Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I shuffled into the village, scuffing the sand with my feet as I went. On my right, the houses of the fishing village were square, sandy brick affairs, some with doors so wide they left the interiors completely exposed. To my left, dipping into the shallows of the river were what could charitably be described as docks, thin slats of wood tied to slender poles with twine. The docks didn’t look sturdy, but the bare-chested fishers navigated them on tiptoes with comfortable ease. They leapt into their long canoes, rocking the crafts as they settled down.
It was a small village, perhaps no larger than the one that I used to frequent, before I left my old temple behind. I could see the opposite edge of the village from here, barely a dozen paces in, and could probably count the populace on my fingers and toes. So it wasn’t surprising that they’d stop and stare at a newcomer. The heightened control of Aenea by the Paedens likely meant fewer travelers passed by these days, and while I had gone for my best desert-traveler look, I’d defaulted to a more Carthian style.
What was surprising was, given the nationality of my appearance, how quickly the nearest villagers fell to their knees.
“The Prophet!” an older woman shrieked, a call that was picked up and carried across the village like a grassfire. Soon a ragtag bunch of commoners swirled around me, bowing and hurling adulations like a pack of starving merchants seeking a sale. The intensity of their worship caught me off guard, and I subconsciously rocked back on my heels as I tried to process what was happening.
Above the swirling, pitiful throng, I could feel Malia’s intense gaze on my back. She was probably going through a host of emotions, from irritation to jealousy to outright bewilderment. This was a far cry from the nearest reaction we’d reckoned they would have, and not only would she be fuming about a further reminder of how blind we were, but she’d also want to be in the thick of things.
Locked outside, however, she could only observe from a distance and hope that my calloused, clumsy hands could gather enough clues that she could piece together a new angle of attack. Which wasn’t to say that I couldn’t handle myself without her, but I was rusty with handling worshippers and she’d know far better how to direct their energy in the most profitable manner.
I was more inclined towards inciting bloodlust and riots, guiding a seemingly mindless mob towards its goal of enemy annihilation. And based on the messianic reception, I doubted these poor fisherfolk were going to take up arms in my name anytime soon.
As I moved forward, they parted before me, tossing worn rags or hastily-cut fronds in my path, doing their best to carpet the ground. I sagged against my staff as I walked, playing into the apparent age of my guise as I frantically searched for an appropriate persona. I didn’t know what kind of Prophet they expected me to be, or what purpose they thought I’d been brought here for.
The clash between Carthian garb and the continued adoration in Paeden confused me. If the scant Aeneans had flocked to me and the Paedens shunned me, I could understand that. If only the lone Carthian—joined maybe by the few Aeneans who’d intermarried with other, out-of-sight Carthians—had come, fine, that was something I could work with, too. But the total mobilization of the village, to the point where the boats on the river were making their way to shore to see what all the fuss was about, left my mind scrambling for answers. And with the sudden regression back to near-gone mortality, my thoughts felt more sluggish than unpurified ambrosia.
As a dirt-smeared child plucked at my robes, I spread my arms as if to embrace him. What I was really doing was reaching towards the earth for whatever tendrils of latent magic I could muster, to see if I could pull myself up to, if not full divinity, then some level of demigod. I’d have even settled for heroic, but only a whisper of magic ghosted across my knuckles. Nothing to prop myself up with, barely enough to tickle.
But it must have done something, because as the earth magic sighed against the backs of my hands, the boy gasped and darted away to his mother. The invocations ceased, and only the elderly were slow to prostrate themselves on the ground. I hadn’t even made it a dozen steps into the village before I’d cowed them into total humility, and I wasn’t sure what I’d done.
Well, staring at the backs of a couple dozen robes in various shades of tans wasn’t getting me anywhere. I’d need to figure out what my tact was, which meant breaking my silence thus far. Hopefully I wouldn’t stick my foot too far down my throat. I’d need all the options I could manage, because the whims of adorers are fickle things indeed.
“Rise, my children.” My voice sounded gruff and desert-worn. I leaned against my staff and surveyed them with my best grandfatherly gaze. While I’d initially worried that some of them might take my look as patronizing, none but the youngest children even dared look up. Most stayed on their hands and knees, eyes averted towards the dirt. The elderly woman who’d first called out at my arrival rose to a sitting position as best she could, her elbows shaking like saplings in a stormwind as she pushed out of her prostrate position.
I shuffled over and helped her up. She looked absolutely mortified and muttered weak protestations I ignored as I kept a firm grip on her elbow. The gesture did put me off balance, though, and the butt of my staff hissed as it slid against the ground. My shoulder got a good whack from the head, but I managed to get the woman to her feet without falling on my face and making a fool of myself. The elder did her best to withdraw her arm in the least offensive way possible, mithering nonsense about her “unworthiness” and how “lowly” she was and so on.
“Akha, are you really Lady Lazuli’s foretold Prophet?”
The little boy from before had returned, his courage recovered enough to leave the safety of his mother’s skirt. Or maybe his curiosity got the better of him. I smiled as his mother hissed at him to come back, and how dare he dishonor the Prophet by questioning so.
So like Hasda, when he was younger, to run straight into potential danger, wide-eyed and oblivious. A little taller, though, and gaunter, but an awkward, blundering youth nonetheless. And useful, though he didn’t know it.
“No offense taken,” I said over his head to his mother. Smiling, I bent down as he sidled over. “What makes you doubt, young one?”
“Well, you look like what I think a Prophet’s supposed to look like.” The boy scrunched up his face. “And you did pop out of the air, but Mauta says—”
Apparently, whatever his mother said was something she didn’t want publicly aired. I chuckled as the boy ducked from his mother’s withering glare. But then he was up again in a flash, more questions at the ready.
“So are you really going to bring down Marudak? All by yourself? Lady Lazuli told us you’d show us the Sea Mother. Where is she? And what about your army? I don’t see any soldiers. Lady Lazuli said—”
“Patience, little one.” I held up my hands to forestall further questions. Briefly, the thought flitted across my mind that setting this inquisitive boy on Jade would be the most rapid-fire, hilarious conversation to witness, but I dismissed it and did my best to control my smile. He was certainly a well-spring of information, though. Leave it to the children to ask the questions and reveal the information they shouldn’t.
Already I had several useful threads to follow. Lady Lazuli sounded like a local deity, but not one I recognized, but with my absence and the influx of Paeden influence, this wasn’t surprising. Further, the Sea Mother was almost certainly a pre-Paeden (and pre-Carthian, for that matter) deity. Gods calling themselves by titles, instead of names, was a trend that had been old-fashioned before Seppo’s mother had founded her pantheon.
Yet another mention of elder pantheon things. What had Malia said about the derketo? That the Paedens were messing with the powers of their predecessors. But this Lazuli didn’t sound like she was on the best of terms with the Paedens. From what I knew of that pantheon, they tended towards monolithic, a singular deity dominating and the rest subservient. If Lazuli were Paeden, she was a young goddess, or insignificant, or both. Being a female wouldn’t provide her any room for advancement, based on the Apkalla’s regard for women. Oannes, as an ambassador, would never have done anything to reflect poorly on his lord. His open hostility towards any female initiative only mirrored that of his god’s.
If the Paedens had overthrown a matriarchy, assuming the Sea Mother had been the head of the Paedens’ forerunners, that could potentially explain the antagonism towards the gender. But it did nothing to justify the utter vitriol that had spawned in their society.
That being said, I had more immediate things to attend to, like the boy who’d grown impatient and was tugging on my robes again. I must’ve dozed while my mind ran over his revelations, because he was asking if I’d fallen asleep. His mortified mother, propelled by a multi-faceted sense of preservation, had overcome her holy fear and had crept up behind the boy, trying to pull him away while whispering hushed reprimands.
I shook myself and smiled warmly at them. “Forgive me. The journey through the desert was a long one.” As if to emphasize my point, I sagged against my staff and yawned. “But my journey is not yet finished. Pray tell, could someone tell me if there’s a ship that could take me north, to the city?” I smiled and shrugged. “I’m afraid I can’t walk on water, and trekking through the riverbed doesn’t sound very appealing.”