Content notes: Fictional slavery
Shoneng jumped at the awed murmur and wrapped her arms around herself.
“I’m sorry I just… I love your hair.”
It was hard not to apologize. The priest-trainers had worked with Shoneng for a month to understand that what her parents expected would not be what other sen expected. “Th-thank you, sen.”
Shoneng looked up for a glimpse of the young woman leaning against the railing. She looked to be about Shoneng’s age — of course — with lovely blond hair cut raggedly short and an open, friendly face. Her tunic wasn’t what Shoneng expected from a sen — old and worn, though well cared for. She smiled when she saw Shoneng looking.
Cheeks burning, Shoneng, dropped her eyes.
“How may we serve you, sen?” came a voice from behind Shoneng.
A dozen or more haoza shared the fenced area with Shoneng, though she was the youngest by 12 years or more. They were only one of a half dozen groups of haoza waiting in the temple yard.
Several of the haoza waiting with Shoneng showed signs of old injuries. Limps or crippled arms. She turned and saw the one who spoke was missing an eye… and Shoneng winced as she realized what he had said — what she had failed to say.
“I’m a new sen– obviously–” the young woman replied. “I mean, it’s only new sen allowed here, right?”
“Yes, sen,” the man replied. “This market is only for new sen. You all are allowed to choose one of us to serve you without paying the temple because the gods wish you to all start out with a good chance for success.”
“But not just any haoza, though. I was told… that this market is special?”
The man didn’t respond right away so Shoneng spoke up, eager to show she could be useful. “Yes, sen. My– that is, I was told that all of the haoza here are people the priests think will help you get a good start…” She trailed off, as she realized what she was saying. That was what her parents had told her. Her sen parents, who would die of shame if they knew she was here. But was it true? What did she have to offer? She hadn’t even been haoza a full season.
The man, perhaps recognizing how she felt, put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“I don’t… I don’t really know what I need, what would help. The priest, well one of them, told me I should come over here.”
The man bowed, “With your permission, sen, may I introduce my fellow haoza? Perhaps when you know our skills you will have an idea who best will serve you.”
“Oh! Yes, please.”
“As you have seen, the haoza at this market are divided, each group having a specialty. Some are skilled in crafts,” he pointed to a group on the far side, “or household service,” another group, “or trade,” a third. “We here are, if you will forgive the presumption, teachers. Most of us rotate through here every few years, helping a new sen find their feet and get comfortable being sen, making plans, and starting their business or trade. When they are ready they pick out a sen with the specific skills they need and return us to the temple. Though sometimes the gods smile on one of us and a true pair develops.”
The sen clapped her hands and bounced a bit. The movement drew Shoneng’s eyes to her bosom, which filled her tunic and made for more than a fair handful… “I think I am exactly where I need to be!” the sen said. “Tell me about yourselves?”
“I am Oten, and was first haoza to Smith-master Thureng when she was a new sen.” And he went on to name each of the others, who came forward with and bowed or saluted as they were able.
Each introduction made Shoneng more self-conscious. She had been told all her life that only sen could achieve greatness, but these people, as Oten named the sen they had serviced, the work they had done… they had all done great things, served not just their sen, but the gods and city by helping raise their sen up. Everyone had heard of Smith-master Thureng, or Sen Ifowa managed the city’s breweries.
What were they doing here? They should be kept and honored by their sen, or given a high place among the haoza who served the temple and city.
And what was she doing here? What mistake had put here with these? She wanted to sink into the ground.
She couldn’t, of course, and eventually, Oten came around to her. “And you have met the newest of our comrades, Shoneng. She is like yourself, just tested, but,” Shoneng gaped as he winked at her, “I have heard things from the priests and we expect great things from her.”
Shoneng made herself bow but could think of nothing to say. What could the sen think? “I am… nothing special, sen. Oten gives me more praise than I deserve.”
Oten said nothing, though his eyes crinkled. To Shoneng’s surprise, the sen stepped closer. “You’re my age. I’m sure in a few years you’ll have a long list of successes too. But tell me, how could you help me— I mean, how could you help a new sen find her feet?”
“I…” she swallowed. “I don’t…”
From the back of the pen came a curse. One of the other haoza, an older woman with a limp stepped forward. Oten had just named her, but Shoneng had lost track. “Excuse me, sen,” she said with a bow. “I shouldn’t be interrupting, but I’ve been forgetful this morning and have a duty to fulfill.”
The woman reached into her bag — most of the sen had a simple wool sack they carried their personal belongings in. Shoneng was one of the few that didn’t. She pulled out… another sack. And offered it to Shoneng. “Priest Henim said ey missed you this morning and make sure I didn’t let you leave without it.”
“Henim?” Shoneng took the bag and, with a glance at the sen to be sure she didn’t offend, peered in. To some people, it would look like a bundle of sticks and a few pieces of cord, but Shoneng had always loved to weave. “Ey remembered.” She hugged the loom to her — her own loom, that she could take with her anywhere.
“Of course ey did. I helped with Henim’s training. One of the good ones.
“And if you aren’t sure why you are here with us, you might think on anything Henim said because if I know my priests — and I do — ey had a hand in it.”
“Ey…” Shoneng shook her head and looked back at the waiting sen, who had witnessed all this with evident amusement. “Forgive me, sen, Priest Henim did help me after my testing and is very wise, but I don’t know why ey thought I would belong here.” She laughed a little, “I don’t really know how to be haoza, I was raised to be…” shock stopped her words and when she spoke again it was like each word was a boulder she forced from her mouth. “I was raised to be sen.”
“Really?” The sen grinned. “My parents were both haoza serving the city. I’ve never been around sen much. I,” she winked, “was raised to be haoza.”
The sen looked her over, still smiling. “Come with me.” And she turned and started walking away.
Oten laughed and squeezed Shoneng’s shoulder again. “Good luck, young one. Hopefully, we will not see you again here. But if you do, you are always welcome.
“Now get moving.”
He gave Shoneng a little shove that broke through her shock, and she climbed over the fence to follow. The young sen may not think she knew how to be sen, but clearly, when she knew what she wanted, she didn’t hesitate — or wait.
The sen smiled when Shoneng caught up with her. “I’m so glad you were here.”
“What?” Shoneng asked.
“Oten was nice, and I’m sure the others could have taught me a lot. But they are so intimidating!”
Shoneng surprised herself with a giggle. “They are! But are you sure you want…”
“I’m sure.” The sen reached over and tugged one of Shoneng’s curls. “I think we can learn together.
“And I really like your hair.”