Moving. I fall asleep again.

A face, lit by lanternlight. Once more, I find it impossible to remain conscious.

Now I'm awake properly. I stagger out of the low bunk in which I'm lying, and manage to fish out the pot from under the bed before I'm sick again. The motion of the ship seems ten times worse down here; still gagging, I make my way towards the door opposite the bed. It leads into a narrow corridor, at one end of which daylight shows. I stumble over and scramble up the ladder, finally slumping out on deck.

"If it ain't our little spirit-speaker," chuckles a voice, and I open one eye to see Kim's friendly face hovering over mine. "Can't keep you down, eh?"

I groan in reply, slumping back down. The sickness doesn't seem so bad up here in the open air, but the wind is colder than I'd expected, and my loose hair is already unbearably tangled.

"Up you come," Kim grunts, grabbing my arms and getting me to my feet. Bile rises in my throat, but I manage to fight it back down and glare at the sailor, who grins unapologetically.

"You'll get your sea-legs soon enough," he declares confidently. "Just try to act as normally as possible in the meantime."

Normally! I can barely stand upright without vomiting! I stagger over to the ship's rail, and lean over it, breathing deeply. I realise that my hair is hanging down on either side of my face, whipping about in the wind. I curse inwardly; it'll be caught for sure if my stomach empties now. I hear Kim roaring behind me, and moments later a gentle hand touches my arm. I look up to see Jolin smiling at me. It lights up his face, but I'm in no mood to appreciate it.

"Gar-kte kathtonne hena!" I snarl viciously. Fortunately, Jolin isn't quite that fluent in Satht Da'yri, so he merely pried me away from the rail and sat me down facing inwards. I felt queasiness as I watched the line of the ship bob up and down against the skyline, but instead of complaining merely sat there sullenly. After a moment, I feel gentle hands running through my hair, straightening out the tangles and forcing it to lie straight. There is something deeply soothing about the motion, and I find myself relaxing gently.

"You're good at this," I compliment the young sailor.

"I have three sisters," he replies equitably. "You have lovely hair." He gathers it back, and I feel something tying it away from my face.

"Always hold onto bits of string," Jolin explains as I turn quizzically around. "You never know when they might come in useful."

"Thanks," I say, tucking a stray strand of hair behind my ear. That should keep it out of the way... suddenly I realise that I don't feel so bad. Surprised, I comment on it out loud.

"Glad to hear it," Jolin replies cheerily. "You want me to take you to Ralun?"

I nod agreement, and he leads me across the deck to where the old bard stands leaning over the side, looking at the water below. He glances up as we approach, and greets me with a wave.

"Feeling better?" he asks. I tell him that I do. His face takes on a mischievous expression.

"Now, can you say that in Kalimere?" he asks me. For a moment I panic. I can't speak Kalimere! Then a few word fragments come back to me, a disjointed collection gathered over the last week.

"To be... happy... thank you," I state in halting Kalimere. Ralun smiles broadly and congratulates me.

"That's impressive," he says. "Now, I'll tell you how to say it properly."

We spent the morning talking in Kalimere; Ralun giving me something to say, me making an attempt and being corrected. I was amazed at how many things I'd already picked up. I was by no means fluent, but I could generally follow the gist of what was being said, and make myself understood in return.

"You haven't learnt it at all, really," Ralun warns me. "It's just that we've been practicing every day. A few days without it, and you'd soon forget everything."

I don't care. I am, slowly, learning a little of another language.

When the time comes for the midday meal, I elect not to eat anything. My stomach still feels unsteady, and I don't want to give it anything else to bring up. Instead, I sit listening to the sailors talk in a strange tongue as they eat. I feel buoyant, happy.

And then I hear a word I recognise. It's the Kalimere for "thank you". Suddenly, I realise that the sailors are speaking that language, and my heart crashes down into the soles of my boots. I didn't even recognise it being spoken. How am I ever going to speak it? That afternoon, I ask Ralun exactly that.

"Don't be so hard on yourself," he tells me kindly. "Languages always sound different when they're being used properly. You'll learn, in time."

I don't want it to take time. Ralun can see that I'm upset, and so decides that the rest of the day should be spent teaching me how to sing. It turns out that there is a lot more to it that I'd ever thought. We spend a long time simply breathing, taking air in from the base of our lungs and holding it their as long as we possibly can. There is something therapeutic and relaxing about this. After a while, I could be happy simply sitting and breathing for ever.

Time passes, and the sun sinks low on the horizon. The sea becomes a carpet of silver and red glass, the ship bathed in the crimson glow. Ralun and I watch the sunset, our backs to the appearing stars and darkness. I've never seen dusk over the sea before, but it swiftly becomes the most beautiful sight I ever see. Finally, the last traces of the sun are gone, and Panon pushes the moon into the sky to begin her journey over the world below. I yawn, tired.

"You'd best get some sleep," Ralun suggests, and I agree. Dozily, I shuffle back to the hatch that leads below deck, and make my way to the small cabin where I awoke.

I've forgotten about the seasickness. As soon as I am below deck, it returns full force, and no sooner have I reached my cabin than I am vomiting again. The ship sways alarmingly around me, and I crawl weakly into bed. Fortunately, I am so tired that even the strong churning of my stomach fails to keep me awake.

All the same, my dreams are fevered, and I frequently wake. I toss and turn in my bunk. Sometimes I see faces near me, at others I am alone.

Then a new person walks in, and although they are no sailor I realise immediately that it is no dream. The man has dark colouring, like one of the Satht Da'yri, and a roguish gleam in his eyes. He kneels beside my bed, his rough and travel-stained clothes lit by the steady glow of the lantern beside my bunk.

"Sother," I murmur, and he smiles. A cool hand strokes my forehead, and the God of Travellers begins to sing.

The song is not one I have ever heard before or since, and I don't remember the words at all. What I do know is that it is sung in Satht Da'yri, and that it is about freedom and following where the heart leads. The tune, at least, is memorable, and echoes in my mind long after the God finishes singing.

"Yjaddetht Doresoth," he whispers, and my eyes slide closed. A moment later, I force them open, but he has gone. He's taken my sickness with him; I feel much better.

My innards finally stable, I fall into a deep sleep.