A traveling scholar unexpectedly finds a remote and unknown island, full of beauty in its people, its city, and its flora and fauna. Brsa is also full of secrets not to be shared with outlanders: some guarded, some lost to the ravages of time. Fortunately, the island of Brsa seems to like him.
In the course of my studies and travels my lexical facility has allowed me to learn and absorb many languages. Their complexions and complexities have seemed in some ways almost infinitely varied to me, so much so that acquiring new tongues had become like a series of revelations, every new parlance a newly illuminated section of a vast and intricate fresco I was coming to see in a way few had or could. Each had its peculiarities. Captain Darkbrand, I remembered, was in unguarded moments prone to muttering grumpily in the tongue of his birth: a flat, prosaic speech whose conjugations had no means of discriminating past or future from the enduring present, as befit a dour, fatalist fisherfolk for whom naught had changed in thousands of years, nor ever would, so they reckoned. In the dark, climbing woodlands of the mountainfeet of Nap I discovered a language with a vocabulary so slender it had been entirely inscribed on a set of burnished wooden tablets reverently mounted in the public chambers of the first matron of every settlement; every nuance of speech and meaning was conveyed through an intricate and flexible system of inflections, tonal shifts, facial expressions, and posture. Their central myths, I was delighted to learn, all involved darkly comedic ramifications of their particular method of communication; the one I most often heard told of the war between ancient demigods started by a single swipe at an errant fly that turned a compliment about a meal into a vituperation on the host’s ancestry.
The more I studied, the more oddities I discovered. In the distant land of Mupanm they have no dental consonants: all of their words are pronounced by tongue, palate, and lips alone without touching the teeth in any way, though they do use a sort of voiced ‘wh’ where an ‘s’ might have stood in another tongue, so that their discourse seems punctuated by random whistle-bursts. (A fellow scholar of jocular disposition, on hearing me tell of this people’s particular linguistic peculiarity, proceeded to construct a farcical and spurious creation-legend for the Mupanmi involving a fugitive who’d had his teeth punched out by an enraged Kalakian tavernkeeper.) One of my favorite finds was the language of the Omoneraimad of the sultry savannas decorating the southern reaches of Further Suara, in which meaning is conveyed through the stringing together of simple concept-syllables mixed with infixes denoting time, number, and mood, forming words that in themselves each told a tale. Even the name of their people meant something like “the naked storytellers of the boarlands”.
The Brsan language bore many superficial similarities to the tongue of the Ua island-chain several day’s journey north by tallship, riding the long tail of the Tortoise Archipelago. My mastery of that tongue, begun even before my adventures aboard the Mounted Basilisk and perfected among the Uans themselves while the ship sojourned in port engaged in lucrative trade, eased my insinuation among the pale, comely natives of the lush and hidden haven we had latterly discovered in so unfortunate a manner, though as a seasoned linguist I was alert for all the intriguing deviations that made Brsan distinct and characteristic of its people. It was a fluid tongue, even more so than Uan, lending itself so easily to song than simple conversations about the weather or the taking in of crops might spontaneously accrue a kind of melody and rhythm, almost of their accord. I looked forward to the Longday Festival, which involved not only feasts of varied breads, cheeses, meats, and all kinds of sweet fruits and pastries but also a culminating night of bonfire tellings of what they called “new legends,” spontaneously invented by those most gifted at regaling audiences with word-crafted vistas and the doings of us hapless mortals. My patron, Krilus, had already smilingly hinted that, owing to my well-known skills and my status as an honored guest (and, no doubt, the great curiosity among the folk who knew me only as the Studious Stranger), I should expect to be enlisted among the story-spinners at the feast. I was, of course, duly honored, though in all honestly I would just as soon have sat back and let the Brsan tales wash over me like surf made into song.
Brsan was lyrical and evocative. It was distinctive and peculiar in a manner that to me was consonant with the garden of diversity that was all human language. Scryspeak, on the other hand…
Scryspeak was unlike all the other tongues I had learned. More than that, it was unlike in a fashion that was itself unique.
When immersing myself in the study of a new language, my approach had always been first to commit to memory its vocabulary and rules of usage as best I could discover them, and then, using that stored repository of data as a constant resource, like a self-replenishing mine, I would seek its living, breathing animus within the speech and literature of its practitioners. Brsan was no different: I built its library in my mind and then, through daily conversation and voracious reading, the language took on a complex, evolving life that seemed physically to reside in the streets and squares and stories of Brsa.
With scryspeak, it was different. Scryspeak came alive within me, like a flower digging into fertile soil and putting down its own roots.
That my relationship with scryspeak would be different from with any other tongue should have been clear to me from the outset. I had spent a week in its company, in ancient catacombs that must have challenged the Brsan winds’ desire to reach me and caress my bare, shipwork-hardened shoulders and ruffle my long, black tresses, and came out sure I had imbibed its secrets, all but boasting fluency to my startled patron. Now, as I lay in my bed in the airy, sunlit boarding-house I’d been staying in since my arrival in Brsa, I looked back on my time with those dusty, forgotten tomes in perplexed wonder. Confident as I was in my talents and skills, which I could say without arrogance were as formidable as any linguist I had ever known or heard of, still… how could I believe I had mastered an arcane and long-lost loremaster’s tongue in a mere seven days of study, however zealous? And yet I could not doubt that I had. Staring up at the smooth plastered ceiling above me, my hands laced behind my head, I could feel the curlicues of my understanding of the ancient tongue still coiling and twining and propagating within me, while my conscious self looked on in wonder and excitement tinged with a kind of primal fear.
How had I even discovered the rooms in which I found the books, alone on a shelf apart. Had no one else ever happened on these books and sought to plumb their mysteries? What had—
My thoughts were interrupted by a rapid knocking on the heavy door to my rooms. I looked up, surprised—I was seldom sought for at home during the day, as all knew I was likely to be found at the libraries between the morning and evening meals, or roaming the city seeking conversation. I was quite comfortable, however, so I decided not to get up but instead called out a friendly “Enter!” to whoever was without.
Jonid, the slim and pretty but quite manly grandson of my patron, burst into the room and stopped short a few feet away. His lightweight shirt was slightly damp against his chest, and he was breathing deeply, both of which drew my gaze to the wisps of russet hair that could be discerned through the sheer white fabric where it touched his sweat-prickled, firmly carved chest. I lifted my eyes to his and saw that my distraction, at least, had been matched by Jonid’s: the young man had been diverted by my own half-dressed form from whatever mission brought him running across the city to my quarters, his gold-and-ruby eyes raking over me as I lounged in my wide, cozy bed.
I arched an eyebrow. “Friend Jonid?” I asked.
Jonid started and met my gaze. “Friend Doran,” he said, remembering himself. “You are invited to converse with the Rella.”
I sat up, surprised and excited. The chief magistrate of this city and the surrounding lands was sort of like a king, though in the Brsan language rella was less-common word for seed-sower, and I tended to think of him that way in my head. The conceit of the name appealed to me, positioning the community chieftain as one who guided the beginnings of things but had no sway over the fruition, and acknowledging, as one who only sowed seeds must, all the forces beyond his control that might prevent the bountiful harvest those seeds might or might not portend. I had been wanting to meet the Rella, but somehow we had not encountered one another despite our sharing a penchant for roaming the city and sharing words with all and sundry. He remained one of the few Brsans in the harbor city I had not yet met or conversed with.
Something had changed. It could be merely that my sojourn in Brsa had endured long enough by this point that the Rella was at last comfortable proposing an encounter with the Studious Stranger. Perhaps it was his way, allowing me to get to know his city before a formal first meeting. My instincts, however, mistrusted an explanation that did not take into account what was different about me, in that moment, compared to a week before, or even this morning.
“For when has he set the meeting?” I asked Jonid cautiously.
To my surprise, Jonid stepped forward quickly and grabbed me wrist, pulling me to my feet. “Now!” he said, wide-eyed, and before I could protest he pulled me from my dwellings and out into the still-sunny rest-day afternoon.
Brsa doubled as the name of both the lushly verdant and apparently uncharted island whose sharp-toothed reefs had so cruelly rent the hull of the Mounted Basilisk, beyond the Tortoise Archipelago in the far fringes of the Tsundering Sea, and the friendly, bustling city I had adopted as my new home. Brsan maps depicted the great green island as long and tapered, like a root vegetable, with the main Brsan city clustered around an excellent natural harbor set into the northeast shoulder; to the south and southeast wide, hard-packed roads passed through gently rolling grain fields and pasturelands, while to the west the habitations climbed an undulation of low, wooded hills known for their many varieties of savory nuts and fragrant herbs, as well as an olive-like fruit that I was surprised to find in such a remote clime. The Rella’s House, which, I was told, served as his home as well as the repository of records and a gathering-place of the island’s elder-council, was built partway up the first of the sloping western hills. As I soon discovered, this location offered the magistrate an impressive prospect from his balconies, encompassing the harbor and most of the city, while placing him near to wide swaths of wild sweet-herbs that gave his open and breezy home a most gratifying redolence.
The entranceway consisted of two wide-set square columns painted coral-pink with no door between them, breaking not a high rampart but a low, waist-high wall separating the outer courtyard from an inner, more sheltered one. There I was momentarily left to my own devices, as Jonid, still full of urgency, rushed inside to inform the Rella’s aides of our arrival. I leaned on the balustrade of the outer courtyard and looked out over the city, the harbor, and the limitless blue-green waters beyond. A dark smudge in the riffling sea marked where the Basilisk ran aground. Had the Rella observed our plight from his balconies, wondering what these copper-skinned strangers might portend for them? How many outsiders had they encountered before? Though Brsa had an outstanding natural port, the ship traffic I had observed was mostly fisherfolk and coastal craft trading with settlements on the southern shores of the green island. Still, there were indeed larger ships anchored in mid-harbor—not mighty enough to be ocean-going tallships like the Basilisk, but of a size and sturdiness suited to regional commerce. Did the Brsans trade with the Uans, a week’s sail away, on the last fringes of what I would once have called the known world? The common origins of their respective tongues suggested some kind of relationship or past migration, but so far I had not uncovered whether the Brsans of these days ever sailed over that horizon. Maybe the ships sailed the other way, and there lay, to my back beyond the tapering green isle, a myriad of worlds no scholar of my kind had guessed the existence of, and of which no ship captain, if he encountered them, ever told tales around the tavern hearths of our own faraway homelands.
As I stood there, arms folded on the stone railing overlooking the city, the winds of Brsa wrapped themselves around me, and I reveled in their embrace. Pleasant airs slipped around my bare, tight-muscled torso like loving arms, tossing my long dark hair lightly this way and that as they fondled my back and buttocks. More little gusts rippled the loose fabric of my light trousers, tickling my legs and happy genitals as though, as ever, my meager clothing meant nothing to the saucy wind. I felt brushes of air across my cheeks and lips and along the little growth of beard I had let emerge through neglect during my week of intensive study in the library’s lowest vaults. I drew in a long breath, taking the air into me, and savored the mingled scents of sea and spice. I realized I was smiling wide. Never before had a place been so determined to make me feel welcome and content.
I thought back to the encounter with the guard earlier that day. I had no doubt that their surreal dance was the Brsan wind reaching out to me, responding to the wish I had expressed on the terrace above at the Dappled Orchard, and with chagrin I remembered I had been too stunned to respond or even to express my gratitude. So, with the scented wind caressing me, I spoke aloud one of the first phrases in scryspeak I had met in the oldest of the tomes, one I had been glad to see because I had known I would have use of it. “Winds of Brsa,” I chanted softly in the ancient loremaster’s tongue, “I thank you for your sweet blessings.”
The wind twisted elatedly around me, and even as it churned I felt it fleetingly press against me here and there all over my body like kisses—cheek, lips, chest, back, ankles, buttocks, plums… I laughed aloud, and the wind seemed to laugh too, settling back slowly into its playful, sliding cuddles that expressed its interest up and down my entire body. I was content to let it. It felt good, of course, but more than that I was honored, and moved, by its steady attentions.
“A noble sentiment,” said a pleasant voice.
I turned my head and saw a handsome, tawny-bearded man not much older than myself approaching, Jonid trailing deferentially behind him. To my surprise the newcomer was shirtless, like I was, his alluring, defined chest and the center line of his subtly chiseled abdomen brushed with the same golden-brown hair that lined his firm jaw and curled, cropped close, above wise, Brsan-red eyes. I made a move to straighten and face him properly, but before I could do so he was settled in next to me on the balustrade, arms folded on the stone railing as mine were, and I resumed my previous pose. Jonid did not join us, and for the moment I forgot about him.
“You know scryspeak?” I asked him in Brsan, watching him curiously.
“Sadly, I do not,” my companion said. “None have learned more than a taste of our ancient tongue in many centuries,” he added, casting me a sidelong glance before returning his gaze to the city below. “But certain well-worn phrases have been passed down to us from earlier times,” he continued. “The wind-thanksgiving is one. I speak it often.” He then repeated the words I had uttered, though his cadence seemed not quite right to me, as though he were an untraveled newcomer to a Kalakian port haltingly inquiring after the nearest inn. Of course, the idea that I knew scryspeak better and more intimately than the very Rella of Brsa—for my companion could be no other—was clearly absurd. I reminded myself I only knew the speech from books and could not truly be more its arbiter than a native descendant of its original speakers. My gut did not believe me, but I ignored it.
One thing I could not help observing, however: the wind made no play around the Rella in response to the words as it had with me. I knew the wind had a special affinity for me—it was still caressing me as we spoke. But surely it listened to the gratitude of its own people as well? I licked my upper lip. “Perhaps—” I began. Just in time I realized that I, an outlander, was about to offer to teach scryspeak to the chieftain of Brsa, and amended what I was going to say. “Perhaps we can… plumb its mysteries together sometime.”
The Rella looked directly at me. His ruby-scarlet eyes held many thoughts, as befit a man with his responsibilities; but I fancied I could discern affection and curiosity among them. I dared hope we were experiencing the beginnings of friendship.
The Rella seemed as though he might be about to say something like, “I would like that.” Instead he responded with a soft, “May it be so.” These were words of authority and of affinity, both.
I gave him a small nod and repeated in the same, intimate tone, “May it be so.” It felt like a lover’s promise, as though the two of us were weaving Brsa’s future in this cozy moment at the courtyard railing. It is a superstition among my people that promises always come in pairs, and I wondered what the other half would be. I sensed the rudder of my life turning, but what now lay ahead I did not know.
The Rella smiled, and rather than leaning forward and kissing him, as I was unaccountably tempted to do, I fell back on pleasantries. “I am glad to finally make your acquaintance,” I told him truthfully. With a glance at his bare shoulders I added, “Though I had expected our first meeting to be more… formal.”
The Rella, too, glanced at his pale, well-made shoulder and then met my gaze with a wide smile, splitting his short, well-groomed beard. “It is my custom to greet my friends as equals and set them at their ease,” he said. Then, as if to make sure the words had been properly spoken to me at least once, he said, “You are welcome to Brsa, friend Doran.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I have never been more pleased to be anywhere than here, in this place.”
“A generous compliment,” the Rella said, impressed.
We turned back the view before us for a moment, and I considered what the Rella had told me. No one had learned more than a taste of scryspeak in centuries, he had said. Had no one found the room with the ancient tomes in all that time, or tried their hand at fathoming their contents? My patron, Krilus, had spoken of a great-grandsire who had “known something” of scryspeak. Had that been the mere taste the Rella had spoken of, or had he hidden his learning from all but his scholarly scion—and if so, why?
After a moment, the Rella, still looking out over the trawlers as they returned from mid-day fishing, spoke again. “I also hear, friend Doran,” he said, “that you are touched by the wind.”
He said this so nonchalantly that it could not be more obvious it was a matter of considerable significance. I twisted my neck to look back at Jonid, who immediately dropped his head in shame. The Rella chuckled. “Do not blame the boy,” he said. I looked at the leader and he continued, “The dance of the guard has been much discussed in all the squares and corridors of Brsa. I was not the only one to recognize its significance. And there are other things I know that most do not.” He raised an eyebrow dramatically but kept his lips quirked in a small smile. I smiled at his deliberate equivocation, though I hoped to discover what he meant at some point. Did he have access to records or traditions others didn’t, by virtue of his office or lineage? Was his intelligence network subtle and extensive enough to inform him of even the most minute details of what occurred in the city below? Or was there, perhaps, some supernatural resource that told him things that others did not know?
Abruptly the Rella turned serious, leaning closer and speaking candidly to me in a low voice, as if confiding information that was for my ears alone. “A time of trials lies ahead,” he said quietly, his scarlet gaze locked on mine. “I admit I had been finding hope difficult to sustain, but now, friend Doran, that is no longer the case.”
I narrowed my gaze. “Please do not tell me there is a prophecy of a copper-skinned scryspeaker who helps the handsome Rella save the green isle of Brsa from certain doom,” I said.
The Rella laughed. “Nothing so lurid!” he said. He cast a glance at me, as if allowing himself to look at me as a man for the first time, and I felt a tickling thrill in my belly—he hadn’t missed the “handsome” I’d slipped in there after all. “No, not a prophecy,” he continued, still smiling. “A treaty, let us say. A treaty with an elemental force, a nemesis of Brsa and the wind that has befriended you.” He met my gaze steadily and finished, “A treaty that will soon… expire.”
I understood at last. I did not have an explanation for my unique role in this land, neither wind’s affinity for me nor my uncanny union with the potent and many-tendrilled spirit of a long-lost tongue, and me an outlander with no ties to this hidden and unknown land. But it was clear that the Rella, and Brsa, needed my help, and the whys were, in the end, immaterial. I pulled back from the railing and faced him, arms at my sides, feeling the thrilling touch of the wind as it curled around my body. The Rella did likewise, standing before me chest to chest, mere inches away. He was of a like height with me, though he stood in a way that felt tall, like a man who knew what it was to need to be stalwart for others.
Cool, pleasant air slipped between us, brushing our chests even as its arms stroked my limbs and belly and my firm, wind-beloved ass. Did the Rella notice? I wondered. What did he feel of the caresses the winds were giving me, even now, in this fulcrum-moment in both our tales? Did he sense their intent as they slid past him, or did he just feel the ordinary turnings of a spice-laden breeze in this high place overlooking the sea? This, too, I was curious to find out.
First things first. I met his bright gaze again and spoke as solemnly as I could. “Brsa,” I said, “can count on me.”
The Rella smiled beautifully, and unaccountably—had the wind pushed me?—our lips did meet this time, and we sealed my second vow with a sweet and lingering kiss.