Oil and Water Mix
Sevelh closed the door to his cearlogh. He pulled off his silver wig and tossed it on the floor, then he threw himself down heavily into his chair. His horses were watered and fed. His goods were all safely locked up. The show was over for the day. Now, alone, he could be himself. Sevelh was one of the new and growing breed of traders, bartering his Seffean wares for Sairhean merchandise along the borders of the two peoples’ lands.
The Seffeana lived farthest to the south. They were the smallest in stature of the Caleans, with a slightly dark complexion. The Sairheana lived to their north around the giant lake at the center of the world. They were slender and fair of skin. And to the far north in the mountains lived the burly and dark-haired Aelmaereana. Long ago the stories told that the three peoples warred horribly, until finally agreeing on a peace, in which all retreated to their separate lands and essentially left one another alone. For a long time there was no contact between the three. However, in recent years trade had sprung up along the borders.
Sevelh was one of the pioneering merchants, hoping to grow rich due to his unique circumstances. He, and his horses, dragged his cearlogh filled with merchandise between the Seffean and Sairhean lands. The cearlogh and everything inside contained Sevelh’s entire life. It served both as his home and his shop when at the market.
His father had abandoned him and his mother when he was still very young—something unheard of amongst both the Seffeana and Sairheana. It was not something that Sevelh ever talked about because he knew why his Sairhean father had abandoned him. Sevelh was half Seffean. This also was something that was completely unheard of. Sevelh sometimes wondered if he was the only one of his kind.
His Seffean mother died of illness when he was only 29. That was when he set out upon this life. With a wig and some makeup he was able to pass for a slightly short Sairhean, allowing him to travel further into their lands than any Seffean merchant. Without the wig, and in his natural dark hair and skin, he was easily able to pass for a tall Seffean and go wherever he wished in the south without too many second looks. This was, of course, very beneficial for his profession. Fortunately all Caleans spoke the same language, with only minor differences in dialect that Sevelh had long ago mastered. He had a much more difficult time managing the two currencies. Both used silver and copper coins, but they had different designs cast upon them, and there was no way to exchange between the two aside from with merchandise, so Sevelh kept most of his tiny, yet growing, fortune tied up in his stock.
There were some that said the three races arose independently of one another and could not interbreed. Sevelh was living proof that they could, but he was perhaps the only one who knew now that his mother was gone. He closed his eyes thinking of her and fell asleep in his chair.
The first rays of the morning sun began to peek over the horizon as Sevelh arrived at the fields where they held their business. Since he was on the Sairhean side of the border he was once again disguised as a Sairhean, with makeup to color his face and neck and his exposed hands to match their fair complexion, and he was again wearing his silver wig over his natural dark hair. The blue-green grass was covered with tiny white flowers that had just begun to bloom. He was the first of the traders there as usual so that he could get the best spot. As he opened the window of his cearlogh he heard the clopping of hoofs, indicating that another trader was arriving. It was his nahaeren – a complex concept best thought of as a ‘near friend’ – a Sairhean merchant named Kasar. Kasar greeted him with a warm smile and a wave before he began to set up a little ways down the field nearer to the river Vearn. The Vearn, and its swiftly moving silver water, marked the border between Seffar and Sairhea. Kasar chose a location closer to Seffar in hopes of attracting more Seffeana, while Sevelh wanted to be where the Sairheana would feel most comfortable. He had again taken his favorite spot at the top of the market beside a grove of beautiful tall trees. Sairheans preferred to buy from Sairhean merchants, even if their prices were a little higher. It was his ability to get Seffean goods in Seffar at much lower prices that gave him his edge. Even in the market grounds the two peoples didn’t mingle. It was actually amusing to watch them move around one another warily near the center. All Caleans were polite as a rule, but this was more like lia oil droplets in water.
Sevelh had his awning up and was tidying his display as Kasar came to stand next to him. Kasar was perhaps twice Sevelh’s age, and somewhat plump for a Sairhean. He also kept his silver hair cropped to his shoulders instead of in the usual long flowing style that was preferred. Kasar shook his head and put on an exaggeratedly mournful expression as he said, “I don’t know how you do it, my friend. How do you get such authentic Seffean merchandise at such prices. How can you make any profit?”
“Diligence, and rising early,” Sevelh said, perhaps a little quickly.
Kasar broke into a smile and asked, “I’ve made a fresh pot of balah tea. Can I bring you a cup?”
“How much will it cost me?”
Kasar laughed heartily, then said, “Only the names of your Seffean suppliers,” then he added, “I am only joking. No charge between friends.”
“In that case I will supply the mili.” The mili were a sweet Seffean cake that sold well here and he knew that Kasar particularly enjoyed them.
As he and Kasar enjoyed their tea and cakes the crowds began to fill the field. This was one of the only places in Calaedan where one might see a mixture of both Seffeana and Sairheana, though the vast majority were Sairheana because they were on their side of the Vearn. Sevelh was scanning the crowd as he always did at this market for a particularly lovely Sairhean. Her name was Elaenorh, which meant forest flower. And there she was… moving shyly at the edge of the crowd. In the three years he had been coming here every spring and summer he had never seen her buy anything, yet she showed up almost every day that Sevelh did. Kasar smiled as he saw where Sevelh was looking. He asked, “Are you finally going to talk to her?”
“I do not want to disturb her.”
“What if she comes only to see you and leaves every day bitterly disappointed?”
There was a glint of humor in Kasar’s eyes, yet Sevelh allowed himself to wonder for a moment if what he said might be true. He replied, “I do talk to her, almost every day.”
“Yes, but only as a merchant,” Kasar said. Sevelh thought about that, too.
Elaenorh came to his display now and he watched her as she examined his merchandise. She was tall even for a Sairhean, with those piercing green eyes that seemed to have a fire in their heart, unlike his own dull gray ones. Her arms were impossibly long and slender. Yet she dressed always in the drabbest and simplest of outfits. He imagined that she was one of the Ladies from the old stories, wise and kind as she led her people, yet always burdened and alone. Maybe she was here in disguise to walk amongst her people and learn of their difficulties. It was a harmless fantasy, he thought. And it inspired him to tell her, “I have some fine silks from the heart of the Seffean desert. You will not find anything like them anywhere else.” He held up some of the precious cloth. It wasn’t exactly from the heart of the desert, but close enough. She rewarded him with a smile, then she shook her head once from right to left to mean ‘no’ in the Sairhean fashion. Sevelh decided to take his friend’s advice and pressed the matter. He said, “You can have it at half price, my lady.” He nearly offered one of the silks for free, but stopped himself just in time. They were his most expensive item.
She looked at him very closely, which made his face burn. Her eyes seemed very open and soft. She said, “I do not have any money.” Then she turned and hurried away. Sevelh glared at his friend for a moment, but he was mostly angry with himself. He had embarrassed her. Now she might not return. He wouldn’t. His only consolation was at least now he knew why she never bought anything. Did she come then just to look at the pretty things she could never have, or could Kasar actually be right about something? Does she come to see me? He allowed himself the fantasy for only a moment. It was wasteful to indulge in foolishness longer than that.
With the sun rising high above the fields, the crowds began to fill the market and Kasar returned to tend his own merchandise. Sevelh busied himself with his first customers, though he was unusually distracted, and often found himself thinking of his mistake with Elaenorh, wishing that he could have the moment over again. It was cruel, he felt, that one thoughtless comment might have ruined his chances of ever getting to know her. Of course, the whole project was doomed from the start. He could hardly try to win her affections. Would he wear his wig and makeup every moment of every day if they were together? He tried harder to banish the thoughts from his mind, and continued to fail miserably.
Around midday when the sun had truly grown warm, a strange buzz went up across the marketplace. Everyone seemed distracted by something on the far side of the field that was now slowly moving towards him. Finally he overheard a name: Jearhshai. He chuckled softly for a moment. The name literally meant ‘big feet.’ His amusement quickly ended as he remembered that the name belonged to the local ruler. These reinha were generally benign, but he preferred not to meet one. As the crowds around Jearhshai continued to move in his direction, Sevelh thought of closing his awning and hiding inside his cearlogh until he passed. By the time he made up his mind, however, the crowd parted a little and he could see that Jearhshai was headed right towards him. Jearhshai was flanked by two of his saerennenh, complete with their ceremonial armor and vaeli—a long spear with a sharp blade like a sword at the tip. Every winter the saerennenh of the local reinha battled one another in ridiculous rituals of combat from the ancient days. Caleans were sometimes killed in these battles! It was disgraceful, Sevelh thought, to fight and kill for honor and minor acquisitions of land for your ruler.
Winter was over, however. This was spring and he was not a saerennenh. He reminded himself he had nothing to fear. The only other soldiers that one ever encountered were the baerdha who patrolled the borders on either side of the river for their respective peoples. The Sairhean baerdha were there to keep the Seffeana out and vice versa. In practice, they spent most of their time playing at games, and in taverns. They had little—or really no—work to do.
Jearhshai strode right up to Sevelh, still flanked by his two saerennenh, and spoke to him directly. Sevelh was so befuddled by the whole situation he realized he hadn’t heard what the Calean had said. Jearhshai smiled, wrinkling the deep creases around his eyes. He looked like a kind and elderly man with his waist-length silver hair. He spoke again, “I am told you have the finest silks from Seffar. My daughter speaks of them often. I would like some for her as a present.”
Sevelh forced himself to speak after another long pause, not wanting to seem rude or stupid. “Yes, I have a good selection.” He pulled all of his silks to the front of his display so that Jearhshai could examine them more closely. There was a long and uncomfortable pause as Jearhshai remained motionless and staring at Sevelh.
Finally, Sevelh realized that the reinha wasn’t going to pick up the silks himself. Sevelh had no choice but to come out to the front and hand him the goods. He chose his best two: a deep red and a gold, remembering too late that these were the colors of Seffar, instead of the silver and blue of Sairhea. He said, “I think your daughter will like these very much.”
The reinha closed his eyes briefly and nodded his head down to indicate yes in the Sairhean fashion. He said, “Thank you,” then turned and began to walk away.
Sevelh called out to him without thinking. “You haven’t paid yet. They are twenty silvers each.”
Jearhshai turned back slowly. His two soldiers were glaring at Sevelh, and both had their hands on their vaeli hilts as they took a step forward. Jearhshai held up his hand and they stopped. He told Sevelh, “Of course we will pay. I do not have coins with me. I will have some sent to the next market. I assume you will be here.”
Sevelh answered, “I will be here past closing tonight… if that would be more convenient.”
The reinha broke into a gentle laugh. “You are a shrewd merchant it seems, and brave. It is a pleasant change. I will have your silvers sent by sunset if that will be acceptable?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
Jearhshai nodded yes again, handed the silks to one of his men to carry, then turned and walked slowly away with his very angry soldiers. Sevelh took a deep breath, then several more. He realized he’d been holding his breath for most of the encounter. He turned in surprise to see that Kasar had come to stand beside him. Kasar said, “He has some nerve trying to get those silks for free. He could buy everything in this marketplace and not miss a coin.”
Sevelh looked at his friend. He asked, “Is not Jearhshai your reinha? You told me this was your home market.”
“I do not need any reinha. What good does he do me? Does he get me discounts on my fabrics? No.” Sevelh was so surprised to hear his friend speaking like this, and with genuine anger, that he could not think of anything to say. Kasar suddenly laughed and said, “I am proud of you for standing up to him, Sevelh. Maybe there is hope for you yet.”
“But is it not true that he is in charge of this land? He could shut you down if he wished. He could shut the whole market down.”
Kasar laughed again as he said, “Yes, he is in charge and he could do as you say, but where will you be going tomorrow?”
“To the market in Vaesainh.”
“Exactly. And he has no power to shut down that market does he?” Kasar headed back to his own cearlogh and left Sevelh with his thoughts.
The shadows began to grow long with the afternoon sun setting in the west. The light gave a beautiful dim orange color to the grass that Sevelh found lovely. It had been a good day of trading. He had sold all of his silks, likely due to the bit of notoriety he got from his exchange with the reinha. He had actually forgotten about that and the coins that were due him since he never really expected to get paid. However, around two hours before sundown one of the reinha’s men—not a soldier thankfully—presented him with a small bag of coins. The man announced rather loudly that the bill was paid in full, then hurried away before Sevelh could reply. When he counted the coins he discovered that he had actually been paid 25 instead of the 40 he was owed, but since he had only paid 10 for each silk he still had come out ahead and hadn’t gotten into trouble with the reinha. Despite what Kasar might say, Sevelh had no desire to test the power of the local rulers.
With the day now nearly done the food vendors began to offer wildly discounted fare. In the last hour it was often even free. This is when Sevelh went to fetch his dinner. He found some lovely steamed shaeleans dug from the riverbeds nearby. He got a small loaf of white bread to accompany them and had a lovely little feast back at his cearlogh. The end of market was a troubling time for Sevelh. After he finished his meal he had to pack everything up and secure it before heading on to the next town, sometimes driving all night to get there by morning. He still had enough goods for 2 or 3 more markets before he would have to return to Seffar to restock. The end of market was also something of a special time for the children. They obviously enjoyed getting the free food and often tried to convince the merchants to give away other things for free, so he had to stand guard over his goods like a mother chavarh with her young. The children made Sevelh nervous. They looked too closely and were too interested in things, unlike adults who barely seemed to notice anything at all. The wild running and shouting they did also made him uneasy. He did not have friends at that age so he simply did not understand what it was like for these children, nor why they behaved in this undignified manner. He certainly never did.
As he was packing a group of them approached his cearlogh. They were on the older side—somewhere between 15 and 20. That was the most difficult age in Sevelh’s opinion. One of them began poking through some of his jewelry and figurines. He picked up a small metal horse and asked, “Can I have this?”
Sevelh told him as politely as he could manage, “That is 10 coppers.”
The child frowned at him. He was well dressed in a long blue tunic and light silver overcoat. He said, “I don’t have any coppers. Come, friend, let me have it.” His two largest companions came up behind Sevelh and were pushing closer to get a look at the collection of figurines around the little horse.
Sevelh said, “I’m closing now. I’m not giving anything away. I suggest you try the next merchant.” The child put the horse down and started to leave. At that moment Sevelh felt a tug on his head. One of the child’s companions was pulling on his hair – his silver wig – and Sevelh felt it coming off. Sevelh took off running at once into the trees behind his cearlogh. With waves of panic still washing over him, he managed to think a little as he ran. Did they know it was a wig? Did they know he was not a real Sairhean, or were they only being mischievous? It hardly mattered. They had pulled his wig right off. Had they seen his dark hair underneath, or had he gotten away before they, or worse, any adults had seen?
He stopped in a little clearing in a thicket of underbrush and began to catch his breath. The sky was darkening. At some point he would have to go back and collect his things and ride to the next market. Would they actually steal from him? Even amongst children it was not common but it did occur. He decided to wait until it was completely dark. He had already decided that he was never coming back to this market. Even if no one had seen he simply wasn’t willing to take the risk. Sevelh straightened his clothing then sat down on the ground since he couldn’t think of anything better to do to pass the time. It was not long before he heard the sound of footsteps cracking the small twigs that littered the forest floor. Someone was coming! He jumped to his feet and called out in a sharp whisper, “Stay back. Do not approach. I am armed.”
A soft voice responded, “Armed? With what? Silks and perfumes?”
The voice sounded familiar, but he repeated his warning, “Leave me alone. Don’t come any closer.”
The voice replied, “You have nothing to fear from me, Sevelh.” And now Elaenorh came into view at the edge of the small clearing.
His surprise at seeing her there quickly faded and turned to different feelings. He said, “Go back to the market… please.” He turned away from her. The sunlight had almost completely faded, yet she might still be able to see him from where she stood.
She said, “I saw the children bothering you. Why did you run, Sevelh? It is not like you to abandon your things. I know how much you care for them.”
“Then you didn’t see?”
He turned back suddenly and walked towards her, stopping only two paces away. He told her, “Didn’t see this,” and he gestured to his face and his dark black hair.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Are you blind? I am half Seffean. So now you know. I am here illegally. Or am I in Seffar illegally? Or both. Maybe it is simply illegal to be me.” He grew quiet and noticed that she was watching him. Her eyes seemed… hurt, or some other feeling he couldn’t decipher. When she didn’t respond, he asked her, “What happened to my cearlogh? Is it still there?”
She smiled softly, “Oh, yes, Kasar is watching it for you. Your goods are fine, Sevelh. Don’t worry. Why don’t we go back together.”
He moved away from her until he felt the brambles scratching. He said, “I can’t without my wig.”
“All right,” she said solemnly. “I will go get it for you. Is it by your cearlogh?”
“I don’t know,” Sevelh replied despondently. “The children might have taken it.”
“I will go and find it. I’ll be right back,” she said, and before he could protest she disappeared into the trees.
Sevelh stood there almost frozen in place. Would she return? Would she be bringing soldiers with her to arrest him? Or would she find his wig and help him? He had no idea, but didn’t really think he had any choice but to wait and find out. Unless he could get his things there was no point in running and really nowhere to run.
It was probably not very long until she returned but it felt like a terribly long while. She strode boldly through the thicket and right up to him. She was alone. That was all that mattered to Sevelh. Then she held out her hand and he could see that she was holding his wig of silver Sairhean hair. As he took it she said, “It was right on the ground beside your cearlogh… Sevelh, I think you look more handsome without it.” She looked down to the ground after she said it.
“You don’t care that I’m half Seffean?”
“Why should I care?” Sevelh stood gaping unable to think of anything to say. She told him, “All this time I’ve been coming to the market—it was the most of the world I’ve ever seen. My father is a farmer with so many mouths to feed. And you have always been so kind to me and you look so gallant in your fine clothes. I… always look forward to market day and always hope that you will be there.”
He answered immediately this time. “I always look for you when I come here. I think you are the most beautiful Calean I have ever seen.”
Even though it was nearly dark under the trees he thought he saw color rising to her cheeks, but she was looking right at him now instead of at the ground. She held out her hand and said, “Come with me back to the market. Everyone is gone. You are safe.”
Sevelh took Elaenorh’s hand and walked with her. They did not speak, but her hand felt so warm and familiar in his and very much alive. He thought he could even feel the blood pulsing under her skin.
When they arrived at the market they came out of the trees just to the right of Sevelh’s cearlogh. Kasar was there standing with a lantern. The field was otherwise empty and dark. When he saw Sevelh he called out, “She found you! Good. Why did you run away, my friend?”
Even though Sevelh desperately didn’t want to answer, he found himself doing so. “They pulled off my wig.” Kasar looked at him closely with a crooked eyebrow. Sevelh explained, “I wear a wig because I am half Seffean. I have black hair and darker skin underneath.”
Kasar broke into a sudden and hearty laugh. Sevelh clenched his fists and was about to run, but then he heard Kasar say, “I’m sorry. I can not help myself. I suspected something like this.”
“You did? Did everyone know?”
“No, I doubt anyone knew. Why would they? You look Sairhean to me. But I know you fairly well, and you’re just not that shrewd a trader. Now I understand! You must help me buy my silks!”
Even though Kasar was smiling, Sevelh asked him, “Will you keep my secret?”
“Yes, of course I will. This is a new world, Sevelh—a new future for all our peoples, and we traders are leading the way. It makes no difference to me who your parents were, only what kind of prices you can get on silk! Come, it is late and we have a long ride if we intend to open on time tomorrow.” Kasar gave Sevelh and Elaenorh a close look as he might do when examining a bolt of cloth. When he was done he said, “I can see that the two of you will need my help, and plenty of it. I think Elaenorh should come with us. Would you like that, my dear?”
She nodded her head down for yes in Sairhean fashion, then said, “We must stop by our farm on the way.”
Sevelh was too happy to be able to think at all. He helped Elaenorh into the top seat of his cearlogh. Kasar had already packed it all up for him. He hitched his horses and climbed up next to her, then they rode off through the night together to the next market town.
Vanessa is a former chef and lawyer who now teaches English. Vanessa lives in New York with her partner and two cats. She published two books with The March Street Press, and has appeared in magazines such as Liminal, Contemporary American Voices, Phantaxis, Dreams and Nightmares, Star*Line, and Silver Blade.
Vanessa edits the Abramelin Poetry Journal. She enjoys watching cheesy movies, cooking, gardening, and Star Trek!