Salt Water: Chapter 1
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Oquio pulled the hood of his overtunic closer around his neck. It was always cooler on the water, and the most so just before dawn, when the earth had had the most time to soak up the lingering suns-warmth. He turned back to look upriver again, noting with some satisfaction that no other boats or people could be seen.

In about one palmsbreadth they would all be waking up. Would all be pulling on aprons, tunics, and skirts, would all be leaving rooms for the morning meal. His sisters would plait one another’s hair while it warmed, like they did every morning. His mother would drink warm honeyed tea, wrapping her hands around the cup and sighing obviously - his father would stand behind her, lean over, and kiss her on the cheek.

And then someone would say where’s Oquio? and they would be calling him and when he did not come they would be searching the house, finding his hammock empty, running outside, going and striking on neighbour’s doorjambs and asking if they had seen him. And everyone would say they hadn’t, and then - then, his predictions shivered apart, depending on whether or not they noticed his canoe gone. Depending on whether or not they realized the reason he had fled, and the direction.

He maneuvered his canoe away from the clay-coloured shadow of a bar, churning up a swirl of sediment. There was at least one set of rapids lower down, that he would have to portage around, and then he would come to the Black City, which was as far away as he had ever travelled before - it took a full seven days there and back.

That would give him seven days more to plan what he would do beyond that. He could stay there, seek labour with a fishing family like everyone who worked for his father. That might be one of the first places they would seek for him, though, once they realized what he had done. For certainly his family would not simply let it be - they would be terribly, terribly shamed if they did not at least make an effort to retrieve him, to drag him back home and force him to acquiesce.

See, if he had had family outside of the City of Steps, he would likely be able to flee to them - but no, all his aunts, uncles, and cousins had been a backbone of the city’s trade network since long before anyone could remember. None of them would find better prospects anywhere else, and so they had never left.

A dead snag loomed dark in front of him, and he had to dig the oar in savagely to keep himself from running aground on it. One step at a time, he reminded himself, dragging his attention back to canoe, and water, cautiously maneuvering around. That was how his father and the workers had taught him to mend nets - untangling the twine before cutting any of it, making all the cuts before tying any of the knots, going slowly and methodically in order. That was how he had learned to plane and carve wood, and had made the oar sitting in his palms - split, then blank, then plane, then polish, never skipping ahead to any step before the previous step was fully completed. Don’t skip ahead. He only had to reach the Red Bar today, and he would be making good time. He could choose what his plan would be once he had reached the Black City and had slightly more space to think.

The rim of Teyo slipped over the horizon, sending orange-red bars of light across the water’s surface as it shone between the trees. A rush of warmth ran over the side of his face, and he sighed. Maybe this was a good omen? Maybe he would have some luck, at least, as certain as the suns rose.

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He had not been surprised to find Limazi in his house when he returned to it - that was generally considered an inherent part of having a best friend, that they knew where you lived and could invite themselves over when they wished or if they were seeking you.

What had surprised him was that Limazi had not been alone - his father and mother, as well as Oquio’s father, mother, and older sister and brother had all been there in the atrium, and had all turned to look at him as he had pushed aside the screen and walked in. “What?” he had said defensively, under that massed stare. His gaze had flicked over to Limazi, hoping to get some clarification - when they had been much younger, had not even had ten years in age, they had fairly frequently been dragged before their families together to be criticized for playing pranks or bothering people at their work, but that had not happened for many years now, as both had grown older and now needed to represent their families’ honour.

“Oquio.” His mother had stepped forward, her eyes shining with pride and anticipation. “We have seen how close you and Limazi are. You are to be his husband, now, for he and his family have asked for you.”

He would have been significantly less surprised if they had shoved him through the hatch-opening and he had fallen down into the river. He had had a vague sense that someday he would be married, of course - barring his untimely death it would be necessary that he make a marriage, which would help solidify his family’s trading bonds among the dominant families of the city. But he had expected it to be much further away. He had expected that he would have been given more of a hand in the choosing - his older sister and her husband had almost browbeaten their parents into arranging them together, so firmly had they discussed their desire for it beforehand. Even his older brother had courted his wife for a few months on their parents' suggestion before they had officially been wed.

And, if he was being perfectly honest, he had expected that it would have been a woman.

Of course, it felt a little bit petty to admit this, even secretly to himself - so you would reject a perfectly nice person, just because they’re not a woman? You would embarrass your family and yourself and your spouse over that?

But Oquio had considered, and realized that he probably would, if he thought he could get away with it. He had had vague thoughts about who he would find amenable for a spouse when he finally did wed, and every single person he had considered had been a woman. He would have liked to be a father someday, as well, and if he married Limazi that would never happen.

Likely he had spent too much time with the workers, down on the banks and in the canoes with the water under their soles rather than the sustaining stone. Nearly all of them came from significantly poorer families and could wed whomever they wanted, more or less, without consideration of how it would affect their family’s standing in the social structure of the city. So there had been a lot of conversation, about their standards for a spouse. One of them had sworn that she would never marry a man who was skilled at cooking, “Because I’m not good at it either and I don’t want him showing me up!” One of them said he only liked short-haired women, but that was all right because it had been his wife who had requested his hand first and had been fully willing to cut her braid if he thought it was more beautiful. They had never seemed ashamed of the possibility of rejecting people out of hand for such characteristics, and so Oquio had thought it was perhaps not terrible, if he did not desire to marry any man.

He had forgotten that the standards for him were much higher.

Limazi had come forward and taken his shoulders, and the joy on his face had almost been painful; Oquio had wanted to hide his eyes from its blaze. “Oquio,” he said, “for years I have loved you, and I have wanted nothing more than to be with you forever. I am so grateful that your family thinks I am worthy of it.” This was how animals felt, he had thought, when they were caught in a snare - to go forward, to agree and let himself be wed to Limazi would be a lie. He cared about him, of course, only not as a husband; and he had realized in that moment like a sudden burn that he would grow to hate him over time were everyone to continue under that impression.

But to go back, and to admit in front of all his family and Limazi’s parents that he did not want this - that he would not take this marriage - would be even worse. It would shatter all their relationships - his father would have no trading partners still willing to deal with him, if they knew he had a son so disloyal. His mother and siblings would hate him.

And so when Limazi had leaned forward to kiss him he had forced himself to remain still, not to pull away, despite the cool and worm-like feeling that had been Limazi’s flesh on his. He had been blushing shyly when he pulled back, as though afraid Oquio would disappear if he did more, and Oquio had selfishly wished that were indeed the case.

His sister had saved him, to an extent: laughing and coming forward and hugging him, ruffling his hair like he was a child again. “Look at you,” she had said, “my baby brother has a husband now.” And that had broken the tension stretched like a sinew line through the room, and they had all fallen to congratulating him and Limazi, patting them on the backs and heads, offering jokes about married life. Oquio’s father and Limazi’s mother had started a conversation that they had evidently dropped off just before he had entered, for it began right in the middle of a thought. It was only when his brother asked, “So who’s going to go live with who?” that she turned and said, “Oh, but surely you shall come to our house. We would be so glad to have you as a son, and since Limazi’s sister went to the White City with her husband there is more than enough room.”

And his parents had offered Limazi’s family food, and the conversation and celebrating had gone on. Limazi had been pressed leech-like up against his side, and his skin had crawled with every touch and his thoughts had closed down to just wishing, over and over again, that nobody noticed how his smile had stiffened like day-old meat.

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