Season Content Notes: Natural disaster/death, ableism
Lefeng rose early the next morning. The hospitality family offered fruit and a strange kind of flatbread. Ey took the flatbread and ate it a small bit at a time. By the time ey finished, the sun was rising. Ey roused Paiokp and Chestef and waited, as patiently as ey could, while they ate. Then the three headed out to speak again with the weaver.
When they arrived again at the old compound, the once-weaver let them in, but refused to speak with them. “Kolchais will show you around the city,” ey said instead. “If you would live here, you should know it. I will watch the youngling for you. Ey can help me with the weeding.”
Lefeng was reluctant to leave, wanting to talk with the once-weaver about the family and eir thoughts on it, but Chotaikytsai was firm. Chestef, to eir surprise, liked the plan. Eventually, Lefeng realized that the youngling would feel safer in a family compound — any family compound. With the assurance of the youngling’s safety, ey agreed.
Kolchais was extremely knowledgeable about the city. Ey not only pointed out directions and landmarks but explained some of the city customs and organization. There was a council that ruled the city, made up of one member of each family. The council made the laws and set policy, and once a year elected between three and ten people to do the day-to-day work of managing the city.
“In theory, anyone can be elected.” Kolchais paused a moment to gulp for breath. “In practice, it’s almost always people from the most successful 20 or 30 families. Fifty years ago, though, one of the family-less was elected. Ey had become a hero in the fighting when North Shore tried to invade. I guess the council thought they needed to do something about em before ey became a threat, though. Ey was caught ‘stealing’ from the city and executed as a traitor.”
Lefeng glanced at Paiokp and saw the golden-eyed one looking back at em. Paiokp rolled eir eyes and Lefeng nodded. Don’t trust the council, message received.
Their town-guide stumbled. Lefeng caught eir elbow reflexively, but let go as soon as Kolchais had eir feet again. “Apologies, Kolchais. I did not mean to intrude.”
Kolchais looked down and away, pulling away from Lefeng. “No apology needed, far-walker. I… appreciate the help. Turn here. I’m sure you’d like to see the main trader’s market.”
Lefeng followed, trying to give the town-guide space. But the once-fisher hurried after and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Of course. The market runs every day, but by custom first day through fourth day are reserved for trading families. Fifth and sixth days are open to other families, and on seventh day they let family-less who have enough tokens in to buy what little we can.” Ey continued talking about the market, but Lefeng stopped listening. The once-walker had heard enough of markets, now it was time to watch.
Once Lefeng was paying attention to eir eyes rather than eir ears, it became obvious that Paiokp had been right to worry about their guide. Kolchais was sweating and limping. There was a pattern to eir steps. It reminded Lefeng of grandparents in their last year on the trails. Something that spoke of an inner strength and stubbornness, but an outer strength that could no longer keep up with that inner determination.
Worse, ey now noticed the other city-folk around them staring. Not staring at the two out-town strangers, but at their guide. The stares were hostile, and more than one person made warding gestures or signs of contempt. City folk were disgusting.
Lefeng ignored the staring strangers. They were not a problem — now, anyway. Ey hesitated before speaking, not wanting to offend Kolchais again. But Lefeng could not stay silent while the stubborn-one pushed emself into injury. “We should stop and rest a bit. You are going to harm yourself if you keep pushing yourself.” Kolchais looked down and away again, and this time Lefeng could see it for embarrassment and shame, not the anger ey had thought.
“Besides,” Paiokp put in, “my thoughts are more stuffed than a child on a feast-day. We need time to absorb everything you have said before we hear any more.”
Kolchais didn’t try to argue. Paiokp, Lefeng thought, turned the tide, giving the city-folk a reason to stop that eir pride could accept. They found a wall to sit by. Lefeng and Paiokp squated down but Kolchais leaned against the wall. “If I squat down,” ey muttered, “I may not be able to get up.”
The city-folk seemed to expect some response, but Lefeng couldn’t imagine what. Ey shrugged and went back to watching the people around them.
They had barely walked a finger-width of the sun’s course, and it took the stubborn-one a half-fingerwidth to breathe easy and stop eir legs from shaking. Not wanting the stubborn-one to push emself again so quickly — and still having much to learn — Lefeng and Paiokp began asking questions.
Before too long, Paiokp began to get restless, after traveling with em for a month Lefeng recognized the signs. But Lefeng was used to judging eir family’s fitness for the trail and gestured patience. After another finger-width, Lefeng asked Kolchais if they could continue.
The city-folk agreed, but Lefeng insisted that ey tell them when ey needed to rest again. Lefeng found eir eyes caressing Kolchais’ broad face and the cute way ey bit eir lip while ey thought. “Alright. As long as you don’t mind…”
“If I minded, I wouldn’t ask.”
So they walked and rested, walked and rested. Over the course of the morning, Kolchais explained everything from the street sweepers who passed by (family-less hired as day-labor) to the working of the council. From class distinctions within the city (class being a combination of a family’s trade, location, and wealth) to how family compounds could be sold or trade hands. Even how the family-less lived in the city.
Lefeng and Paiokp were by then used to the physical presence of the city. But they had many questions about how so many people managed to live together. Kolchais’ explanations help them make sense of how the city worked and how they would need to function to survive within it.
Lefeng was not happy with city ways. They were, as eir family always believed, unhealthy and ridiculous. Why they practically lived in their own filth! But this is the choice ey had made, so ey would deal with it as best ey could.
Ey wondered if Paiokp might also be having second thoughts. Sometimes the wind shifted to blow from the sea. Each time the golden-eyed-one looked toward it with longing, in spite of the horrific smell that came from the docks.
Throughout the day, Lefeng continued to see (and sometimes hear!) strangers stop and yell taunts or make rude gestures at Kolchais. For most of the walk, Lefeng and Paiokp politely ignored it as a personal matter they didn’t want to call attention to. But Lefeng found emself thinking that this stubborn-one, with eir knowledge of the city and how it functioned and the best ways for someone without power and influence to survive, could be a valuable addition to their family. Plus ey liked em. Paiokp must have been having similar thoughts. Lefeng could see eir hands clenching and eyes narrowing at each new insult. So ey wasn’t surprised when the golden-eyed-one asked about the rude people.
Lefeng expected the city-folk, stubborn-one to refuse to answer. It was an invasive question. But Kolchais began talking of eir family and eir illness. How eir slowness and difficulty walking was the result of something that caused them to be constantly in pain. Eir family believed ey was lying and lazy to get out of contributing and doing work for the family.
“That’s ridiculous,” Lefeng burst out. “You nearly pushed yourself to collapse this morning. Anyone with eyes can see that you do what you can and more. Or was it someone else working in the garden with the once-weaver yesterday?”
Kolchais shrugged. “It is what they believe. And for a long time, I thought they were right.”
“Were the healers and priests unable to help?” Paiokp asked gently.
Kolchais looked down. “There are no healers for the family-less. The one healer my family brought to see me gave a potion that helped the pain, but it didn’t stop it.”
“I’m sorry,” Paiokp said.
They didn’t speak of it further, and soon Kolchais turned their steps back toward the once-weaver’s compound. But Lefeng caught the golden-eyed watching em with eyebrows raised in question. Lefeng grinned and nodded. Yes, ey thought they could do well with this one.