"I need to speak with him," said Zhaoka, frowning at the man who stood before him, one of Arnook's guards. Guard, of course, was a loose term in this case. The men who held that position were little more than glorified messengers and gatekeepers in peacetime. Zhaoka recognized this man's face, with its distinctive large, broad nose, but the name attached to that nose escaped him.
"Chief Arnook is busy, Zhaoka," was the gruff reply he received. Zhaoka noticed the man had no problem remembering his name. Unsurprising, as he was more memorable.
Zhaoka faced the man down, keeping his face a blank. "How long will he be busy? I can wait."
The man carried a long spear, but his weapon was rendered comical as he crossed his arms in an irritated fashion. He looked like a child holding a spear too big for him. "I don't know how long it will be."
Zhaoka shrugged, unconcerned. When he'd decided to try to speak to the chief, he had not been certain whether Arnook would be able to see him at all, but he refused to let himself be cowed by this petty tyrant. "I see. I have no pressing business at the forge. So I'll stay here and keep you company until he's ready to see me."
The man grumbled to himself, but Zhaoka could tell that the standoff was ending, in his favor. "It shouldn't be too long," the guard amended his previous statement grudgingly.
The Water Tribe was split in half, its population divided between the two poles, lead by Arnook in the North and Chief Hakoda in the South. Zhaoka had had no occasion to deal with the Southern Tribe's chief, their sister tribe was so distant, but Arnook, although he maintained some formalities, was relatively approachable, ready to speak with any member of his tribe if his counsel or arbitration was needed. He gave public audiences in the great hall, during which anyone might appeal to him concerning any matter, no matter how great or small. Most tribe members' respect for their chief was so great that they did not bother him with trifles, but there were exceptions. Even the Water Tribe had its malcontents.
Zhaoka had a matter to discuss with Arnook, but he did not wish to do so publicly. He stood, staring down the guard, waiting in the anteroom that opened into the great hall with what seemed like patience. Finally, the other man let out a sigh of resignation. "I'll see if Chief Arnook has a moment to spare."
The man turned stiffly, trying to maintain some of his dignity while departing. It was not long before he returned and announced, "He will speak to you." He must have been working on perfecting his nonchalant expression while he was gone.
The guard lead him from the icy anteroom into the great hall, a cavernous room built and maintained--and ornamented, for special events--by Waterbenders. Arnook was not in the great hall now; his chief's dais was empty. There were other, smaller rooms for private audiences and small councils, and the guard led him to one of these. On the way, they passed two of the tribe's elders, who were departing; Arnook must have been consulting with them. The chief was a busy man, his work never finished. Zhaoka knew this, yet he did not hesitate to demand his the man's attention if it was needed.
The chief rose to greet him as he entered, and the guard departed without a word. Arnook did not seem taken aback by this visit. Judging by his calm composure, Zhaoka's arrival might have been expected. Arnook nodded, and with a gesture, indicated that Zhaoka should sit on one of the hides spread out on the ice floor for that purpose. Zhaoka followed this wordless suggestion, and Arnook sat with him. "Good day, Zhaoka," he said, his lips moving into a thin, polite smile.
He bowed his head. "Chief Arnook."
"I understand you needed to speak with me. I'm at your disposal for the moment." Arnook was warm without being mild. He crossed his legs, regarding Zhaoka attentively. "What can I help you with?"
Zhaoka crossed his legs as well. "I wished to speak with you about Hahn." He did not need to ask whether Arnook knew about the young man. Someone so touched by the spirits would certainly be known to the chief, especially a young man from a family as prominent as Horuk had said Hahn's was.
Arnook nodded, his manner still matter-of-fact, his expression neutral. "And what did you wish to say about him?"
Last night's incident was still fresh in Zhaoka's mind. He frowned at the memory. He was still not sure what to make of what had happened. Nonetheless, he had felt he should speak to Arnook about it as soon as possible. "For the past few weeks he's been coming to the forge to see me."
"I'm afraid he isn't well. There's something wrong with him, and I've become concerned for his well-being. I'm not sure what should be done about it, but I felt I should bring it to your attention."
"Is that so?" Arnook asked. "What led you to this conclusion?"
Zhaoka remembered the carved fish Hahn had dropped into his hand. He thought of the young man's mouth on his own. He considered telling Arnook about that, but dismissed the idea. It wasn't necessary. "His behavior is erratic, and he has what I would consider an unusual interest in me."
Arnook inclined his head as if to signify that he heard and understood. "I was aware of the fact that Hahn had taken an interest in you. Would you say he is bothering you?"
Zhaoka's first impulse was to say yes, but with Arnook's calm gaze on him, he hesitated. He reconsidered. The young man was strange, to say the least, but none of his actions had been spiteful or hostile. He forced himself to be fair. Not that Arnook would be taken in by exaggerations or untruths. Zhaoka did not always agree with his chief, but the man was clear-sighted in most respects, and Zhaoka had to respect him for that. "Not precisely. But I'm concerned for his welfare, as I said."
The chief seemed oddly evasive today. Zhaoka didn't quite know what to make of that, but he ignored it for the moment. "Yes, I am. Arnook, the boy has been left alone on the edge of nowhere, and he's little better than a child. I don't understand why the tribe has disavowed and abandoned him. There seems to be no reason for it, besides superstition and bedtime stories. Spirits. It's ridiculous. I don't see why people believe these things. It's irrational. The boy should be looked after, not shunned." And, Zhaoka added silently, the boy should certainly not be allowed to follow him around like a baby polar bear dog.
Arnook was silent. He bowed his head, and when he looked up again, he got to his feet. He folded his arms behind his back. "Zhaoka. Hahn was a man of this tribe." The chief turned so that Zhaoka found himself regarding the man's back. "He was old enough to fight for his people. I sent him on the mission that killed him. He was old enough to die." Having said this, he fell silent again, his eyes on the ice wall of the chamber.
Suddenly, he moved again, pacing with the smooth grace of a man raised to fight. "It was some time before Hahn returned to us. We had already mourned him as one of the dead and marked his passage from the tribe into the world beyond. When he came back, we offered him the honors he was due as a hero of the war. We wanted to reinstate him in the tribe, to give him a place among the warriors once more."
Arnook's arms fell to his sides. He had a chief's way of speaking: intense and compelling, but there was more to it than that today. "Hahn refused all that," he said. "He was a man. He died. By my order. So when he returned to us, I let him choose his own way of living this second life. I let the spirit who had saved him guide him. It was no longer my place to command him. The life he has now is the life that he chose. No matter what we may think of his decision, we are not in his place. You may not believe all the stories, Zhaoka, and that is your right, but I believe. I have seen--many things. I don't question the ways of the spirits. Not because I fear them, but because they act in ways we cannot understand, so our questions are useless." Arnook was looking directly at him now, his expression unreadable. "I try to respect their decisions. I am humble before them."
It frustrated Zhaoka sometimes, this belief in the unseen. It stood between him and the rest of the tribe like a wall he could not break through. It was not that he did not believe spirits existed at all--he did--but not in the same way. He didn't think they had such a direct impact on the lives of the living. What was the point in showing them respect? It was a wasted endeavor. He usually knew better than to argue with his tribesmen where that subject was concerned, but sometimes it was difficult not to. "I don't see how leaving the boy on his own respects anything, spirit or otherwise."
The expression that passed over Arnook's face was uncharacteristically sharp and open. Was that real anger? It was gone too quickly for Zhaoka to say for certain. "Zhaoka. There is much you do not remember of our ways. I understand this. But do not think to judge my treatment of my own people, many of whom I have known all their lives." The chief was tall. His height was even more apparent to Zhaoka when he himself was seated, looking up at the other man.
"When Hahn returned from death," Arnook said, "his family feared him. They were unsure of what to do with him. He seemed mad. He had come back from a dark place. Death is a natural process, but its reversal is not. Many things happened in those days that people could not understand. They were strange times. They took a toll on people. I could not blame the boy's family. They had suffered many losses. So I took personal responsibility for him. I cared for him when he was weak."
This information was new to Zhaoka, but he did not take the time to reflect upon it. "I see, Arnook, but--"
The chief did not allow Zhaoka to continue, speaking over the argument he was about to make. "When he was well, I offered to make him my son."
This was surprising enough to silence Zhaoka. He waited, listening.
"But he refused my offer," Arnook concluded simply. "His life now is the life he is chosen, as I have said. As much as I respect the spirits, I respect the members of my tribe."
"Yes, Arnook," said Zhaoka. "I do understand." He understood that Arnook would do nothing about the matter and that Hahn would continue to come and go as he pleased. He wasn't sure what he had expected to have happen, but he would have liked--something, at least. Not to be brushed off with talk of spirits and respect. "But he troubles me."
"How is that?"
Zhaoka frowned, blowing out a mouthful of breath in frustration. "It's difficult to explain the way he acts. He's very--familiar."
"Do not take the things he says or does too much to heart. As you yourself said, he isn't well."
There was a contradiction in the words of those who spoke to him about Hahn, Zhaoka realized. They said that Hahn was touched by the spirits, that something sacred and important had happened to him, but then they said that he shouldn't be taken seriously, that he was just a troubled young man. It made Zhaoka wonder. He looked up at his chief. He had a question to ask, but he knew it would not be answered. He did not let that fact dissuade him. "Arnook," he said, "did he know me before?"
"Zhaoka. You know I cannot answer that."
"Just once, Arnook. Just this once."
Arnook was silent. He turned away again, then let out a frustrated breath of his own. "No, Zhaoka, he did not know you. But he may believe that he did."
The words were more like a riddle than an answer. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
Back still to Zhaoka, Arnook shook his head. "I can say no more."
"Then that settles nothing."
"You know it is forbidden to speak of it, Zhaoka."
"Forbidden by you!"
He had raised his voice. This made Arnook face him again. The chief did not raise his own voice in turn. "We will not have this discussion again," he said simply, his blue eyes cool.
Zhaoka did not argue. Arnook would not be moved; he knew that from experience. When he spoke again, his words were more measured, his voice lowered "Yes. I know."
"Do not mistake me, Zhaoka. I do not wish for Hahn to trouble you. You are right. He is not always well. I can speak to him on your behalf, if you wish, but you must bear in mind, I can only do so much where he is concerned. Hahn does not necessarily do what he is told, and I cannot punish him for the ways the spirits move him, for then he would be doubly punished. The spirits' demands are not always easy."
Zhaoka didn't bother to contradict this. He had said what he came to say. "I understand, Arnook. And I would appreciate any effort you made on my behalf."
The chief nodded. "I will do what I can. You have my word. In return, I ask only one thing of you. Not as your chief but as myself. You can consider it a favor, if you like."
Arnook had never asked him for a favor before. "And what is that?"
"Be kind to him," Arnook said softly. "That's all I ask."
He was on his way back to the forge when he heard footsteps behind him. He slowed. He didn't need to look to know who it was. That heavy gait had grown familiar to him over the past years. "Horuk," he said, as the man fell into step beside him.
"I didn't expect to see you here."
"I had visits to pay today."
Zhaoka nodded. Horuk was often visiting one or another of his many relatives. Zhaoka didn't know whether to envy him his abundance in that area; his family could be a burden as well as a blessing. The many members of his sizable clan had many demands to make. It was the same with Arluk and Inuvik. Their family ties were strong. What must that like? Had he known that way of life, once? It was not the first time he had wondered about his family. It would not be the last, he was sure.
"You went to see the chief," said Horuk, stating rather than asking.
"You know everything, don't you?"
"Most things," agreed Horuk tersely.
They traveled in silence for a time. Their breath, streaming from their mouths, was so visible it seemed almost solid. The sun was already low in the sky: fat and red. Zhaoka gazed across the snow fields. In the distance, he saw a pair of Waterbenders, busy maintaining the paths. They were kept for safety as well as convenience. If someone was unlucky enough to be caught outside in a blizzard, they could feel their way back using the ice ridges the Benders had raised on either side of them. It was no guarantee of survival, but it could make the difference between finding one's way to a warm igloo and dying from the cold. At the thought of blizzards, Zhaoka's gaze rose towards the skies. It did seem as if a storm was building. The clouds on the horizon were dark and thick. Zhaoka quickened his steps instinctively. Storms could come up startlingly fast at this time of year.
When Horuk spoke again, Zhaoka started, surprised away from his thoughts of storms and death. "What did you talk to Arnook about?"
He shrugged. "Nothing important."
"I think I know."
"After all, you do know most things," said Zhaoka dryly.
"Nothing to worry about there," said Horuk, a trace of mischief creeping into his tone. "He likes you, that's all."
Zhaoka was not amused. "Yes, it's very funny."
"There's no accounting for taste."
Zhaoka decided to ignore this. "Horuk. Can I ask you a question?"
"You can ask."
"You knew Hahn before he died, didn't you?"
Horuk grunted an affirmative.
"Did you know him well?"
"No. My son knew him."
Horuk rarely spoke about his son. Zhaoka knew he should tread carefully, but he couldn't resist his curiosity. "Were they friends?"
Zhaoka imagined Horuk's son as a younger version of his father: pragmatic, taciturn, stubborn. Judging by what he knew of Hahn, he must have been arrogant, gregarious, foolish: nearly insufferable for someone like Horuk. If Zhaoka's assumptions were correct, the two wouldn't have had a thing in common. They may well have disliked each other. Probably they had, he suspected, as he glanced at Horuk out of the corner of his eye. His friend's face was as stony and blank as if there were no thoughts behind it, but Zhaoka knew there must have been.
He couldn't resist pushing at that stony facade. Just a slight push. "Arnook said his family wanted nothing to do with him."
"They give him the roof over his head."
"That isn't the same."
"What would you know of it, Zhaoka?"
It was true; he didn't know what it was like to have a family. "Did I have any children?"
Horuk shrugged. "How would I know?"
That was the kind of answer he expected from Horuk, but it was no less frustrating, for all that he expected it. There were walls on all sides of him, and what they blocked him off from was not so much the men of the tribe, but himself.
"The clouds look bad," Horuk said, changing the subject. "Could be the first big storm of the winter."
The wind had picked up. It was ghosting among the snowdrifts, raising a fine mist of flakes. "Could be," Zhaoka agreed. But he didn't want to talk about the weather. There was something bothering him. "Hahn says some strange things."
"Does he?" Horuk didn't seem interested.
"I think he does know who I was."
Horuk shook his head. "Don't pay him too much mind."
There it was again. "Yes, that's what Arnook said."
It didn't make sense, the way they kept telling him to pay no attention to the things Hahn said. It was as if they were afraid Hahn was going to tell him something. And of course, that must have been it. Hahn wasn't a member of the tribe. Although he too would have been told not to speak to Zhaoka of his past life, he was not bound in the same way the others were. There was a spirit inside him. He followed a different set of laws, laws they could not understand, and maybe that was what they were afraid of. "I don't mean to pay him any mind," he said.
Horuk said nothing in reply, but when Zhaoka glanced at the man, he thought that Horuk seemed pleased, although it was always hard to tell with him.
Arluk and Inuvik had made an early start. The brothers had broken out the Earth Kingdom rice wine, from the looks of it. Their faces were flushed, their cups held high as if they'd been caught mid-toast. "Happy Stormcoming!" Arluk called out as he and Horuk entered the lodgings next to the forge. Inuvik's brother--the younger by two years--was the more boisterous of the two. In fact, one might say he had a big mouth.
"Stormcoming." Horuk stomped across the ice floor towards his own niche. "You'll take any excuse."
"Who needs an excuse to have a good time?" Arluk asked, leaning back against the wall of the igloo's inner ring. His legs were stretched out, his booted feet near the fire. "But stormcoming is a long-standing Water Tribe tradition."
"A tradition you made up," said Horuk. He had brought some small items back from the city, and he sat down to sort through them.
"Those are the best kind." Arluk gestured to Zhaoka. "Come, sit by the fire. Have some wine Drink to the storm!"
"You don't even know how bad it'll be," said Zhaoka. Nevertheless, he did as Arluk suggested. Some wine might do him good. It was Arluk and Inuvik's custom to celebrate the first blizzard of the winter. "It's not snowing yet."
"Oh, I know it'll be bad." Arluk smacked his brother's arm, causing him to spill some wine. "This one can read the wind. And if it turns out to be a mild one--then we'll drink to the next one!"
Inuvik frowned as wine ran down his wrist. "Be careful, Arluk."
"I'm always careful." He produced a cup for Zhaoka, then filled it with pale wine. Zhaoka accepted it gratefully.
Arluk leaned back again, taking another sip from his own cup. He gave Zhaoka a sidelong glance, grinning. "So--I hear you've finally found a bedmate."
Zhaoka blinked, then scowled. Arluk hadn't been here last night. The other men sometimes slept at the homes of family members--or lady friends, depending. Someone must have told him what had happened. Zhaoka glared in Horuk's direction, but the other man ignored him. He wondered how much Horuk knew.
"Someone has misinformed you, Arluk." Zhaoka was too irritated to be embarrassed. He had hoped to avoid being subjected to such talk.
"Ah, don't be so prudish!" Arluk threw his head back to finish off a cup. "I wouldn't!" Inuvik, seated next to him, was chuckling.
"The last thing I would expect of you is prudishness," said Zhaoka.
"He knows you, Brother," Inuvik laughed.
Arluk sniffed as he refilled his cup. "You shouldn't be so picky," he said. "It's not as if you're overrun with offers. Young, good-looking, good teeth. What more can you ask for?"
Zhaoka took a sip of his wine, staring into the fire. "I know those are your only criteria."
Inuvik laughed again, loudly enough that the laugh turned into a snort midway through. Arluk, who was difficult to offend, laughed too. "Well, why not?" he asked. "You might as well. It'll be good for you. Maybe you won't be so bad-tempered if you have a little fun. After all, the two of you--it makes sense!"
Inuvik stopped laughing.
Zhaoka frowned. He noticed that Horuk had turned towards them and was regarding Arluk intently. Arluk noticed as well. "What?" he asked. "No one else wants either one of them. They might as well have each other!"
"I'm not interested," Zhaoka growled.
"It's perfectly natural."
"You'd think it was perfectly natural to mate with a buffalo yak."
"It is!" Arluk laughed. "For a male buffalo yak! The males often mate with each other, you know. There aren't enough females to go around."
"That isn't funny, Arluk."
"I think it is," said Arluk, and his brother was laughing again, too, so hard he spit wine. They shared a sense of humor. A rather dubious one, thought Zhaoka as he rolled his eyes.
Horuk came to sit with them. He wordlessly accepted the cup of wine Arluk offered him.
"And what do you think of Zhaoka's new friend?" Arluk asked him.
Horuk didn't say anything. He sipped at his wine.
"Well?" Arluk prompted.
It was often difficult to tell whether Horuk was joking. He delivered his jokes in the same tone he used for simple statements. Therefore, it was impossible to know whether Horuk meant it when he said, "I feel sorry for him."