by Ski Hemulen
Almost a year had passed before Romial met Otmakil again. Although now there was no open feud between their houses, their houses weren’t allied either, and it was hard to believe that’ll change anytime soon after the way the last feud ended – though stranger things have happened. As it was, men of unallied houses had few reasons to meet other than commerce, and Romial had little to do with that.
A great wedding between Iordan, one of Romial’s cousins, and Nadiara, a girl of the Diarjid family, made the meeting possible, as the Stoyanjid were allied with the Diarjid.
Romial sighted Otmakil from afar early in what was going to be a very long day. Surprisingly, Otmakil looked very much like he did before being sworn. Of course, his hair was cut short and he wore a man’s vest, shirt and breeches, all ornamented in red and gold for the wedding, but he didn’t walk with the wide steps, the pulled back shoulders and the swagger of a man. It was common among new Akrusia to exaggerate those gestures for a while, until they found a balance that looked natural, but Otmakil seemed to do nothing more than the bare minimum – sitting with his knees parted, looking straight ahead at people without averting his eyes. Even those gestures seemed like things he may have done before being sworn. Furthermore, his clothing didn’t seem to hide the contours of his breasts as much as could be expected. Admittedly, Otmakil had more to hide than Romial.
In short, he looked surprisingly feminine. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised Romial, as Otmakil seemed like the kind of person who made his own rules even when it meant disregard for propriety. Not for the first time he asked himself whether his actions in saving Otmakil where right. They were, at the moment, at the center of the uncertainty and frustration he felt about his life. Sometimes because the things Otmakil said haunted him, sometimes because of what he thought his own actions revealed about himself.
He drifted away through the commotion and lost sight of Otmakil.
He located a batch of Romjid men sitting around a platter of roasted lamb and vegetables with tankards of zizi, a strong and sour apple cider, in their hands. They were jovial and probably foul mouthed at the moment. He could really use some of that.
He sat with them, borrowing a tankard from a cousin. The lighthearted conversation revolved around the consummation of the marriage. Vasil told a joke about a man who found out on his wedding night that his wife was a man. ‘…He was shocked to find a penis under the dress, but he was too embarrassed to say anything, so they went on and had seven sons!’ An eruption of laughter.
‘Too many penises will hardly be the problem tonight’ Vasil added, ‘Iordan’s penis is so tiny that Romial here can take his wife’s virginity as easily as he can’. Explosive laughter again.
Romial grinned and extended two crossed fingers, moving them in a thrusting motion. ‘Oh, I think I can do better than him’, several men sprayed zizi, they laughed so hard.
He liked being the butt of jokes. One of the things he learned to love about the society of men was that the joke could be at anyone’s expense, and it only strengthened your place in the group. Laughing about Iordan’s small penis or Romial’s lack of one, about the way Luben shat his pants during a raid, although it was more than forty years ago, or about Timotei kissing a girl and rolling into a batch of nettles. It was cruel but also strangely candid and accommodating to human frailties. It made men loyal to each other – we know each other’s weaknesses and we accept them. It also made leaders more obligated to their men – sure, we follow you and we trust you and we’re loyal to you, but that doesn’t mean we think you’re perfect. We know you used to wet your bed until you were fifteen so don’t act as if the sun shines out of your ass.
This kind of talk and laughter continued for a long while and only late in the evening, after several boring ceremonies, did Romial encounter Otmakil again. Romial sat on his own, drinking wine, feeling light headed, when he saw Otmakil. Their eyes met across the room, and Otmakil’s round face seemed to be asking permission to approach. He gave a small nod.
Otmakil came and sat beside him, looking straight ahead, not at him. ‘It is very good to see you, Fatime’, he said in a very soft and feminine voice.
Romial stiffened. ‘Why would you call me that?’ he asked, voice harsh.
Otmakil looked at him with an inquisitive expression, saying ‘I feel what we’ve done makes lies between us – when they are not uttered to protect our lives from their honor – superfluous. Do you feel otherwise?’
As with the things Otmakil told him on their last meeting, this sentence was like a blacksmith puzzle with no right solution. Every answer he’d give had the potential to entangle his world. Yes, he felt no need to lie to Otmakil. No, he didn’t like the phrase “their honor” being used, But yes, he did fear getting caught, and yes, he had lied to protect their lives. And, anyway, hadn’t his actions made him an accomplice to Otmakil’s twisted worldview, at least partly?
He settled for the least self-compromising thing he had to say. ‘No, I feel the same. It’s just that Fatime isn’t the truth about me. It might have been once. Perhaps. I’m really not sure. But I’m Romial. That part is not a lie’.
‘So you truly see yourself as a man?’ A curious look spread on Otmakil’s face.
‘Of course!’ he snapped, regretting it immediately.
But Otmakil seemed unfazed. ‘It is a good thing to know about you. Romial’. Then added softly ‘be that as it may, Otmakil is not the truth about me. I’m Otmakla, regardless of the dictates of their honor, and I will always be a woman’.
It was a foreign idea, talking about being a woman as if it was a good thing, as if it was something desirable.
‘Women are a bag that carries’, he quoted, ‘a tool for the use of men’. She didn’t object, though her doubtful expression told him she thought differently. ‘What is the meaning of being a woman to an Akrusia?’
‘It means I don’t accept their rules’, she said slowly.
‘You accept them. You live by them’, he said.
‘That’s just survival. In my head I won’t accept them’.
‘Allright Otmakla. When no one can hear I can call you by your true name’, he felt like an accomplice again for saying that. At the same time it felt like a very intimate thing to say. He flushed.
They sat in silence for a while. They didn’t look at each other and their bodies didn’t touch, but he felt like they were in a different room from the crowd around.
It was strange that juxtaposed with the deep pact they had was the fact that they didn’t really know each other very much. He wanted to change that. ‘What have you done in your first year as Akrusia?’ he asked cautiously.
‘Learned to govern the house’, she said, distracted.
‘What do you mean? Haven’t you learned hunting, tracking, farming and the like?’
‘Not really. I did some hunting and exploring as a girl’, again she broke tradition by referring to her past as a girl, but he was getting used to it. She hunted as a girl? Well, she knew how to use a knife well enough. ‘Farming my father teaches me as much as he can. To govern, your family must eat’.
‘Why is he teaching you governing?’ he asked, flustered.
‘What’s your place in your family?’ Otmakla asked.
‘My place? What do you mean?’ Was she avoiding answering him, or was there a point to the new direction of their conversation?
‘Your position. Do you have authority? This could be important’.
‘I’m not sure what you mean by authority. I’m the third son of the head of the family. I guess that makes me stand higher than some…’
‘That’s not authority. Are you listened to? Can you make decisions for the family in any field?’
‘I never sought authority’ he said hesitantly. ‘My father wants me to be responsible for the orchards, starting next year’.
‘There’s no problem with that’ she said, probably feeling his slight defensiveness. ‘It only means you’ll have little influence on your house’s actions in the years to come. And your house is a big and important one’. She looked thoughtful for a while.
‘My father is dying’ she said.
‘So am I’. She paused. ‘I know you and others see him as a weak head of weak family. As a fool’. Romial could hardly deny that. ‘Our family is weak, true, but he isn’t a fool. He is as smart as any family head in the mountains, more than many. His only weakness – you’ll call it a weakness – is that he isn’t ruthless. He wants his family, even his daughters, to have a good life’. She paused. ‘At least he wanted that before your family ended any chance of that’.
‘I’m sorry’ he said again, not sure if he should be sorry, but actually feeling it.
‘It was not your fault’ she said reassuringly. ‘I told you then that you were a puppet, controlled by their honor. That was unfair. Because we all are. You tried to make the best out of the horrible situation their honor created. That is what my father would have done. That’s what I hope I would have done’.
It seemed she remembered the things she told him in that conversation. He had reenacted that scene in his head countless times, thinking over every word she said. It was good that she remembered, that it was meaningful for her as well.
The fact that she was reassuring him, on the other hand, made him uneasy. He was starting to accept that she really was a victim of this complicated situation. Her reassurance, however, implied that she thought he was a victim as well, mirroring some of the dark thoughts he had after that night.
‘You didn’t say why you’re learning to govern. Are you supposed to help your brother after…?’ he was trying to move away from subjects that made him uncomfortable.
‘Oh. I thought it was obvious’, she said tersely, ‘My father intends that I head the family after him’.
That shocked him.
‘B-but, you’re third in line…’
‘So what? My father knows I’m the smartest and best suited for the position, and so do my brothers. They knew it even when I was a girl’.
It was not unheard of for an Akrusia to head a family, but it was very rare.
‘I gather that you’re content with that’.
‘Not exactly. I am trying to make the best out of a bad situation. I fear that when I just wanted the best, disregarding the situation, their honor made me and mine pay dearly’.
‘I’m sorry’, he said once more. She said nothing, only letting her firm hand rest reassuringly on his arm. It felt good.
‘So what was the best outcome you wanted to achieve? Disregarding the situation?’
‘It was stupid, childish. I wanted to leave the mountains. Travel places their honor wouldn’t reach’.
Leave the mountains… He knew something about the world down below. The merchants came from the towns of Chirkid and some from further away. He knew of the great watery sea in the middle of the earth, though he couldn’t really imagine it. He heard of the lands far to the east and west, from where different spices came. But he could not imagine leaving.
‘You see, I read that to the southeast, in the great Samkan cities on the shores of the Middle Sea, a woman can own property and land. Each city has a ruling council, and there are women among its members’. She was obviously excited by the idea.
Her story was strange, but he heard the like from merchants. He heard about lands where people had two heads, where the dead walked and did the bidding of Magi, where dragons walked disguised as people, or where people ate from their ass and shat from their mouth. They were as strange and as believable as her story. The strangest thing she said was that she read it. Oh, he could read and write, after a fashion. Numbers, names of crops, names of orchards. Things you needed. He also knew there were people who could read knowledge out of books, like the Patirs who read from The Book of Honor and judged in feuds. But he knew Otmakla, at least somewhat. It was weird knowing someone who read.
‘You… read this?’ he asked hesitantly.
‘In Ribarus’s History of the Samkan Peninsula. It’s in Samkan. My father helped me read it at the time’. Reading. In a foreign language.
‘If it’s true, why was it childish?’
‘Oh, I knew it was a fantasy even then. You see, I read the book. The ruling class in Samka, men and women, come from hereditary dynasties. The commoners are destitute. Most common women in Samka, most people, are no better than slaves. I would have had no place there as a poor foreigner from the provinces of Chirkid. It was just a fantasy’. She sounded extremely saddened by that.
‘No!’ she said, returning to the present, ‘I must make the best of the situation at hand. We have been talking too long. Our houses aren’t allied. It might raise questions’.
‘Akrusia have reasons to speak. There aren’t too many of us. It’s accepted’.
‘Nonetheless… We should probably be cautious’, she said quietly.
He hesitated for a few seconds.
‘I want to meet you again. Not a year from now. Soon’, he said finally, the words tumbling out of his mouth.
‘Good. I would like that too. It won’t be simple. Are you free to go out at night?’
‘Not completely, but some days I work late in the northeastern orchards and I stay the night in the cot there’.
‘When does that happen next?’
‘In six days’.
‘Then come that night. We’ll meet as early after sunset as you can come, near your hideout in our territory. We’ll speak some more’.
‘Thank you’, he said, not sure why he’s saying that. She complicated his life, made him uncertain and doubtful.
‘Thank you‘, she said, pressing her fingers into his arm, ‘for being a friend to someone you didn’t know. I feel I really need friends, and have very few’. She paused, then added ‘I hope we can be friends’. She sounded less self-assured than she’d been through their whole conversation.
‘We will be’, he said. She smiled at that and rose to her feet, walking out of the room in a flowing movement. He looked after her, holding his warm wine Cup, feeling the memory of pressure where her fingers held his arm. He realized that at some point during their conversation he started thinking of her as a woman again, but couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment.
The next day he asked his father to look through The Book of Honor. It was the only book they had. Romjigan laughed, ‘are you planning to become a Patir?’, but he let him take it to his room.
It was a massive tome, bound in dark leather. He lit a candle and started reading. Straight away he came to words he wasn’t sure how to read. But he continued, sometimes skipping words and sometimes rereading sentences. By the time the candle burned through he read four pages discussing the blood price that should be paid for a man’s life, for the life of cattle and for the life of a woman, and how to resolve a feud around any of those. A woman was worth half a man and cattle was worth one fifth of a man. He knew this already, but reading it was different. His eyes hurt and it was very late, but he felt wide awake. These rules were smart, but they were only written by other men many years ago. Was it possible that they were wrong?
He tossed and turned in bed for a long time before sleep caught him.