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Foreigner



Every year since the war ended, on midsummer's day in the capital cities of the joint Kingdom of Turnobae-Galnorndan, there was a memorial service.


It was a solemn occasion. Depending on which city the royal family were currently in, they would go to the cathedral or the basilica, at the head of a procession of nobles, high-ranking officers, and mages, all of whom had fought in the war. In the city that the royals were not in, the procession was headed by the members of the court who had stayed there and the city's senior aldermen. Each person in the procession would carry a flower, to lay in remembrance at the solitary white stone set firmly in the ground in the middle of the city's central square, on the way from the palace to the seat of religion in the city. Afterwards, inside the place of worship, a senior clergyman would lead all present in a prayer for the dead. This would be followed by a full minute of silence, broken by the King declaring that there would be, "Peace in our time." They would then leave the place of worship, and return to the palace. As soon as they started on their return journey, those others who fought, but who had not been invited to join the procession, were invited to lay their own flowers of remembrance at the stone. Frequently, the stone disappeared under the sheer number of flowers laid. At sunset, the royal mages would make it rain, a huge summer thunderstorm without the thunder. That night, the flowers would be cleared and taken to one of the war's many battlefields, where they would be deposited on the grave-mounds of the fallen.

Nadim watched the workers clearing the pile of flowers from central Darash. He was a carpenter from Banrut in Ras Natara. As part of the settlement Ras Natara had agreed to to end the war after their army was annihilated at the midsummer battle, Ras Nataran citizens were sent to cities in the Northern countries so they could build a M'hushtlamite place of worship and form a community around it, in order to foster co-operation and understanding between the peoples. Northerners were sent to cities in Ras Natara too, to build churches and form communities round them, so that the exchange of cultures and viewpoints would go both ways.

Most of the Northerners had been paid to resettle in Ras Natara, because the Ras Nataran armies had tended not to take prisoners. Most of the Ras Natarans who had settled in the North were soldiers who had been taken prisonser, mostly at the final midsummer battle. Nadim was not a soldier though, and he resented having to uproot his life to come and live in this foreign city of infidels, where it was cold all the time and the land was all too flat, and the people looked strange, and everyone looked at him funny.

Banrut was a city in Ras Natara's northwestern corner. It was high up in the foothills of the Mountains of God, right on the end of where the range bent round and pointed south, like a crochet hook. It was two days' journey from the massive desert that shaped so much of Ras Natara's history and culture, and it was a place of mines and workshops, of craftsmen and builders. This place? Crop fields everywhere, a city of scholars and mages, of merchants and reapers.

Nadim was not happy. He was not happy living in Darash, he was not happy being a hostage to the political winds of change. He had been courting a very nice young girl back in Banrut, and had been hoping to have enough money to get married within a few months. Here, most of the people his own age were men, and all the women were taken. What, look for a wife outside of his cultural enclave? That would be blasphemous, they were not M'hushtlamites. He would not sully himself with such a crime.

Only, blasphemy wasn't a crime here. They wouldn't cut out your tongue for it, like in Banrut, at most you'd get jeered at. He'd had some contact with Northerners, mostly due to his profession, and as far as he could tell, the lack of a proper punishment did not encourage them to blaspheme their false religion. That puzzled him, and he did not like being puzzled.

Another thing that puzzled him was that the Ras Nataran envoys and officers from the embassy were invited to join the memorial procession, and that his fellows who were ex-soldiers were welcome to lay their flowers at the stone just like everybody else. Why? Why? They were remembering the dead from their victory, why were the defeated allowed to remember their own dead?

He saw a figure moving across the square, and recognised it as possibly his closest friend here in the foreign city, a former quartermaster called Nazir. As usual, he appeared to have a woman on his arm. A woman who was not Nataran. Nadim shook his head in disgust. Still, a former soldier would be bound to have lower standards than others, right?

Nazir was walking towards him, even though Nadim was lurking in the shadows as he scowled at the clean-up operation, and couldn't possibly see him. Nadim wasn't looking for a hostile encounter between them, but he might be seen if he moved. His best bet was to just slip further into the shadows and remain still.

"Ah, Nadim, I thought you would be there!" He'd forgotten how good Nizar's eyesight was. "Come out of the shadows, I have someone who wants to meet you."

Nadim sighed and stepped forward just enough so that he could be seen in the moonlight. "Who? Another of your Northern whores?"

The woman reached out and slapped him squarely on the cheek. "If that's how you talk to women where you come from, no wonder you're single!"

"You strike me, woman? I'll have your hand!"

Nazir punched Nadim in the stomach and pushed him back up against the wall. "We are not in Ras Natara, Nadim! If you insult a woman here, she's allowed to slap you; and the penalty for assault is a fine or a flogging, they only cut bits off you for murder here. Now behave, and say hello properly!"

Nadim recovered himself and addressed the woman. "Who are you then?"

"My name's Estelle, and I'm a matchmaker. Nazir here tells me you're having trouble finding a girl - and with an attitude like that, I'm not surprised!"

"You have wasted her time, Nazir, I do not want a girl here. My girl is back in Banrut."

"It has been three years, Nadim, your girl has probably forgotten you and married someone else."

"Hello? Am I made of wood or something?" Estelle waved her hand in front of Nadim's face. "If you've got something to say, say it to me, not over my head, thank you very much!"

"I neither want nor need anything you can provide, woman," Nadim snarled. "Leave me be, both of you!" He turned his back and started to stalk off.

"Submissive, short but busty, dark-haired, worships M'husht, and younger than you," Estelle said to his retreating back. Nadim stopped.

"What has that got to do with anything?" he asked.

"Your perfect woman, right?"

Nadim turned to face her slowly. "Did Nazir tell you?"

Nazir grinned. "I have said not a word, friend."

"It's my living to work out what a man wants from a woman," Estelle told Nadim. "Was I right, or was I right?"

"You were right," he admitted. "Nice party trick. Now go away."

"I know of at least three girls in this city who meet your requirements," she said to his turning back. Nadim stopped turning and looked over his shoulder at her.

"Impossible!"

"All sorts live here, friend," Nazir told him. "I have even heard that there is a M'hushtlamite Temple all the way up in Morss, as far from here as we are from Hadin. If there are enough M'hushtlamites four hundred miles north of here to warrant a Muzzein, there are bound to be some here!"

"There is a Temple to M'hush everywhere since the war," Nadim sneered, "it was in the peace treaty."

"Not the High Temple in Morss, dear," Estelle said. "That one's as big as a cathedral, has got a massive dome, and has been standing long enough to see nine rulers of Morat."

Nadim was silent for a moment. "Alright. Tell me where their parents houses are, and I will call on them."

"Doesn't work like that, dear. You pay me a gold coin, and I arrange for you and she to meet at some acceptable social occasion. If you don't like her, you pay me another gold coin, and I arrange for you to meet the next one, and so on and so on until there aren't any more girls who meet your requirements."

"A gold coin! You're not a whore, you're a pimp!"

That elicited another slap. "How dare you! What sort of enterprise do you think I'm running! You won't be having sex after a meeting I've arranged, I only deal with respectable people! And it's clear to me, mister, that you aren't one of them! Good night!" She turned on her heel and stalked off.

Nazir came up to him and placed his hand heavily on his shoulder. "Nadim - you are either truly stupid, or you were deliberately insulting her. We came here so we could foster ties of understanding and friendship with our former enemies - to find things in common, to demonstrate that we're basically all the same. People who understand each other and who see similarities in each other are less likely to become enemies, so there will never be another war like the last one. And yet here you are, trying to bring the most hidebound traditional ways from home with you."

"And what is wrong with that?" Nadim snapped. "I didn't ask to come here, I was rounded up and sent! If I had the money, I'd return home in an instant!"

"Your carpentry business has been doing well, I hear. It's been flourishing, even. Do you really expect me to believe that after three years of booming business, you don't have enough money to buy a donkey cart and ride off southward?" Nadim looked away and growled sulkily in answer. Nazir nodded. "I thought so. Whether you want to admit it or not, you like it here. Maybe only in small ways, but it is growing on you. Do you know how I met Estelle?"

"How?"

"One of the young M'hushtlamite ladies in this city was looking for a husband. She is a Turnobanian who has lived here all her life, so she has to be discreet in her devotions, and until we arrived, did not know of any other followers of the faith in the city apart from her own family. Estelle thought I would be a match for her - she was wrong, but in the three months since, I have met more eligible young women than in the previous three years. What do you think of that?"

"I think you are lying."

Nazir sighed. "Then, I am afraid Nadim, that you are indeed, truly stupid. Now if you will excuse me, I have been invited to a dinner of remembrance. A dinner hosted by the most prominent Turnobanian M'hushtlamite in the city, and where Estelle hopes I will get on very well with his neice."

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