Aoife was torn from her reminiscing by the arrival of three of Gunnar’s wives. In the week or so she had been at Gunnar’s side, she had gotten rather proficient at telling them apart. At the head of the procession was Sylaise, who Aoife could only tell apart from Colette by their ability to communicate with one another. From a distance, however, the two were nearly identical. Behind her, chattering away in Ramel, were the two cousins, Amalia and Sofia. Sylaise wore the same clothes as Aoife; a lightweight blouse and petticoat over which a nonsensical amount of silk draped over and around them, though Sylaise had informed her outside of Gamzhe the common people were more likely to wear cotton than silk. While Aoife had been dressed in solely a blood red colour, Sylaise had chosen to boast of her regality by adorning herself in shades of sea blue and bronze, with tiny bronze leaves dotted across the silk. An homage to her Northern home, Aoife supposed.
Amalia and Sofia, however, wore dresses more akin to something one would find in Eturia. Equally as adorned in silk, their skirts didn’t seem to billow as much as some of the ladies’ back in Aoife’s home, but they were still large in comparison to her own and Sylaise’s. In place of a blouse, the two cousins wore corsets under their dresses, though they looked lighter and less constrictive than the ones in Eturia. A precaution, given the rising heat in the desert, but it was clear from their fashion sense that their home was somewhere with at least a hint of Southern influence. The young Eturian hadn’t witnessed a corset since their stay in Karasti, and that had been months ago, by her own estimations.
“O nede burda?” asked the younger cousin, Sofia.
For all Sylaise had boasted of not wishing to alienate her fellow brides by speaking the common tongue, none of them seemed to extend the same courtesy towards Aoife. Getting Sylaise to speak her mother tongue was akin to drawing blood from a stone, and when she did she was often coarse and short with the Eturian. She would use unnecessarily florid language in an attempt to confuse the girl, and then revert to Ramel when she did not understand. Aoife did not yet realise it, but this was one of their many attempts at alienating Gunnar’s fleeting love interests to drive them away sooner, before they became too costly to their husband or their city.
“O ğildir Ram. Bi giba takli o,” Sylaise responded with a smile, causing the cousins to laugh.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” Aoife said tentatively, taking a few nervous steps towards the three women. Part of her wished he had Niamh with her. Niamh always knew what to say when people were talking about her. Not that Aoife knew they were talking about her, it was merely wild speculation. “What does Ram mean? Only I’ve heard it spoken so many times, and Gunnar hasn’t taught me it yet.”
Sylaise looked at the two cousins, fearing they had been discovered, but relief settled in at the young woman’s question. If Gunnar had not taught her such a basic word, he would not have taught her anything they had been talking about.
“Where have you heard it?” she asked first, curious as to how immersed in their culture Aoife was.
“First in Ankora,” she said, thinking back. “The man in the water shop… the albin… uh, I don’t know the word for shop, sorry.” She flashed Amalia and Sofia an apologetic look, since the two seemed to be listening intently despite not understanding. “The man there said Ramela got water for free. He said something about yaban as well, we didn’t understand that either. Then Gunnar said your language is called Ramel, and ever since I keep hearing people use it on its own.”
“Yaban is a rude way of saying foreigner. The polite word is ecne, but I’m not surprised he used the other if you were in Ankora,” Sylaise explained.
“Why are there two words?”
“Words change based on intent. Your friend Shay disrespects Gamzhe by treating its women like meat, so he is yaban. But you and your friend Rin respect our customs, and so you are ecne. Likewise, the native men and women of the Sands are Ramela. Those born to the people who settled here are Ramyere.”
The Northern woman, ecne by this standard, paused a moment to give Aoife a chance to let it all sink in, a rare courtesy from her. Before Aoife had a chance to question it, she spoke again.
“Before you ask, and I can tell you are dying to, Gunnar is Ramela, and most of his wives are Ramyere. Now, to your first question; Ram means sand. Ramela are the Sandsmen. They lived here before the King’s interference, and they still live here now.”
“Before the King’s interference? You mean King Ruben?” Aoife asked.
She knew the name of each and every King from the first, Aostre, to the most recent, Ruben. She knew all the way down to the crown prince, Nox, whom she had had the honour of meeting, if only once and briefly at that. But for reasons unknown, the only King that came to mind was King Ruben.
Sylaise shook her head. “No, not his Grace. Do you know nothing of history, girl?”
Aoife looked at the ground sheepishly. It had never occurred to her that Gunnar’s wives might be learned women, rather than just a pretty face. She had seen enough aspiring scientists, inventors and physicians of her gender in Eturia to know they did exist, but somehow she never thought she would actually meet one. Her naivety would be the death of her someday, she was sure of it.
“The Sisters didn’t think history was important to us.”
“O ne diyor?” Sofia asked Sylaise.
“O bar yetimi,” the blonde answered, and Aoife found herself frowning.
“I don’t wish to be insensitive, so forgive me if I seem it, but it’s incredibly rude to talk about someone when they can’t understand you,” Aoife said sternly, despite the years Sylaise clearly had on her.
“So is interrupting my day is to ask me stupid questions,” Sylaise said icily. “But since you still expect an answer, I’ll indulge you this once. Are you familiar with King Coniglio?” she asked, not giving Aoife a chance to answer. “He is a murderer.”
“Kati,” Amalia and Sofia said in unison. They knew the name Coniglio, and could assume the topic of conversation from his name alone.
“At the start of his reign, Coniglio chose to send his men to the Sands, to colonise it. The Ramela were not pleased, but they allowed the King to have his way. They knew the Sands, and they knew how difficult she is to tame. They expected the colonists to die. But they took pity on the yaban when their King abandoned them. The Ramela would not learn the common tongue, so the King’s men were forced to learn Ramel. The two existed quite peacefully, and Coniglio didn’t like it. When he found out his people no longer spoke the common tongue, he passed a law that made it mandatory for his citizens to speak the common tongue.”
“What was the punishment?” asked Aoife.
“Execution. So the King’s men learned his language, and spoke it around his enforcers, but in the safety of their own homes, it was Ramel they spoke. The King had executed half his colony by the end of his reign. His daughter, Elora, was coronated, and it looked as if things were set to continue, if not for the interference of Malik Merenis.”
“Merenis… Gunnar’s relative, I assume?”
Sylaise nodded. “A grandfather from many years ago. Malik was the last direct descendant of Ashelia’s wild sons, and the sole proprietor of Medara. They had just began to make a name for themselves, and the young Princess had gone to stay with her cousins one summer. Elora had overheard Malik and his wife speaking Ramel, and they feared for the worst, but instead the Princess asked them to teach her their language. Were it not for Malik, the genocide may well have lasted a hundred years instead of ten. Elora allowed the speaking and teaching of Ramel under one condition; that the East’s aristocracy speak the common tongue as fluently as they spoke Ramel.”
“At least Queen Elora put an end to it,” said Aoife.
She couldn’t understand the anger felt by the Sandsmen, both Ramela and Ramyere, having never been faced with a mass genocide of her populace, but she understood enough to know it wasn’t for Sylaise to be angry about. Not to the point that she shunned foreigners as she did. Sylaise was from Aniatova, and she was just as foreign as Aoife and her companions.
“You think it ended there?” Sylaise asked coldly. Amalia and Sofia had, understandably, lost interest in the conversation by this point, but the blonde’s tone made them glance over. “Look around you, Aoife. Do you see the revolution here? Do you see any sign of the machines from the South?”
Aoife shook her head. She hadn’t thought much of it—the gambling houses she had visited with Gunnar had all been incredibly high end, each with an array of clockwork mechanisms of Gunnar’s own design—but the East had barely been touched by the industrial revolution; a revolution that first started sixty years before her birth. By comparison, Gamzhe was positively primitive, like an old relic left to bury itself in the sand.
“Our King ignores us. His politicians oppress us. Elora is heralded as a beacon of change, a sign of hope for the men and women of the Sands, but nothing has changed.” Sylaise spoke with vitriol, practically spitting the words at Aoife. “The Sands makes no water of its own, not that we can use. We have to buy it by the barrel from the Riverlands. Buy it, something we cannot survive without. We are not permitted to speak our mother tongue outside of the Sands. We are not permitted to worship our gods outside of the Sands. What little freedom and liberties we have here, we do not have anywhere else. But we are to be grateful to our monarch for allowing us to live? It is paramount to abuse.”
“I mean you no offence,” Aoife said, though both women knew she was lying. “But it was your choice to live here. The others—Amalia, Sofia, Colette, everyone else—they have a right to be angry. But you don’t.”
Sylaise turned her icy gaze towards Aoife. If looks could kill, the orphan would have been six feet under and nailing her coffin shut herself. The Aniatovan took one, two, three elegant and deadly strides towards the orphan, and while there were scant inches between their heights, Sylaise somehow managed to tower above the brunette.
“Gunnar might find you endearing, but I certainly don’t.” Her right hand, which had been at her side, snaked up and grabbed a fistful of Aoife’s hair, tugging it loose from the braid it had been carefully bundled up into. “You won’t last the month, oros. I want you and your lovers out of my city by the end of the week, is that understood?”
“They aren’t my lovers,” Aoife protested, tears tugging at the corners of her eyes as Sylaise pulled harder on her hair, as if she were trying to wrench the entire handful free of Aoife’s scalp.
“If I say they are your lovers, they are as good as. If I say one is a King and the other a clown, that is what you say they are. Unless you want to wake up with a yeşi viper on your pillow.”
Yeşi vipers, as Aoife had discovered thanks to a quirky little building back in Eturia known as the Hall of Antiquities, were a type of snake native only to the Eastern desert. With scales the same orange as the desert sand, they were virtually invisible to those who didn’t know what to look for; two bony ridges above either eye that protruded from the sand whenever the viper submerged itself to hunt.
The best scientific minds in all of Valara had been trying for years to create an antivenom for those unlucky enough to cross paths with an agitated viper, but in twenty years all they had managed to do was prolong the effects of the venom. When faced with a few minutes of numbness and aching, or a few hours of pure agony, most chose to forgo the experimental treatment. One thing that baffled said scientific minds, however, was the involvement of yeşi viper venom in the Kaíri Islands’ famed Emerald Wine.
The Kaíri Islands served as one of only two places capable of growing grapes—the other being Amalia and Sofia’s home of Vittoria—and while whites, reds and rosés were commonplace, it was their Emerald Wine that set the vineyards of Athos and Videnza, the two largest of the Kaíri Islands, apart from the Vittorian vineyards. The base of their wine was a simple white, crisp and fruity with a subtle hint of apricots when served alone. It was the yeşi viper venom, a deep jade colour, that gave the wine its trademark emerald shade. No one knew how the Kaíran vintners managed to remove the lethality of the venom, but remnants of its toxicity remained; a glass resulted in a distinctive numbness of the tongue and lips, while a whole bottle could cause a person’s entire body to feel numb. Exceeding more than one bottle per person was not encouraged—there had been several cases of death due to toxicity levels, though perhaps the most famous case was of a woman from Vittoria, Madame Carazzo, a famous vintner in her own right.
Madame Carazzo, as rumour had it, had partaken of three whole bottles of the deadly liquor, and in turn drank all the feeling from her body. The Kaíran physicians, veritable experts where yeşi viper venom was concerned, had not expected her to survive the build up of venom in her system, but against all odds she did. Alas the feeling never returned to Madame Carazzi’s limbs, and so Madame Carazzo spent the rest of her life confined to a wheelchair, able to taste the wines from her vineyard but never able to craft new varieties. Madame Carazzo had become little more than a cautionary tale for the aristocratic youth who thought themselves stronger and more powerful than even the Maker Himself.
While Emerald Wine was a celebrated delicacy among the Southern aristocracy and nouveau riche, the Sandsmen had more sense and shied away from it. Yeşi vipers had caused enough death in the Sands without willingly drinking something infused with its venom. Even the Ramela, who dined on the other venomous snakes the Sands had to offer, would not dream of hunting the yeşi viper. Frankly the idea of waking up cheek to cheek with one wasn’t a particularly comforting thought.
Aoife nodded in understanding. She didn’t think Sylaise was entirely serious, but she didn’t wish to test her theory. The blonde smile almost maternally, releasing her grip on Aoife’s hair and patting her gently on the cheek.
“I’m glad we understand other. Now, let’s put all this behind us. Gunnar wishes you to be his guest of honour in Bahman Guru.”