Year 196 (New Reckoning), month of Upmrrzhö
Urvo stood at the rail of the Rosuade, one of two steamers on the lake, and watched his home shrink. He was almost 20 and this was the third time in his life that he had ventured onto the water.
He was on a quest, for the sake of a lady. Her husband had given him this charge: go south across the lake to the market at Rrkanoki where the weaver waited with a bolt of brocade. They needed it today.
A young man riding a steamer from the grandest city in the world to one of its mercantile satellites to pick up a piece of cloth? This was a mere errand, though inconvenient. Urvo had been on his way to a syndicate in the Old Town to present himself at the offices in hopes of getting a paid position. He was nearly of age to consider for a match, and in order to have good prospects one had to gain a good standing – not only in the eyes of one's neighbors but most importantly the Herons who made the matches.
The Herons had not matched Urvo's lady to her husband but they had encouraged Urvo to give her a token of admiration: one of them (a woman old enough to be Urvo's mother) had taken notice of how Urvo had stared at Vashu after she and her husband had moved in from the Old Town. The Heron had told Urvo that giving Vashu a token would be a way for him to gain standing as a man of love. It would be good for the young couple too: if they would live in the New Blocks they should get used to the customs there.
If Urvo gained standing in the eyes of the Herons by his gracious conduct, he would be a more favorable match for one of the lovely damsels he danced with, who bore most of his tokens already.
This was no mere errand then: it was a quest. Urvo breathed in the breeze and looked with pride on the grandest city in the world: Tyban. In truth the view of it was nothing compared to the mountains that towered above, but under their splendor he could still follow the Old Town as it followed the river, and beyond where the land rose he could make out the New Blocks stretched over the land of the upper valley beyond the fields. He had heard disparaging remarks about the New Blocks with their sharp corners and lack of history. That was unfair: what about the beautiful variety of houses, the parks, the trees? It was in the New Blocks that old customs were strongest too. Still no one could deny the charm of the Old Town: its flower beds, art galleries, figured fountains, the brightly-painted boats plying the river channel.
To have a position there – paid in silver which he could then spend there – that would make him an even more desirable match. All in good time. First, this quest.
It was a fine morning, one of those bright autumn days after the first nip of frost when the trees in the valley are putting on their color, the sky is blue, the sunlight sharp and white.
A touch at his elbow: it was Madam Opehu, the boat's captain. She had given him the fare discount that Hrrkjrr had promised when he had sent him on this quest, though she had seemed surprised.
“Something just occurred to me,” she said. “You're going to the cloth market to meet the weaver Hödjunoi? Well, it is market day but I just remembered that Hödjunoi only delivers his wares to the market there twice a year. He's very specialized, very expensive.”
Urvo smiled at the doubt in her voice. “I have the receipt.” He patted the pocket of his coat. “It's paid for and waiting at the sign of the Crossed Feathers.”
The captain shook her head. “Very well. That cousin of mine must be doing very well. And that wife of his must be a beauty indeed.”
Madam Opehu chucked him under the chin. “A valiant youth, you! Well, enjoy the hospitality of the passengers' lounge on the way. Remember: we're in the Rrkanoki port for an hour, then we sail north again, and thence on to the Neck.”
“I'll be back well in time.” He had paid for the return passage, and had a few zrrl left, maybe enough for a meal. If he missed the boat, he would be walking home.
After he saw the menu he settled for the complementary snacks: walnuts, raisins, watered wine – all fresh at least. It was worth it to endure some hardship. Heaven knew this was what he had been longing for: to do something really hard, to prove himself a man.
Some other passengers were playing cards, and after he made sure there were no stakes he joined in. Gambling was frowned on where he lived and he had only middling skill with cards anyway. His table-mates teased details of his errand out of him, then teased him. One of them, a man in silks with ironed ringlets and beads in his beard, even offered to buy Urvo fish and chips. Urvo was glad to accept, and the passage across the lake passed much more cheerfully than Urvo had hoped. He was almost sorry to hear the whistle announcing Rrkanoki harbor.
The southeast bay was formed by a mountain that jutted a few miles up into the lake. A causeway running from the beach on its eastern slope to a little island formed a long double-sided pier where the boat docked. The pier led west to a transit station at the mountain's base. A mile south of that, where the beach widened, sat the town, with the tents of the market sprawled out in front.
The man with the beaded beard treated Urvo to a ride to the market on a bird-drawn rickshaw then wished him success before heading on into town, and Urvo set off into the market, on foot, alone again, to finish his quest.
Through push and shove, dust and smoke and fried onions, calls and shouts, to the drapers' district at the back right corner – at last he saw the booth with the sign of the Crossed Feathers. He should have just enough time to present the receipt, pick up the cloth and get back to the boat.
He approached the booth and smiled at the vendor, a doughty-looking woman sitting in front of stacked bolts of scarlet and indigo, and handed her the paper.
She looked at it with her brows furrowed, then looked up at him.
“I don't know where you got this, but we had our delivery from Hödjunoi last month.”
“It's a special order.”
“So it says. Look son, I run this booth. There's been no special order from Hödjunoi. When I look closely at this I have to say it looks fake.”
Urvo shook his head. “Now see here! Hrrkjrr – that's his name on there, right? He sent me here to pick up this cloth, and I have to . . . I have to get back to the boat . . .” Urvo's arms flapped as words failed him, and the import of her words hit him.
This was no quest, but a wild goose chase.
The vendor regarded him for a moment.
“Come in here,” she said. “Ope, take over? Here, let's go back where it's quiet.”
In the depth of the tent it was dim and smelled of wool, like the blanket forts Urvo made with his friends when he was a boy.
“I hope you're not offended,” said the vendor, “but whoever this Hrrkjrr is, he has deceived you.”
Urvo stood breathing heavily and raised a hand to his forehead. What was he going to do?
“Do you know him well?” she asked in a gentle voice.
“No. He's the husband of a woman I admire.”
“Admire? Have you even reached marriage age?”
“I will this winter.”
“And this Hrrkjrr and his wife, are they newlyweds by chance?”
“Look, I don't have time to talk any more. I have to get back to the harbor to catch the boat, and I'll have nothing to show for it, and I'll look like a fool. He's played me for a fool. It's all been for naught.” Urvo balled his hands into fists and squeezed his eyes shut.
Then he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, pulling him forward.
When an older woman offered a young man her shoulder, that was not a chance to pass up. So for a moment he forgot the cloth, the boat, Vashu's eyes, everything, while he buried his face into the warmth of the cloth vendor's linen blouse and wept, shaking with a terror of tangled feelings while she held him.
After a while she drew apart. “You've come so far,” she said. “Have you spent all your money on this quest?”
“Yes.” He was suddenly aware of her closeness and the curvature of her country-clothed form. She reminded him somewhat of the Heron who had encouraged him to give Vashu the token, though she had the darker skin that suggested more southern ancestry.
“You have taken on a quest in service of a lady,” she said, tucking a strand of his hair behind his ear, “and that should not be allowed to fail.” Her hand dropped, clasped its mate in front of her apron. “What say: would you put yourself under my service now?”
He gave a ragged explosive sigh and bowed his head. “At your service and mercy.”
Her finger lifted his chin up – so tenderly he felt tears start again and blinked, then laughed.
She laughed too. “That's the spirit. Here then is the charge I lay on you: go up to Hödjunoi's house, have a talk with him. Through this flap, behind the tent there's a path, it will take you there in less than an hour. I think you will find a visit to his house worthwhile. Will you take my word?”
“Your word and your charge.” He laughed again. “What do I have to lose? It looks like I'm already walking home!”
“No you're not. When you come back, I can get you on a boat back to the city. You'll be home in time to sleep in your own bed. And all I'll ask in return is a token, if you have one available. You don't have to praise my beauty. But I think I may ask something small to remind me of today, and of you.”
“Your husband won't mind?”
“Where do you think you are? He likes to see me wear new jewelry. Do you have anything?”
His heart raced. He dug in his purse and held out a bead of colorful twisted glass.
She took it and smiled. “This will go nicely on my necklace.” She turned around. “Hold my hair up?”
She had left it uncovered. It was black and glossy and in several neat braids tied together with a crimson ribbon. He tried to breathe steadily.
When she had done up the clasp again and took her hands away he gently laid the braids down, not daring to let his hands touch the skin at the nape of her neck. She turned and faced him with a knowing look in her eye that kindled a broad smile.
“You are beautiful,” he said.
She laid a warm palm on his cheek. “You are a valiant youth, and you will grow to be a man of love. I will write a recommendation to your Herons for you. Now, go, fulfill your quest.” She swept back to the front of the tent and he ducked through the flap into the blinding white light.
There was little shade and he sweated despite the cool breeze; his head ached by the time he reached the ridge. The path led over it and back down the western slope in full sun. A short way down was a hollow with a house surrounded by trees. Urvo quickened his pace until he reached a gated fence, where he paused to catch his breath.
“Ho there! Are you looking for me?” The man who walked toward him was white-haired and brown-faced.
“Are you Hödjunoi, the weaver?”
“I am. Did someone from the market send you? I don't deliver again until Turning Days.”
“So I heard.”
“Well then, I'm listening.”
“I'm here for the sake of a lady.”
“Is that so? All right, I had little enough to do today.” Hödjunoi opened the gate. “Come into my house and tell me the story.”
Urvo was happy to follow the old weaver into his house, a smooth whitewashed structure with the comfortable curving corners of the country building style. It went down into the ground and the main room had a high ceiling and a large stove unlit; it was cool inside. A huge loom dominated one wall. Urvo was reminded of the pipe organ in the cultural hall at the Doromaf embassy.
Hödjunoi poured beer, asked if Urvo needed to visit the necessity or anything, gave him a wet towel for his face and neck. Then Urvo took a good draught and told the old man about the events of the day. When he finished, the weaver sat back with his hands behind his head and smiled.
“I haven't gotten any special orders from outside the local market for, oh I'd say about four years now. But there are plenty of people up in the city who know me by reputation. Had you not heard of me? All right, I'm old enough not to be bothered by that. Well then.
“Is she beautiful – your admired?”
“Do you want to tell me about her?”
Urvo took another drink. “No.”
“Was she worth it – all this trouble?”
Urvo was quiet for a moment and drained his mug before speaking.
“I'm not doing this for her,” he said at last, “not anymore.”
“Oh? Who are you doing it for then?”
Another long pause; Hödjunoi waited.
“I have never been this far from home by myself,” Urvo said at last. “I went up into the mountains with the Bumblebees, four years ago. I thought I had crossed a threshold, I had the ceremonies when I turned 17. But I've stayed at home ever since.”
“In the same book?”
“Same book, same fold, same deme, same block, same house. Same room!” Urvo stood up and paced around this room. “And this morning I was going to make a change, and, well, I've told you what happened. But even if the lady in the market hadn't come to my aid, I've decided I had to see this through. As if – as if there were some spell to break, some test to pass. For the lady?” He shook his head. “She gave me strength, but what I have done now I did for me.”
Hödjunoi nodded and stood up. “Wait here for a moment, there's a good man.” He disappeared into a side chamber. After a while he emerged carrying a bundle tied up with cords.
“In here is a sample of cloth I wove some time ago, most likely enough to make a small shawl. It's left over from a gown I had made for my wife. She's not here today, she's a midwife and was called away a couple of days ago. She's a practical-minded sort and has been telling me to get rid of that old thing for months.” He set it on the table. “If I gave it to you now, what would you do?”
Urvo strode to the table and slapped his palms on the polished wood. “Why, I'd take it back to Hrrkjrr – not to Vashu, to Hrrkjrr – and put it in his hands with the most gracious smile on my face, as if everything had gone according to the plan he gave me, just as he said. I would say it was a pleasure to be of service and give him my best court bow.” He stood back up again. “That's what I'd do.”
“Would you tell the Herons?”
“Yes.” Urvo grinned. “Let them know of my deed. Let them call out jealousy if they see fit. And let Hrrkjrr live with his debt. I think I'll decline any gesture he gives of returning the favor, from either him or his wife.”
Hödjunoi clapped him on the shoulder. “Then take it and go forth.”
She was there in the booth as he came down from the mount, and she laughed when he showed her his prize. She held her arms out and he walked into her embrace: tight, brief, joyful.
“I told you it would be worth your while,” she said. “And I'd love to hear you tell me about it, but as it is you have just enough time to get to the dock.” She gave him a pair of coins and two folded pieces of paper. “My recommendation to your Herons, as promised. It has my address. Write me? I have a rickshaw waiting for you. Show that bill to the captain of the Irozhaf and you'll have passage back to the city port, and as fine a supper as you could wish.”
“I don't know how to thank you.”
She patted the bead he had given, where her round brown bosom sank into snowy linen, billowing above her bright bodice. “Here's my thanks for starters, but write to me, eh? Especially when you get married. Now hurry!”
The captain of the Irozhaf – the other steamer – took a look at the paper Urvo presented her and her leathery face crinkled. She shook her tight gray braids as she thrust the note into a pocket of her voluminous silk trousers.
“Someone loves you, sonny. Welcome aboard. You hungry?”
Gerrit Stainer writes stories born of love for his Utah homeland combined with an imagination restlessly ranging through sociological and economic inquiry. He also plays drums and writes songs. "A Quest" is set in Koth, a large and complex fictional world in which Stainer has three stories published and more on the way (including a novel).
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