[Few pages of an idea I’ve been toying with. I’ve got a map, a pile of notes, and these pages of story. Maybe I’ll go further with it eventually. Though the list of projects I’ll “get to one day” is quickly growing out of control. Need to start scratching things off that list.]
Lod had never seen a Zar’us in person before, and the one they were meeting with was very strange, even when compared to the descriptions of his father and Rados. He had been told that the Zar’us looked more or less like men, and Lod thought that this must only be true from a distance. The creature who entered their tent was seven feet tall if it was an inch, with golden, almost scaly looking skin stretched over its lean muscles. The robe it wore hung loosely from one shoulder, leaving much of its chest exposed, which made Lod very uncomfortable, as he wasn’t sure if the Zar’us was a man or a woman. The long and wavy black hair framed a fairly feminine face, but the shoulders seemed more masculine and the Zar’us didn’t seem to mind that most of its torso was visible. The creature’s hips very much seemed to imply a woman, but then again it seemed to carry itself like a man. His father addressed it like a man, and the creature did not object. Lod thought it must be a man.
Alhir Farstrider, Lod’s father, welcomed the creature warmly as it entered. He rose from his seat and clasped arms with the giant, offering ‘him’ water and seat on the carpeted ground. Strangely, Lod thought, his father did not convey wishes that the Goddess grant him protection, as tradition dictated.
“The Zar’us do not like the gods,” whispered Rados, leaning over when he saw Lod’s look of confusion, “They find piety offensive. Your father is withholding that courtesy, as a courtesy.”
Lod couldn’t help but giggle a bit at Rados’s joke, earning him a reproachful look from his father. The Zar’us seemed not to notice.
Alhir and the Zar’us sat on soft cushions made from the finest Verim silk, which the Zar’us seemed to find uncomfortable. When it opened its mouth to speak, Lod thought he might get a definitive answer to its gender, but the voice that escaped its lips was similarly androgynous (though quite pleasant).
“I am Luca of Black Five,” it said, “Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
“Alhir Aqa Farstrider, of Bodin. I come with gifts for the Black Five clan, from Queen Anavar,” Alhir clapped his hands, and Lod, Rados, and a few servants brought out a dozen bulging baskets, setting them at Luca’s feet. Luca opened one of the baskets, reached inside, and pulled out a shriveled, dry fruit the size of man’s palm. Though it looked positively tiny in the Zar’us’s hand.
Luca smiled saying, “You spoil me, Farstrider,” and placed a date carefully in their mouth. The creature seemed to almost moan with pleasure as it slowly chewed the dried fruit.
“I’m am glad you like them,” Lod’s father said, returning the smile.
“My mother always said the men of Bodin give the best gifts,” Luca’s smile looked fierce with its double set of sharp canines. “But she also said they only give when they want something from you.”
Luca adjusted ‘his’ seat, reclining and letting locks of jet black hair fall from his shoulder. Lod grew even more confused. Was the Zar’us flirting with his father? Perhaps it was a woman after all.
Alhir’s own smile became conspiratorial, and he dismissed the servants, leaving only himself, the Zar’us, Rados and Lod in the tent.
“Your mother was wise. I suppose if pleasantries are over, we are talking business now?”
“Business needn’t be unpleasant, Farstrider,” Luca placed another date on ‘her’ tongue.
“I hope so,” Alhir replied. Lod wasn’t sure if his father was flirting back with the creature.
“What is it you want from us then?” Luca’s eyes went to Lod, who realized he’d been staring too intently and blushed, turning away. He might have imagined it, but he was almost sure he heard Luca quietly chuckle.
“We have more food than we need, the harvest has been more bountiful than any year before,” Alhir gestured to the dozen baskets of dates, “There is so much to trade, our caravans will actually have much trouble taking it over the sands.”
“You seek Zar’us caravans to carry your goods?” Luca was clearly interested, but was still reclined.
“And protection. From raiders and the like.”
“And you will give us?” Luca asked, “Besides this of course.” Luca took another date from the basket, as Alhir began to lay out his offer.
What followed was a long, detailed discussion concerning shares of shipments. And water of course. Water was always part of the price with the Zar’us, Lod had heard. They said the Zar’us didn’t have a Goddess to give them water, and Lod wondered how they could survive. Rados had told Lod about a great pool of water, so wide you could not see the other side of it, that the Zar’us called The Sea. Rados had said that the water of The Sea was filthy and poisonous, but that the Zar’us could still drink it. He said they preferred the water of the oases though. Lod thought this sounded like one of Rados’s jokes. How could there be a pool of water so large that you couldn’t see the other side? That would be silly.
When the matter was finally settled, Luca’s clan would be entitled to a tenth and half again of the goods they were charged to caravan (or an equivalent share of the profits), and a liter of oasis water per Zar’us guard.
Once the deal was struck, Rados and Lod left while Luca and Alhir drank from the eachother’s cup, completing the dealings. Outside, the last light of the sun was fading, and the caravan was preparing to pull up stakes and get underway.
“So what do you think of the Zar’us, Lod?” asked Rados.
“Are they all like the one back there? Like Luca?”
“I don’t know what you mean?” Rados said chuckling.
“You know exactly what I mean, Rados. Stop teasing me.”
“Alright. Yes, they are all like Luca. It’s just the way they are,” Rados shrugged.
“So was Luca a man or a woman? I couldn’t tell at all.”
“Damned if I know,” Rados laughed. He did that often. “I’ve met dozens, maybe hundreds of Zar’us, and I couldn’t tell you which way on a single one?”
“But…how do Zar’us boys tell who the Zar’us girls are?”
Rados shrugged again, “Why don’t you go ask one?”
Lod left Rados with the horses, just as confused as ever. He went to see the Zar’us that came to the camp with Luca. There were four others, and two were taller than Luca, 8ft at least. They carried two of the strange Zar’us weapons, and their bags (which were laid on their feet) looked like they weighed twice as much as Lod himself. One was haggling with one of his father’s men over that one’s Zar’us weapon. One was shorter than the others, closer to 6 feet. That one was going through the contents of its bag for something. Lod approached the small one.
“Hello,” he said cautiously.
The Zar’us looked up and smiled. Seeing its face, he was confounded just as he’d been with Luca. Feminine and masculine features bled into each other. It must truly be infuriating for Zar’us boys, figuring out who they were supposed to like.
“Hello,” the Zar’us said.
“What’s your name?”
“Lod. Um…what are you looking for?” Lod was too embarrassed to ask the question he wanted.
“I’m looking for my compass. I packed it deep so it wouldn’t get sand in it,” the Zar’us responded.
“What’s a compass?”
The Zar’us stopped and looked at Lod like he was an idiot.
“A compass. It tells you which way is North….”
“Oh, you mean like a crystal?”
“Pieces of the Goddess’s body. Rados knows how to use it to tell which way things are.”
The Zar’us narrowed its eyes. “Crystals can’t do that. You need a magnet.”
“What’s a mag-net?”
“It…it’s a piece of metal that is attracted to other metal.”
“Well it……,” the Zar’us stopped, and paused for a long moment, “I…I don’t really know.”
“Well I know how the crystals work,” Lod said somewhat smugly.
“How then?” the Zar’us demanded, pursing its lips.
“Rados holds it in his palm, and focuses on it, and asks the Goddess which way to wherever we’re going. Then it spins to point that way.”
“But how does that happen?” the Zar’us asked disbelieving.
“The Goddess’s magic, of course.”
“But how does that work?”
“Well….” Lod stopped.
They both laughed.
“Taril,” Luca called as they came out of Alhir’s tent.
“Yes, father?” Taril called back. Aha! Lod thought. A man.
“Get your pack together. We will be leaving with the humans,” Luca caught a pack tossed by one of the taller Zar’us and began slinging it over his shoulders.
“We’re going with them?” Taril asked, looking over at Lod.
“To Bodin. Except you Quila,” Luca indicated the one who had been haggling over its weapon, “Run on to catch the rest of the clan. Tell them of the deal, and to meet us West of Bodin in 6 days time.”
Quila gave their pack to one of the others, and ran off at an inhuman pace.
As the Zar’us gathered their things up, Lod had a thought.
“Taril, would you like to ride with me?”
Taril tilted her head, “Ride with you?”
“Yes. You can ride one of my father’s horses and we can talk.”
Taril looked to their father. Luca smiled and nodded, “Go on Taril, have fun.”
Lod took Taril’s large hand, and began leading her to the horse tent, which Rados would be breaking down. Taril looked worried and embarrassed.
“Lod?” Taril asked.
“What is a horse?”