My goal is Mallis. I yearn to see the great spear that is the lonely home of the Grey Lady. The Jinq may be the master architects, but the Mallahn managed their own statement. That will be a magnificent sight – I am sure of it – but it remains elusive. It turns out that this island of ours is much bigger than I anticipated.
Three cycles of the sun took us clear of the southern mountains of the Adunas Mahija and up the peninsula that is the ancestral home of the Mallahn. But there is plenty of peninsula still to go. All that pain and ache; all the scrubbing; all the gruel; all of that and I still can’t see my goal. I will have to walk some more, and as I realise this, my feet groaned.
My goodness I have become maudlin.
A plea to creative readers: as I look upon this, my eyes grow bored by the uniformity! I crave inspirational images, but alas, my hands fail me in that regard. I am not a ruddy artist. Are you? If you are inspired to articulate your (related!) imagination, then please, send it to me, and I will refresh this blot with its vibrancy.
But before I can start my trek in earnest, I have passage to pay. The merchant will demand my architectural talents.
To be fair to the plump chap, he has offered me board. After many days and nights exposed to the elements, the experience of being in an enclosed stone space is rather overwhelming. It is a shit-hole – and indeed there is a crude bucket placed in the corner which appears to constitute the facilities – but it is a room in which I can be alone. There is a bed, or a straw lined crate, and there is even a mirror. A mirror.
I have not reflected on my person in a long time. My how I’ve changed.
I was never a puffy figure – indeed I was always considered scrawny amongst my peers – but my face was rounded at the edges; light; jovial. Not anymore. If I didn’t know better, I would say that my ethnicity had changed, such is the darkened sheen my skin now holds: no longer am I pale as a ghost. And beyond that, my skin also looks rough and pauper-like. It looks like I have been toiling all my life, though in reality it is barely a turn of Unthara.
And yet it feels like a lifetime.
My eyes seem to hold more wisdom now; which I suspect they do. They are sunk in my head, colder and harder than they used to be. Or perhaps it is the alcoholic sheen that has disappeared. I have been disappointingly sober for quite some time. My darkened skin also now clings to my skull, the previously soft edges made hard. My hair clings to my head, matted and salty – not a patch of shine anywhere. Once I was proud of my hair – the paid-ladies certainly seemed to appreciate it – but now it is a sight-sore. I daren’t touch it.
My beard too, which has never been proud enough to permit anything other than immediate shaving, looks almost acceptable. No, not acceptable. It is dark and wispy – not the coarse stubble of a man. It will have to come off immediately. I have never dared to look upon it like this, but I don’t like it. It does not suit me.
And my body too has changed. As I said, I was never fat, but I now have definition where before there was nothing more than pale soft surfaces. I think these must be muscles, but I do not know whether this is a consequence of losing fat or gaining mass. I probably am stronger – I certainly feel stronger – but there’s no way to know. What I do know is that I like it.
And yet despite the amassed muscle mass, I ache. Oh there are rich sensations of pain that I could never have imagined coursing through me. My legs may have been given a three-day reprise, but my upper body has suffered so much more. My lids are heavy as I look upon myself, and my newly muscled body sags like a sack of lumpy potatoes.
That crate of straw is calling me. The sun is setting outside – a deep orange dusk highlighting the stark cliffs of the Malhorn – and I am ready for slumber. Apart from the hunger of course. I will need to slake that first.
The door creaks open and my stomach echoes the noise with a rumble. I turn and expect to find a portion of gruel being dumped on the floor, but there is no food. My esteemed employer stands before me, adorned in frankly arrogant finery. His robe holds too much white for his station. Even my family’s colours are not so clean.
He looked at me with the same condescending eyes he did all journey, but now perhaps they are edged with doubt. He wasn’t standing as tall as he had done on the boat. He looks mildly subservient.
But only mildly.
“I have spoken to my wife.”
Did his wife cook the meals? My stomach rumbled again and my lids heaved down. Aggressive negotiations were not what I craved in this moment.
“I hope that she is well.” Courtesy is never out of place.
“She is well, and she is even better now that I have informed her that we have a guest.”
What was he doing? Was he trying to rub my sad state into my confidence? Was he trying to grind me further? It wasn’t the brutal toil of the last three days that had angered me; it was the way this man looked at me as though I were a dog. Even if I was a peasant, did I really deserve such scorn?
“I am glad. May I ask where you acquired this guest?”
My mouth was moving mechanically. I just wanted to get these formalities out of the way and eat. Oh how I wanted to eat.
“We acquired him in Namcalla. It appears that my wife is familiar with your family.”
Now that was definitely a smattering of respect. Still reluctant, but respect nonetheless.
“You are reluctant to accept her view?” I wanted to press the point. He reddened.
“No – I am embarrassed to have treated you so poorly. You are Callij nobility. I barely believe it, but it must be true. You will be our honoured guest.” What a turn of events!
“I don’t believe this is considered suitable attire for formal engagements back in Callij.” I looked down to my threadbare and poorly constructed clothes. I found I didn’t care, but I knew this merchant would.
“You will be dressed appropriately. And you will be staying in more fitting rooms.” His head dropped. “I apologise again.”
The rooms were lavish and my initial reaction was glee at the turn of events. But after time in the new rooms, I found them to be, ah, fluffy and excessive. I was robed in majority white – marginally more coloured than the merchant’s robes; some sort of slight I presumed – and as I stood in the comfortable and plentiful rooms, I felt embarrassed. Almost uncomfortable. It may have only been a turn of the moon since I considered this a minimum standard, but I now saw it for what it was; superfluous excess without substance.
Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. Comfort is comfort.
And one thing that comfort gave me was space for reflection. As the sun rose the following day and I recognised the familiar signature of mistress wine pounding at my head, I peered out of my immaculate white linen – oh the comfort – and took in the surroundings. We were rather isolated. This was truly a wilderness.
It turned out that we were only really about halfway to Mallis – that is halfway between Namcalla and Mallis, which is right at the tip of the Malhorn. The Malhorn is so called because it is one of two prominent peninsulas in the north of Mandaria, and this one was inhabited in the earliest of days by the Mallahn family. The other ‘horn’ is the contested dominion of the Callahn and the Hânto, and is therefore called the Calhorn – the Callahn were there first.
So – what is the Malhorn like? Well, pretty lifeless. To the south I can see the tall peaks of the Adunas Mahija; the mountains that had nearly claimed my life. They are terrible and magnificent even from here. To the north I can see the tip of the Malhorn – a crop of smoothed peaks. That is where Mallis is, the home of the Grey Lady. But between these two prominent places, there is only a graduated and flat nothingness. And here, near the coast, the entire place has a salty cursedness to it. There are few trees, and those which do cling to existence are warped and gnarled by the wind. It is a field of wiry grass constantly at odds with the salt spray and vicious breath of the Great Blue. What would compel a man to build his house here is beyond me.
But as my merchant host puts it, he is king out here. King of nothing, but still a king.
And then I came along. Ha! No wonder he is embarrassed.
But it turns out that this terrible union of salt, wind and spray is the root cause of my merchant’s roofing woes. His stone villa – not a term I’ve heard before but I believe it to be imported from the bronzed South – is weather resilient, but whatever he tries to use to secure the roof seems to rot to dust; destroyed by the incessant bite of the vicious coast. And I must say that initially, I was stumped.
I have heard that the inner coast of the Malhorn is a place of rich farmland and numerous homesteads, and I can see why no-one would build out this way. It is brutal. But this merchant is nothing if not stubborn, and I will try to help him. It will be good to use my mind and my skills. It will be good to set myself a challenge. At least, I will make the most of it.
But it will be some time no doubt, because this is not a problem with a known solution. Namcalla survives the breath of the ocean because it is somewhat sheltered and is also not built of materials that rot. The problem is solved at Namcalla by throwing money at the problem. Here, that may not be possible. I will therefore have to use my inventiveness, and now that I am afforded a degree of luxury, I am likely to stretch the engagement. I shall make myself comfortable.
After all, my poor body could do with some respite. I have not even crossed half of Mandaria – a small place in the embrace of the world – and already I am near-broken. I may have to refine my strategy for my onward journey, or at the very least, have one. If all goes well, I shall speak to you from Mallis!