Safe for work. Really.
Huddled in the bow of the ship’s boat, blinking in dawn sunlight, freezing and soaked, the Narekan’s quartermaster brooded upon the reasons why he hated human ports. The weather was invariable cold, damp or both. The harbors were shallow and dangerous for deep-drafted shih-aan ships. Human ports were–not to put too fine a point on it–infested with humans.
Humans didn’t smell as bad as the quartermaster had been warned. Instead, they smelled wrong, less like a civilized person and more like something with hooves. They had blunt little teeth in weak chins and skin like a mackerel’s belly. Their eyes had little round pupils and white rims. Their hands were soft and clumsy. Worse of all, they stared! Such appalling bad manners in something that smelled like food!
The quartermaster sent underlings to shore and remained on board whenever possible during the month-long business of transferring cargo. He’d been ordered ashore, though, to fix a snag with the passenger that had already caused the Narekan to miss a tide. Thus the quartermaster had been put on the boat when all civilized people were still asleep to discover out why the passenger had not come aboard yet.
The wealthy merchant had already caused the quartermaster enough grief for any two other passengers. Boarding the ship two weeks ago, he had pronounced the biggest stateroom insufficient, so the quartermaster must unload a small cargo bays and refit it. Next the merchant’s ample baggage must be stowed. Some of that baggage was worrisome, like the small chests that demanded ropes, poles, and the strength of two shih-aan to shift. Small and heavy meant gold. Lots of gold. Moneyed land-dwellers expected the same deference from the ship’s hierarchy that they were accustomed to on land. Teaching them otherwise was often unpleasant, at least for the passengers–some shih-aan looked forward to delivering painful lessons, indeed, more than was strictly seemly. The quartermaster rarely had time for such indulgences.
When the Narekan’s boat bumped against the dock, the quartermaster climbed the rope ladder ahead of one of his rowers and behind another. He planted his bare feet and tried to assume an appropriately haughty demeanor while Bronlyn Harbor seemed to heave and prance in the corners of his eyes.
This, then, was his peoples’ toehold in a barbarian land. Female shih-aan did not, as a rule, travel, but a few males could earn the permission of their zanshin to do so. The tithes they sent home were sufficient to reward the dangers though not–in the quartermaster’s opinion–enough to compensate for wearing human clothes. His nape itched just looking at the shih-aan dock hands in heavy woolen trousers and coats. The dock looked much like any other with piles of ropes, stacks of barrels, sky-high cargo hoists and big, slow oxen, steaming in the cold, to drive them. Sail-equipped cargo launches bobbed in the dirty green water. The smell of the animals almost masked the taint of nearby human. The scale of things was subtly wrong, as if the ladders and other furnishing had been sized for cubs.
The quartermaster squinted into the sunlight and spotted his passenger. The tall shih-aan had an ageless, unweathered face, violet eyes, and a touch of gray in his mane. He wore the better sort of human clothing–trousers and multiple layers of coat, and a wide-brimmed sort of hat, all made of fine black wool. The human-like boots were brown deerskin. So were the gloves that hid his long, tapering fingers. A ruffle of a deep blue shirt spilled out the front of the coat. His hat was decorated with a matching blue feather, and a valise sat at his feet. The four rowers faded back into the quartermaster’s shadow.
What was the passenger’s name? Oh yes. “Greetings, Shieh Yeras,” said the quartermaster. The zanshin or clan name might have meant something to another land-dweller. The title caught his attention because it was unfamiliar.
The other shih-ann gave him a cautious nod. The feather bobbed above his ridiculous hat, which half-hid his eyes. He said nothing, giving neither offense nor courtesy. The quartermaster opened his mouth to inquire about the problem when he spied the slight figure standing by the shih-aan’s side. It was a human. The quartermaster fought the reflex to extend his claws.
The human was–well, how to describe a human? Pale, short, and weak-looking. Many humans had hairy chins, but this one was smooth. Was it male or female? Supposedly, humans had hair on their privates, but the officer would rather not speculate on such matters. The difficulty was now obvious.
“Your pardon, sir,” said the quartermaster. “We had no knowledge that you were bringing a human. The Narekan has no suitable accommodations.”
“Suitable accommodations?” the passenger inquired. His voice was deep, cultured and soft as a caress. For a moment the quartermaster felt the urge to bow, then recoiled at his own reaction. The tips of his claws protruded for a moment before he pulled them back in.
“If Sir wished to bring a fine horse aboard,” he answered, “we would build a stall for it. What sort of lodging does a human require? Must it be confined? What does it eat? Can it be lodged with the livestock?”
The passenger tipped back his head to the side. The quartermaster clenched his hands into fists to keep his claws from causing offense. The captain would have him shaved if he did.
“The Narekan regrets this misunderstanding,” said the quartermaster, “but we are at an impasse, and time presses upon us. We already missed the morning tide and owe another day’s docking fee.” The human was watching the two shih-aan converse with an uncanny intelligence, as if he understood.
Shieh Yeras said, “My kyashan will lodge with me,” he said reasonably. Except the words made no sense. What had the shih-aan called his human? Kyashan? Surely that was not possible. The human wore no earring. But, then, piercing a pig’s ear would not make it a kyashan.
“I speak with the captain’s voice,” answered the quartermaster carefully, crossing his arms to hide his treacherous claws and drawing reassurance from the heavily-muscled rowers who stood at his back. “The ship will not have your animal aboard.”
Shieh Yeras gave another finely-measured nod, calm as if they negotiated the passage of a bale of furs. “You will return my belongings, of course.”
The quartermaster was aghast. He had expected the passenger to cast aside his unwelcome pet; now he faced ordering his exhausted cargo crew to reverse the process by which they had loaded and stowed Shieh Yeras’s heavy baggage and explaining to the captain why the ship must miss another tide and pay another day’s dockage.
“But…but….” The quartermaster stammered. “The ship must not miss the tide!”
Shieh Yeras smiled, showing the tips of his fangs. “The difficulty is not mine. Come,” he said to the human beside him. They both turned their backs on the dock and began the long walk back to town.
The quartermaster watched them with his mouth fallen open. His only option was so bitter he almost choked on it. “Wait!” he shouted. “Perhaps…perhaps I spoke in haste and from lack of knowledge.” His claws dug into the palms of his hands. “If you will be so good as to board, I will discover the captain’s wishes in this matter. An accommodation may be possible.”
The passenger and his pet retraced their steps until they both stood uncomfortably close to the quartermaster. He could feel his cheeks color. The Narekan’s other crew shifted uneasily as they saw their boss back down.
Shieh Yeras’s sweet, cultured voice dropped to a whisper and slipped into intimate mode so that his every word was an obscene suggestion. “If you would have me board, abase yourself.”
Worse and worse. The quartermaster wanted to reply with a blow, and that he could not do. So he folded himself down to his knees, then, trying and failing to be graceful, he lowered his body to the dock and lay his cheek against the salt-scoured surface. That he did so before the crew he commanded made his mouth taste of bitter ashes. After a moment the heavy weight of the passenger’s booted foot settled on the quartermaster’s turned neck, pressing down until the pulse pounded in his head. Of course the captain would avenge this slight but–and this was important–only after the wretched pair boarded. The quartermaster hoped, uncharacteristically, that he might be invited to watch.
A voice–a human voice–spoke in perfect Krih-aan, “I am not an animal. My name is Wishbone.”
“Get up,” said Shieh Yeras, lifting his foot and nudging the quartermaster’s ear with a toe. “You’ve wasted enough of my time.”