“If we follow the plan, won’t we be heading into Riddian?” said Lark. “I’ve heard about that place. It doesn’t sound like fun.”
“It’s not,” said Dasira flatly. “I used to live there.”
“Really? You’re Riddish? …I guess I’m not surprised.”
“And what does that mean?”
The southern girl squirmed for a moment, then said, “All right, well, it shouldn’t come as a shock to you that you’re scary.”
“And from what I hear, the Riddish are completely berserker-raging, desert-dwelling, cactus-eating crazy people.”
“Well, for one thing, there are no cacti in Riddian.”
“But it’s a desert…”
“For another thing, you think I’m crazy?”
“I…said… I didn’t say that. Not at all!”
Dasira gave her a long stare, and though Lark tried to look innocent, she could not help but recoil further and further from the volatile woman as the stare extended onward. Finally Dasira looked forward again, onto the snow-covered landscape below.
“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter what you think,” she said. “And that’s a fairly accurate evaluation of how everyone else sees us.”
“Yes, that’s– That’s what I meant.”
“Some corrections, though.”
Closing her eyes, Dasira continued slowly, “It’s not desert the way you’d think of the badlands in Illane. No spiny plants, no big dunes. It’s dry because there’s no rain–the Garnet Mountains and the Trivestean Plateau block all the wet air that would otherwise come in from the Atharenix or the Cyrellean Sea—and because the ground is thick with salt.
“The way I heard it told, Riddian long ago was just an arm of the northern Cyrellean Sea. It’s a big shallow bowl between the Trivestean Plateau and the Krovichankan rise, and there’s still a deep cut that you can walk to the sea, but at some point—maybe the Sinking of Lisalhan—the sea connection broke. Maybe the land shifted. There were a lot of earthquakes then, I’m told. But it left behind the Inner Salt Sea.
“And over time, that sea evaporated.
“My people used to live on that inner sea. They always had—as fishermen, pearl-divers, salt merchants. It dried rapidly though, because it was never replenished by rainfall and our summers were always blisteringly hot. About a century ago, it ceased to be a sea, just a chain of pitifully shallow, horribly saline lakes. Now it’s a few scattered oases so briny and toxic you can barely get close.
“It’s not all plain salt, after all. There were minerals in the soil itself… I don’t know the details, but they didn’t mesh well with the lowering water levels. We have to be careful about them when we harvest salt. Odd colors in the salt are sometimes nothing more than pigment, but sometimes they’re poison.
“Anyway, obviously we stopped being fishermen when the sea dried up. A lot of us moved north to the coast, and they’re still there. More moved south to Keceirnden and the lands around it. Many of us went into the Garnet Mountains or raided the Trivesteans for access to water—them and their ice-covered canyons—but others stayed in the desert.”
“With no water?” said Lark incredulously.
Dasira shrugged. “There’s no rain but there are streams that reach us from the Garnets. We build towns and make our camps along them. Gather what water we can, take our beasts out to the scrubland then come back when we run low. Going to the center of the salt takes more preparation–we have particular rituals we undertake in order to survive the trek on minimal water–but we’re not insane. We don’t live there.
“The only reason we’re still herders and hunters is because there are still plants out there–really rough forage for the most part, but good enough to raise goats and the like–and because we can get good coin from hunting. We have towns in the mountains where our farmfolk tend terraces year-round while the rest of us make excursions to the salt flats and the oases.
“See, some creatures adapted better than we could. Or perhaps they were already like that, and the evaporation of the sea just revealed them. There are some oases that are said to be miles deep, with colonies of things living in them that we could never imagine. Immense underground salt-domes full of mineral creatures, corroded metal elementals, crusted reptiles, poison fish… For certain we have salt-slimes. The Citadel at Valent sends mages sometimes to catch them; apparently they’re useful in some kind of arcane study. And there’s Hlacaasteia, one of the old wraith spires. Abandoned, we think, but no one can get close to it anyway. It’s in the worst of the salt wastes.
“Anyway, we hunt those beasts because even though most of the time we can’t eat them, we can still skin them. Our reptile hides are highly prized. We do a lot of trade with Valent even though Trivestes hates us, and some with Daecia, and a good amount through our agents in Keceirnden. We also provide almost the entire north with salt, now that the Wrecking Shore is barren. The Trivesteans have tried to take over before, but they can’t tolerate the conditions and they don’t know which salt is good and which is bad—so it’s easy to poison them.
“We do a lot of trade with the Shadow Folk too, though only from the mountain towns, since you’d be hard-pressed to find a shadow anywhere in the salt flats.”
Lark frowned. “So all those mineral poisons and acids and the like, they come from Riddian?”
“A few from Daecia, I think. Bizarre stuff in those swamps. But mostly it’s ours, yes. And what’s fun is that most of us are immune to the doses that kill other people, because we eat this stuff as a matter of course. All the fine, good-quality full salt gets sold for a hefty price to you outsiders. Some of the less-quality stuff gets sent to the towns to be purified for sale. We eat the mildly toxic salt—which reminds me, never try any of the local dishes, they’ll kill you. But we’ve built a tolerance for it over generations, ever since we were skinchangers eating the fish from that dying sea. Our spirits adapted before we even became human.
“Even we can’t go into the Crystal Valley though. That’s the low point—what used to be the depth of the Inner Salt Sea. Crystals the size of towers bathing in a slurry of brine and slime, burning with the furnace-light of the sun… We don’t even go near there until winter, and then just for the sacrifices.”
“Sacrifices?” said Lark, uneasy.
“Mm. We follow the Light in Riddian and know that it could scour us from the world, but we remember the spirits too. Some of the only easterners who still do, I’ve been told. And Salt is a spirit, and the Crystal Valley is its heart. So every year we bring water to it—I think it started as some desire for the sea to return, but now it’s just a ritual. And in rough years, or victorious ones, we bring victims. Trivesteans when possible.”
“You really don’t like those guys,” said Lark.
Dasira smirked. “Even being gone from Riddian as long as I have, I still feel the desire to punch any Trivestean I see. It’s not just that they’re bad neighbors, hoarding the water and shooting us any time we come near their territory. Not even that they’ve tried to come in and take our pitiful resources. It’s that they keep trying to cut us off from the outside world, to make sure that no one else buys our materials or heeds our voices, as if they can just make us quietly disappear. I don’t know why they’re so obsessed with it, except that perhaps they can’t handle having an enemy they can’t fight.”
“They have the whole Sapphire Army, though,” said Lark. “And the Citadel at Valent is technically part of Trivestes…”
“Yes, but it’s Imperial, and we have our own mages there. And we’re in the Sapphire Army too. Almost more of us than live in Riddian now, actually. Between Keceirnden and the mountain towns and Imperial service, the herding and salt-gathering is becoming almost a formality—something you slave through until your age of majority, then escape as soon as possible. Sometimes I think the only reason our culture hasn’t entirely disintegrated is that we still have the Trivesteans to fight.”
“Why would you even do that, though? They’re up on those cliffs with bows and arrows. Your folk are down at the bottom with what, rocks?”
“Rocks, fists and rage, heh. But it’s true, we don’t have archers, we barely have weapons—no wood except for in the mountains, hardly any metal there, and everything we take into the salt lands just gets corroded to death. What we do know is stealth, though. We travel at night, gather at night, hunt at night. We see well in the dark. And we’re brutal. You weren’t wrong to say we can act berserk. It’s a function of being taught to kill carapaced lizards all but barehanded in the dead of night.
“I should qualify that, though. Our men are brutal. Our women, we try to protect from any of that business.”
Lark gave her an incredulous look. “It’s really hard for me to believe that when it’s you saying it.”
“I don’t count as a woman in Riddish society,” said Dasira. “I count as a man. For us, women stay in the towns, care for the children and harvest the crops. Men go mine the salt, herd the beasts and hunt the prey. And kick Trivestean ass.
“But a ‘man’ can be male or female. Same with a ‘woman’. It’s a mantle you take on, not something you’re born to. Children get to choose which they want to be when they come of age, and sometimes older people will decide to change. Pregnant females are all women until they bear their child. Injured men, old men, often choose to become women rather than die in the desert or be sacrificed to the Crystal Valley. Some women, once they’ve raised their children and made their peace, choose to take up a spear as a man and seek that same death. It’s an act of will for us. Our king right now is female and lives as a man.”
“Wait, what? How did she get to be king?”
“By fighting. It’s how we do it. Part of the Crystal Valley ritual actually—the way it starts. Every winter, we hold challenges for the kingship in the meeting ground near the towns. Sometimes no one challenges the current king, but sometimes there are many. Once the challengers prove themselves worthy, the king fights them personally, and anyone who beats the king is the new king until taken down by another challenger. In years when we have prisoners, the new king sacrifices those in the Crystal Valley; in years when we don’t, either the old king or one of the fallen challengers is sacrificed. Good incentive not to bid for the kingship frivolously. King Mataur has held her ground for five years now, I believe.”
For a long time, Lark just blinked. Then she said slowly, “So. Going backward from that craziness to the other craziness. Your men—your males—can just put on dresses and say ‘I’m a woman’ and you all say ‘all right, go live with the other women’?”
Dasira smirked. “I know what you’re thinking. A good way to get in among the ladies, if you’re a sly man. We don’t allow that, though. A woman needs to be bound to a man—or several men, or several women to a man—but you can’t be a woman alone, or one attached solely to another woman. You need a man, and all the men need at least one woman.”
“I don’t… I don’t get it,” said Lark.
Dasira sighed. “I think in the beginning it was a way to make sure everyone got a share of the hunt, a share of the harvest and a place to come home to, no matter what their roles were. Being bound to each other isn’t necessarily like being married. Sometimes there’s sex, sometimes it’s just a partnership, and you can agree to release each other at any time—as long as it’s mutual and by releasing each other you don’t leave one or the other alone. But no one interferes with a bond. No male will get himself designated a woman just so that he can get sent to town to sleep around, because the moment he tries, the rest of the women will turn on him as a pretender. You do not act like a man among the women. You do not act like a woman among the men. This is why we have those divisions.”
“Because…the tough hunters can’t tolerate having weak ‘women’ among them, and the quiet farmers don’t want aggressive ‘men’?”
“That’s…” Lark’s face squinched up, and she said, “If not for that ‘picking your role’ thing, I’d say that’s ridiculous.”
Dasira shrugged slightly. “Some of us leave because of that, rather than because of the scarcity, it’s true. But when we didn’t have that option, our method kept those unable or unwilling to fight from being forced to do so, and let those who wanted to fight have the chance despite their birth. The problem in recent decades has been that our neighbors don’t understand this, so when they’re trying to marry into our families—or much more commonly to get some of us to marry out to them—sometimes they pick the wrong people to proposition.”
“I told you I count as a man. Not all outsider men are willing to hear that.”
“Until you ‘explain’ it to them?”
“Let’s just say there were some situations that could have been much less unpleasant if they had just accepted my identity. But I have to say that we’ve used their confusion for our own gain too—sending female men to marry weak-seeming outsiders, in particular. Especially in those few times we’ve been forced to send brides to Trivesteans.”
“Don’t tell me you were—“
“You don’t want to know.”
Lark stared at her for a moment, then shook her head slowly. “You’re right. I really don’t. In fact, if I never hear anything about the Riddish again, I’ll consider myself saner for it.”
“Too bad we’ll be going through their territory, hm?”
“You’re gonna feed us to the salt-slimes, aren’t you.”
“It’s a thought.”