Title: Letters from Karchesa
Description: A lonely traveler meets a young woman who may be able to convince him to do the impossible: return home. That is, if he doesn't fall in love with her first. (AU, A/Z)
A/N: A new idea that came to me during Ficathon. Hopefully it will get finished...
Letters from Karchesa
Even before the sun had pushed himself over the rim of the horizon, the morning had been stickily warm. All of her clients were dripping with sweat when they lowered themselves to the straw mats, and as soon as Elim, the errand boy, filled the water pitchers, they were emptied again.
The river blue awnings kept off the worst of the heat, but on her breaks, Arya emerged from her blue cocoon to let the sun's rays press their searing kisses to her cheeks. She felt most at home in the cool, quiet tower room where she and her fellow apprentice scribes did indoor work, but she relished being in the bustling open-air markets. She had worked there three days a week for five months already; still, the streets always seemed to be filled with strangers.
Every day there was something new to see, and by chance, she often overheard tidbits of important news before it reached Government Square and the town criers. Of course, the breezes were as rich with rumors as they were with scents, stirring up dust and trouble and excitement wherever they went. The very pulse of the city seemed to be thrumming in these crowded market squares.
If the markets were the city's arteries, the river was its heart. Arya took every chance she got to stroll along its banks, and she rented a room in a boardinghouse that overlooked the water.
She had just resettled herself among the cushions, the last in a neat row of scribes, when a man burst forth from the crowd of passersby. Arya was not the only scribe sitting idle, but he approached her without hesitation.
Like the men of the city, he wore sandals that laced up the ankle and a loose robe over his cream-colored shirt. The robe was lavishly embroidered and exactly matched the shade of his eyes. He looked young – perhaps only a handful of years older than her – and he was handsome in spite of the pink blotches spreading over his fair skin. His long, curling hair and his accent, which clipped some words short and lingered over others, marked him as a foreigner.
"Are you the one who reads letters?" he demanded after giving the quick bow that served as a customary greeting and preceded all transactions. He could not be very familiar with the practice, but she had to admit that he performed it more stylishly than half the men of her acquaintance as he swept the edges of the robe behind him with a flourish.
"I can read your letters for you," she said, taking care to speak slowly and distinctly, "and I can also write them."
Once he handed over the sealed packet, he was restless. He took the seat she offered but then sprang up again to pace before her, examining the calligraphy samples attached to the posts that held up the canopies.
Arya slit the letter open with the ease of long practice, noting that it came from far-off Taelia, where it actually snowed. She had never seen snow before, although she had heard a great deal about it from travelers. Although they alternately loved it or hated it, whichever the case, snow seemed to engender strong feelings in people.
She unfolded the single sheet, which was written in the universal script in a clean, straight hand – quite skilled but not a scribal hand – and cleared her throat delicately. "Would you prefer I read it in Taelian or Karchese?"
"Karchese," he answered immediately. Then he turned his head to peer at her. "You speak Taelian?"
"We provide scribal services in all the languages of the countries shown here." Arya indicated a sign where several coats of arms were displayed in neat rows; the pennants of the same countries flew gaily above the linen awning. "Shall I begin?"
He gave her a short nod. She could tell, from long experience, that he was braced for difficult news despite the casual air he adopted. He stood in front of her desk looking off into the distance, and the corners of his expressive mouth were rigid.
"'Dear Zayven,'" she read, "'I hope this letter reaches you in Karchesa. With your sense of direction, I have more confidence in my letter making it there than in your doing so. It's also entirely the wrong time of year to be traveling to Karchesa. You must be as red as a boiled crayfish by now. Unless, of course, you weren't really heading south, in which case you won't be reading this at all.
"'It was exceptionally rude of you to ride off in the middle of the night and then furnish your direction only when you had ensured yourself a fortnight's head start. Why did you leave without saying goodbye? No one can ever tell you what to do – or rather, they can say anything they like, but you never listen – but please come back straightaway. I mean it. Ask someone for directions if you need to.'
"It's signed, 'Jaim Escovera.'"
Zayven raised his eyebrows. "I'm impressed. He used the word 'please.' And he must be truly irritated if he's signed his family name."
As always, such statements piqued her insatiable curiosity, but responding to them was not considered to lie within the range of appropriate scribal etiquette. Instead, she concentrated on neatly replacing the letter in its envelope. She offered it back to him, but he did not extend his hand immediately to receive it. "Did you wish to send a reply?"
"No," he said. Then, with a flash of green eyes, as if daring her to comment on his quick change of mind, he amended, "Yes. Will you write it for me?"
"I am happy to do so." It was a slow afternoon and she could see that to her right, two of the five scribes were unengaged. "Please feel free to take the time you need to collect your thoughts."
At the high-end offices, where scribes waited only on the wealthy, clients would be offered refreshments and comfortable chairs while they waited. Here, there was only a single hard mat and well water flavored with mint.
"I'm ready to begin," he told her.
She held out her hand, palm upwards, to stop him. "Wait, please. Do you prefer the standard ink and paper, or would you care to examine the extensive selection we have available?"
"Just the standard will suit," he said with an airy wave. He was more focused on her upturned hand, as her gesture had his drawn attention to the graceful whorls of blue ink covering her palms. "If I may ask–"
Arya was used to such questions from those who were not native to the city and explained readily, "They are meant to show that I am scribe who has been certified by the guild. Blue is the color used by scribes, you see, and the lily pattern is my master's pattern. When I finish my apprenticeship, the patterns will continue to the tips of my fingers."
"They won't do, hm, the other halves?" he asked, stumbling over the words.
"No. It is a representation of the fluidity of the written word." She held her hands out, palm down. "This way, they are just hands, like any other." Turning them so they faced upwards, revealing the tattoos, she continued, "This way, they gain complexity. It is the same way with words – they may seem to carry meaning only on the surface, but they can be interpreted differently depending on the angle from which you view them."
"They are exquisite."
She smiled. She couldn't help but be intrigued by someone who was clearly still learning her language but somehow knew the word "exquisite." "Thank you. I must admit, I am also fond of my master's pattern."
Zayven merely nodded, but he didn't tell her he had been talking about more than just the pattern, which was quite lovely on its own. He admired the neat, pale ovals of her nails, the long, capable lines of her fingers, and the slender grace of her palms.
"Shall we begin?"
"Yes. 'Jaim' – no salutation – 'You wound me. I have half a mind to travel to the farthest reaches of the world just to prove you wrong, but at present, I find myself too lazy to pursue this course. It seems to me that there can be no wrong time to visit this fascinating city. Were you aware that even people's hands are beautiful in Karchesa?'"
Arya raised her eyebrows, but her hand didn't falter.
"'As for my purported rudeness, I try to be exceptional in everything I do. Thus, I must continue in this vein to surpass my previous efforts. I won't tell you when or if I'm coming back, but it certainly isn't now. Best regards, Zayven.'"
She was impressed. He had maintained a continuous stream of dictation without once needing to consult the letter to frame his reply. After she had whisked the sand off the sheet and made sure the ink was dry, she held it out for his inspection.
"Excellent. I am grateful for your assistance." He paid the fee and posting cost, pocketed his letter, and strode away. She caught her last glimpse of him passing through the narrow space between a man carrying a cage of goldfinches and the rug merchant's stall before the crowd swallowed him entirely.