The winds of Brsa

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The fine old high-masted merchant ship on which I’d been crossing the Tsundering Sea as a passenger, the Mounted Basilisk, had afforded us a comfortable enough journey as we’d spent a few sunny weeks skipping along the well-trafficked ports of the far-flung Tortoise Archipelago; but once we ran out of islands we had the most atrocious luck, and ended up spending over a month all but lost at sea—becalmed one week, tossed like griddle-cakes by storms straight from a seaman’s nightmare the next. So it almost counted as a blessing when the Basilisk unexpectedly foundered one wet gray morning on the cruel, ship-hungry reefs that flanked a mysterious green island that wasn’t on any of Captain Darkbrand’s myriad charts—at least, by this means, our seagoing purgatory was brought to a belated, if ignominious, end.

When the pale, handsome natives of the unknown island rowed out to rescue us from our crippled ship, the swarthy mainlanders who manned the Basilisk eyed them with superstitious unease; and even Captain Darkbrand, who’d revealed himself to be a sage and learned man in our long evenings together after mess, discussing history and philosophy as we played various gentlemen’s card games or made idle gambles at dice, viewed the islanders askance, and did not look them in their gold-flecked ruby eyes if he could help it. I, on the other hand, was fascinated, having indeed embarked upon this journey for the very purpose of encountering new peoples and new places, and in the end I remained in Brsa, as the island—or its main settlement, at least—was called, long after Darkbrand had overseen repairs to the Basilisk and sailed over the horizon in search of harbors more mundane and peoples less eerily unfamiliar than were to be found in Brsa.

Darkbrand, of course, had urged me to come with him, his black eyes glinting under his ferocious brows with what seemed like heartwarming concern for my welfare. But I told him Brsa liked me, and when I added that I had found a library, his shoulders slumped, knowing he was defeated. He left before first light, he and all his men, and I prepared never to see him again.

I’d been speaking the truth when I said I thought Brsa liked me. As I strode its wide streets, sharing smiles with the well-favored men and women of the town, I can describe it no more plainly than to say that the breeze seemed to caress me as I walked, especially—and here I blush to speak candidly—my backside, that well-made portion of my anatomy which the winds of Brsa seemed particularly enamored with. The loose linen trousers that after a long season of maritime travel I was accustomed to wearing as my only garb were no barrier at all to the wind’s ministrations as it made bold to caress not only my buttocks but, as if to maintain some kind of balance, the equipment hanging loose and heavy on the opposite side of my abashed and grateful body, so that I felt as though I was wearing no pantaloons at all. The Brsan breeze stroked me in other places as well, the wanton thing: my square, bronzed shoulders felt its avid touch constantly, night and day, as the wind gaily rubbed my sun-toughened skin and endlessly ruffled my overlong, pitch-black hair like a besotted lover who cannot stop his fingers from carding through his beloved’s sweet, beckoning locks. Even the hairs on my long, hardy legs seemed to love this merry, shameless wind. Most startling of all, my work-thickened chest (there are no true “passengers” aboard the Mounted Basilisk, my friend!) and tight, newly stone-carved belly had developed a sensitivity I’d never known before landing here in this distant, forgotten place beyond the last horizon, so that the wind’s dalliance with my easily erected nipples felt almost as powerful a stimulation as its most favorite dance, across my ass in back and my tackle in front, and these, after only a fortnight in the city, seemed comically glum at the idea of being chastely covered when the rest of my wind-nuzzled body was naked to its best admirer.

I tried once, a few days into my sojourn there, to ask the comely natives, who never went about wearing less than short breeches made from the thick, leathery local tree and gossamer-thin white chemises made of a substance I could learn nothing about, if the wind always behaved in such a libidinous fashion; but it seemed an indecorous subject and I decided to set aside my questions for a more opportune moment.

My favorite part of my stay in Brsa, even apart from the caresses of the wind, was the ancient library that seemed to occupy a large part of the city’s north quarter. I was given the run of the place by my patron, the wizened, blind loremaster Krilus; his only stipulation was a weekly rest-day brunch in which Krilus could quiz me on everything I’d learned. The old man seemed hungry for an outlander’s perspective, and I, who had found a polymath’s paradise in the unending trove of scrolls and codexes packed and piled in a million bristling niches and nooks, was more than glad to gratify his simple desire.

In this particular week I had made an unparalleled find. Determining that the levels of the library were more or less chronological, I had tried my luck traveling back, figuratively, in time, descending by winding stone staircases and long-disused passageways to tour, eventually, a sprawling, randomly chosen subterranean level seven flights down from the more current stacks I had been haunting the week before. There, in book-catacombs that would have been all but airless for anyone but me (for gentle, caressing tendrils of my lover, the wind, found me even deep beneath the earth!), I found, on an otherwise empty row, a broad cache of books written both in, and on the subject of, a language I had never heard of before: an ancient, forgotten loremaster’s tongue called khtouhalye—or, roughly translated, scryspeak.

By the time I reluctantly surfaced into the world for food, I realized with shock that in my inattention to my own comings and goings the recent days had slipped past like water, and I was already due for my weekly brunch—indeed, judging by the sun, I was risking arriving late! Quickly I hastened from the library’s great, marble-colonnaded entrance across the ruddy flagstone plaza to the sweetwater fountain at its center, taking a few moments to gulp a few handfuls of its refreshing liquid and hastily dash my exposed pits, just in case, all while the eager breeze played delightedly with my almost elbow-length hair and still-hard backside, and the pale, handsome townspeople gaped in amusement at the bizarre practices of the Studious Stranger (as they had taken to calling me in their own tongue).

My sham toilette completed, I walked quickly—it was impolite to run in Brsa—out of the library’s dominions and through the honeycombed plazas and terraces of the town, from north quarter to east where the elites raised their tall and elegant abodes, until I found my destination: the Dappled Grove, the bucolically named restaurant and tavern where Krilus liked to meet.

He could have chosen to entertain me in his own splendidly grand home, which I had visited more than once in my weeks on the island; but Krilus liked the Grove because it had an outdoor upstairs terrace that looked out over the east quarter’s vast, twenty-acre main square on one side and, doubling as a sort of mezzanine, over the main floor of diners and imbibers inside, on the other. Krilus liked to be surrounded by people, in whose sounds and lives he delighted; and as the men and women of Brsa—especially the men—were no hardship to look at, especially in large, happy numbers as they went about their business in the square or relaxed and dined inside the restaurant, I was more than satisfied to leave our meeting place up to him.

A group of handsome young island guards—the same men, I’d learned, who had come to investigate the Mounted Basilisk and had ended up ferrying its sodden, temporarily shipwrecked crew to land—had taken to practicing hand-to-hand combat in a corner of the great square not far from where we sat, and, most unusually for Brsans if not myself, had lately been doing so shirtless, making me very glad of the excellent view from the table I shared with Krilus on the upper tier of the Dappled Grove.

I hurried nimbly up the steep steps to the terrace and quickly located my patron. The old man was already seated at his favorite table, situated near the narrow “stern” of the terrace/mezzanine, so that the sounds of both places below might equally well be heard. I quickly crossed the distance between us and fell into the seat opposite my benefactor, across the round, stone table, and offered a smile to his attendant: a sweet-faced slip of a grandson named Jonid. By his height and the breadth of his pale shoulders, I judged that Jonid must surely have passed his twentieth year, but he was as shy as a sheltered toddler around me, and at my smile be blushed and ducked his head, russet brown hair falling over his face and obscuring features worthy of sustained admiration.

In the center of the table there was already a pitcher of sun-brewed local tea, made from some plant or root that yielded a brew both earthily delicious and slightly intoxicating, and there were large cups in front of all three of us as well, already filled with the heady beverage. I knew enough of local custom to be certain that neither of them would have partaken of any without me, and also that, as guest, it was my responsibility to raise my cup and toast the health of my host and his grandson, which I did. Krilus returned the compliment, Jonid bashfully murmured his thanks, and we drank deep and sat back, enjoying the sun and the gently frolicsome wind.

Below us, I watched attentively as the island guards filed into the square, soberly doffed their shirts, and began training. Jonid watched them with me for a moment, then turned his handsome face to me, watching me from under long eyelashes, mirroring, with his burning interest, the lust with which the brazen wind was touching my hard chest and shoulders and diving greedily into my loose, thin trousers after my thick, heavy attention-glutted manhood.

I shook myself free of such thoughts even as my host spoke up for the first time. “So, my friend, Doran Ekoyuma,” Krilus said, sounding gruff as always, “what has you so ensconced in your work that you keep an old man waiting for his redroot tea?” He held his face stern as he said this, as ever, but Jonid chanced a wink at me, letting me know they hadn’t waited long at all. The point was moot, I knew. Once I’d uttered the first word of my tale, Krilus would be netted like sun-crazed dancerfish, and all other matters would be instantly forgotten.

I pursed my lips, pointlessly given that my audience was a blind man, and uttered the fateful word. “Scryspeak,” I said.

“Scryspeak!” Krilus gasped. He sounded delighted. “Why, I haven’t heard talk of scryspeak since I was a whelp dandling at my learned grandfather’s knobby knees. Scryspeak!” he repeated in wonder. He learned forward, all trace of hauteur gone. “What have you learned?” he asked eagerly.

Krilus knew of my gift for language, and so he was not surprised when I said, “I have spent the whole of this week mastering it, Krilus. I think,” I added, more guarded now, “I think I know it well enough to speak words in it.”

Krilus nodded. “It is a language of beauty, is it not?” he asked.

“Undoubtedly.” In immersing myself in the roots of this forgotten tongue—a tongue so old that only the final ending fringe of its long history must have been known to Krilus—I had indeed become aware that it was a language that was both achingly beautiful to read and speak, and that it was a language about beauty, steeped in what was elegant, or glamorous, or bewitching about the world. It was also a language of almost palpable potency, a language that wanted to be shared to between living beings, living intellects—a work of craft that was both a technology of communication and an invocation of the essential nature of the universe of which men were only a tiny part, a speck in a thrumming. unimaginably formidable cosmos. It was a language made for describing not what was, but what was possible within the human imagination, and, so great was its puissance, beyond.

Krilus took a long draught of his redroot tea. In politeness, Jonid and I did the same, and I enjoyed the rare treat of its slight exultation as its earthy liquor seeped into me. “My great-grandsire knew something of the scryspeak,” Krilus observed fondly when he was done. “He would speak it sometimes. But rarely, much to my regret. Only hearing it, even without understanding, filled me with pleasure,” the old loremaster said fondly. He turned toward his grandson, who looked at him with smiling respect. “He did say one thing to me,” Krilus went on. “He said it to me in scryspeak, and then, when I laughed in joy at his words, he condescended to translate what he had said into the island tongue—he said, ‘You are a beautiful boy’.” He was still facing Jonid as he said this, and it was clear he wanted to pay the young man the same compliment. Jonid dipped his head bashfully.

Krilus turned to me, his cataract-white eyes gazing sightlessly at me. “Say something,” he commanded, imperious but kind.

What could I do but obey. I searched what I had learned. My heart was light. Krilus’s joy at my discovery and Jonid’s bashful beauty was tonic after the pleasant labor of plumbing the depths of the dusty tomes that described morphology, phonology, and syntax of a tongue not only specialized but long-forgotten. I was moved, almost unaccountably, to the lyrical. I framed my thought carefully, for scryspeak has a superfluity of beginning and ending transformations, all governing subtle shifts in intent and desire. “I would caress the dulcet Brsan zephyr,” I said, in the slow, mellifluous tones of scryspeak, “as sweetly as he has me.”

Krilus laughed, delighted, and Jonid stared in awe, as if I were become a vision, rather than merely speaking one. “What did you speak?” Krilus asked, as excited as a child.

“It was naught,” I said. When it seemed my patron would not be so easily satisfied, I elaborated slightly. “I merely stated a desire to touch the wind,” I said.

I believed this would sound innocuous enough, but Krilus’s silver brows climbed his tall forehead. “The wind, you say?” Krilus said, and something in his tone told me that he understood far more about my peculiar relationship with the airs of Brsa than I did myself.

Jonid, more callow, was not so circumspect. “Friend Doran!” he said, turning to me, his gold-and-ruby eyes bright. “Does the wind touch you?”

“Jonid!” Krilus cautioned, his face stone-carved and his tone uncharacteristically forbidding. Jonid subsided, ducking his head. I watched them both, but posed no questions. So sure of my talents as a researcher was I, no doubt troubled me that I would disinter, later, or sooner, the Brsans’ strange reticence to discuss the phenomenal proclivities of the island’s airs. Krilus recovered his solicitousness. “I apologize, friend Doran,” he said. “Scryspeak should not be greeted with anything but beauty complementary to its words and meaning.”

“And so it has,” I said courteously. Krilus smiled. The rest of our meal passed without incident. I told of the complex nuances of scryspeak, its cases and declensions, the breadth of its capacity for expression even beyond its simple vocabulary, and Krilus and Jonid listened raptly, the elder man fascinated as only a loremaster could be at new knowledge, the younger man with a demeanor that might have been called worshipful were I so incautious as to apply such sentiments to a young man’s regard for myself.

At length I took my leave, draining my mug to the health of my host as was the custom. It was indeed a heady brew and generously poured, and I felt myself lifted almost from my feet with lightness of mood as I all but danced out of the Dappled Grove and into the great square. No sooner had I done so than the inexplicable occurred. As I strode across the vast square, my face no doubt betraying my serenity in all things at that moment, I felt the movement of many men about me, and heard the pattering of soft boots on stone. The contingent of shirtless guards, perhaps thirty in number and every one of them as beautiful a specimen of masculinity as I had ever seen even in this haven, was forming around me, each of them in motion, as if they were practicing some form of complicated quadrille. The group of men undulated and shifted around me in a pattern I could tell was of exquisite beauty even if I could not follow it, and I watched, dumbfounded and wondrous, as the assemblage tightened around me, until the bulging thews of the lovesome men nearest me were within reach of my itching, but idle, hands. The sounds of their movements, especially their footfalls, served as a gentle auditory accompaniment to the spectacle, and I was impressed and, I blush to say, aroused by the display.

The dance shifted, suddenly, and the men were moving close around me in complex streams, now sliding this way, now that, their training-hardened, sweat dampened bodies passing so close to me that increasingly their pale shoulders and sides brushed against mine, and I had my wish of touching them even without raising my hands from my sides. Soon they were all brushing against me as they slid past this way and that, buffeting me gently from one direction, then another. And the suspicion struck me even as the dance dissipated and the men scattered, and no sooner was alone in this part of the great square, the sounds of normal life cascading gently around me (the rushing and spattering of the great east fountain, the hawking of merchants with their sweetmeats and fabrics in the farther corners beyond the fountain, the bustling of Brsan citizens passing through gabbling amongst themselves), did I understand what had just happened to me: the Brsan wind, answering my scry-spoken request, had made use of the guards to allow me to touch, as I had been touched.

I could still feel the brushing of those hard, finely honed bodies against mine, shirtless as I was, damp with the sweat of exertion as they’d trained in the noonday southern sun, and crafted to exquisite beauty by years of devoted diligence. My shoulders were bristling with sweat that was not my own, and I wished, suddenly and with chagrin, that I had done more to show my deep appreciation of this remarkable gift, and that I had dared to respond in kind.

Some instinct caused me to lift my eyes, back toward the elevations of the Dappled Orchard overlooking the north side of the plaza. At a distance I beheld, still seated and in profile, the stony face of my benefactor, and leaning eagerly over the wall of the high terrace, the grandson, Jonid, beguiled by the spectacle of what I had just experienced to the point of bewitchment. I could read wonder in his eyes even from this distance, and admiration, and—there was no denying it—a deep-rooted ardor focused entirely on myself.

I lifted a hand, acknowledging his stare, but he seemed transfixed, and did not respond. So I turned and strode at hazard, only seeking to be away from the restaurant and the plaza, though I had no destination in mind. It was some relief that I found my feet had brought me to the doorstep of the teal-washed boarding house that was my home here, pondering the locked and impassible mysteries of Brsa… and the unlooked-for chance of a comely key called scryspeak.


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