Niriko raced through the packed streets around the docks. One of the good things of living near the port was that she was lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea. One of the bad things was that she lived the furthest from the dock district’s school and, after performing some chores for her father in the very early morning, she had to hurry to get her utensils and run back to get there on time.
She skipped through the crowds of people that slowly began to fill the streets. She was used to dodging and shoving people out of the way and thus made good time.
She went trough the gates and crossed the courtyard as the wind itself. The docks district school was not large by any means, having only three classrooms: one for the boys, another for the girls and one for the common classes.
Seeing that she did make it on time again, she slowed down a bit and allowed herself to walk the last few steps, keeping an eye out for her friends.
“Niriko!” Her friend Zintzi waved over a group of girls. Boys were playing ball in the inner courtyard. “You are so lucky! All the teachers are late today!”
“Ah, but I was not so late. Not much later than usual.” she said as she headed over to the girls, grinning broadly.
As always, Niriko had a pang of doubting as she approached her classmates. Her skin and hair color clashing almost violently with those of a normal Solernian girl. She dismissed the feeling as usual and joined the little group. Zintzi was the tallest, and her calm demeanor made her look like an adult sometimes.
“So, any idea why the teachers are late?” Niriko asked after all ‘hi’s having been exchanged.
“Yari says they are all in a meeting.” Zintzi pointed at one of the girls.
“I saw old Sprucehead.” The girl referred to one of their teacher’s nicknames. “He was walking quickly, and I think all the teachers are in a meeting at the palace.”
“At the palace?” Niriko inclined her head and narrowed her eyes gently. “Then it must be something important.”
“Ball!” One of the boys screamed as Niriko noticed the hard rubber ball heading straight towards her face.
Taking it as a challenge, Niriko leaned sideways and whirled, slamming her fist into the ball as to send it back to the boys.
The boy received the ball with a twist of his wrists, sending it towards his playmates.
“Good one, Niriko, but you hit it with your wrists, hips or legs, not your hands!” He stuck his tongue before re-joining the game.
“Boys…” Niriko muttered and shook her head, chuckling softly.
“Whoooa!” That was so cool!” The girls giggled and ‘oohed’ at Niriko’s feat. Her knuckles stung a little from the impact, but nothing she couldn’t ignore.
“I bet Niriko could play in a team!” Someone in the group said. There were very few dedicated female ball players in Solerne, and none in Beldatz.
“Maybe, but one girl doesn’t make a team.” Niriko grinned and shrugged faintly.
The entrance gong sounded, which was the signal that all students should enter their classrooms. There were no teachers yet, but all the children and teenagers began to trickle inside, assuming their places in the large open rooms according to their grade.
Niriko sat down and wondered how they would have classes without teachers and, better yet, what the teachers had been discussing at the palace.
The first class was one of the separate ones, so the girls and boys were each in a different room. Over the entrance, they saw the school’s headmaster walk by in anger. He gave a brief look inside the girls’ classroom, but did not pause. Soon after, he was followed by three of the teachers, all of whom looked inside with a strange look, but also said nothing as they passed by.
She raised a brow in question at the other girls, but did not speak, waiting for whatever it was that had been discussed to be presented to the students, or dismissed.
A man entered the classroom… which was odd because the girls’ classes were always imparted by female teachers. He was wearing rich robes and hat, and carried a small codex in his hands. Behind him, a fully-armed Watchman entered too.
“That’s a mercenary, not a Watchman.” Zintzi leaned over to whisper; her boyfriend had joined the Watch last year after graduating from school.
Niriko nodded slightly and looked at the two men who had entered, wondering what was going on.
“By order of the Governor and the council of Beldatz.” The magistrate read. “In their infinite wisdom, they have decided that the resources of the Beldatz school shall be focused on the most useful endeavor of training the future productive members of our society. Therefore, all school resources shall be concentrated on raising boys into proper men. Girls shall receive proper education as housewives in their own homes.”
“What?” Niriko almost jumped up, but refrained and kept to simply exclaiming that one word out loud.
She was not alone; there was a growing commotion amongst the girls.
“This means.” The man folded the codex back, addressing them directly. “That you are no longer required to attend school. You can go home now.”
“But….what of our education?” Niriko now did stand up, quite outraged at this new government rule.
“As the edict says, you shall receive whatever education your parents deem necessary. The role of housewife is better learned at a house, after all.”
“That is… that is ridiculous!” A girl from a grade ahead of Niriko’s also stood up. She was called “the Scroll Troll” behind her back as she was the best at calligraphy in all the room.
Niriko nodded vehemently.
“Yeah! Very ridiculous!”
“You are in no position to contest an official edict. Go home now.” The man walked off, leaving the soldier to leer at the girls. Several of them, particularly the youngest, where laughing and cheering about not having to go to school anymore, while the older, who understood what this order meant, were still in shock.
“And you! What are you leering at?” Niriko snapped at the watchman who had remained behind as she angrily stuffed her bag.
The soldier just chuckled, as a stream of girls of many ages flowed out of the room. The girl who had also stood up was shaking, her grademates trying to calm her down.
“Oh, dear.” Zintzi said, also shouldering her school bag sadly. “That was what the meeting was about…”
“Really.” Niriko growled and shouldered her bag and made her way out of the classroom.
There were two other soldiers outside the school’s entrance, and the headmaster was standing inside, looking at his female students leave the grounds in a mixture of sadness and barely contained outrage.
“What about our teachers?” Niriko saw the Scroll Troll almost assault the headmaster when she reached the gate. “Miss Taxli, and Mrs. Kirani….”
“I’m sorry.” The headmaster answered. “Their posts have been rescinded.”
“Well this is just great! I knew the court had their heads somewhere up in the clouds, but this is… is…” Niriko balled her fists and shook her head.
“Calm down, Niriko.” Zintzi put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure this is temporary. I mean…. the governor has a daughter doesn’t he?”
“Well, then obviously he has forgotten about that!” She humphed and growled lightly. “What am I supposed to do at home?”
“I’m sure your father will find something for you to do.” Her tall friend patted her. Niriko was almost dreading telling her father the news.
“As if.” Niriko shook her head. “He’s glad he has me out of his feet for most of the day.”
“I can get you a job at my parents’ store.” Zintzi smiled, although it was clear that the situation also bothered her. “I’m sure I’ll end up working there too.”
“Thank you Zintzi.” Niriko nodded and smiled weakly. “Well…I have to go and tell my father.”
Her friend nodded. “I have to tell my parents too… see you later.”
“Yes…” Niriko nodded and then hurried off towards the docks, wondering how her father would react to this.
The docks were even busier at this time of day, as sailors had cleared the effects of the previous night’s drinking and ships arrived with the high tide. Niriko went directly to look for her father, rather than stop at home to drop her bags. She usually enjoyed walking around the piers, seeing the people from all around the empire; skins of all shades… except hers.
Sighing deeply, she looked down for a moment. Her father had already had quite some trouble with her and now she was not even able to go to school anymore.
“Iin! Valpu hatri mabashabhda?” A woman turned Niriko around by the shoulder. Niriko was spooked as a first reaction; she didn’t notice her approaching. Her second reaction was surprise, for the woman, barely a feet taller than her, had even less fabric covering her body than Niriko’s admittedly daring -but comfortable- clothes. And third was puzzlement, for the woman was an elf from the Viryuni clans, her slanted eyes looking at her with amusement, framed by cascading bright green hair held by a handkerchief over her head.
“Ah… uh… excuse me?” Niriko said almost timidly. “I umm…. don’t speak elvish.”
“No? A pity, a beautiful language if I do say so myself.” The woman switched to Solernian without problems, although with a rich and exotic accent. “You look troubled, girlchild, do you want your fortune read? My magic is from the seas, but I see that you are touched by the winds and waves.”
“I don’t know.” Niriko sighed softly. “My future looks pretty grim at the moment and I have no money to pay for it.”
“Ah, you look at the clouds of the storm, but what about beyond the clouds?” The woman’s laughter was contagious. “Don’t worry about the money, I’m not a professional fortuneteller, I will give you a free one just because you are so pretty.”
“Well then, if it’s free, I’ll take it.” Niriko blushed fiercely at the compliment and chuckled softly.
“Give me your hand.” The elf woman didn’t wait, but took Niriko’s right hand. “Oh… working hands…. human hands…. odd… well, well… ask me a question now.”
“Um….what can I do now that the schools are closed. I mean…what is there for me now?”
“That’s easy.” The woman closed Niriko’s index upon her palm. “You have a full life ahead of you.” She closed her middle one. “You will make a difference.” She closed her ring finger. “You will inspire others.” She closed her little finger. “You will grasp every chance you find.” And finally she closed Niriko’s thumb. “And you will get to… how do humans say it? Ah, yes… to kick some butt.”
Niriko had to chuckle at that last comment of the elf woman.
“You are nice, lady. Thank you very much.”
“Say hello to your father.” The elf woman winked. “Tell him that a pirate ship will dock at night. We followed them here and sailed ahead when it was clear they were headed this way.”
“I will, thank you again!” Niriko lightly and smiled, then hurried off to find her father.
She found him as he finished dealing with the captain of a cargo ship, giving back some papers. He leaned on his cane as he directed the large skrii’qek runner towards another ship being towed into the Maze of Entry.
“Father!” she called and approached slowly, remembering what she was actually going to tell him and looked down.
Gaizko Zarranz, the Beldatz portmaster, turned around in surprise upon hearing his daughter’s voice. Niriko had heard a lot of talk about his father from many sailors and captains, and all of it was spoken in respect, sometimes even fear.
“Niriko? What in all the blasted hellpits are you doing here?! What did you do now?”
“Nothing father, I swear!” Niriko said defensively.
“But the court closed down the school for girls and… they told us to go home.” She said quickly.
“They did… what?” The man, not far into his forties but already graying hair, looked at Niriko with surprise.
“They said that all lessons for girls have been cancelled.”Again, she looked down to the ground. “They said that it was to ensure that the boys grow to be proper men and girls learn household skills at home.”
“That’s just dumb.” Her father scowled. “And besides, a dogfolk cooks better than you, and they can stomach anything.”
Niriko felt the sting even if she knew it was his rather rough attempt to lighten the mood.
“I don’t know what to do now.” She sighed and looked down to the ground again. “I mean…I can’t just stay at home!”
“Of course not.” The portmaster agreed. “We won’t have any pottery left in a week. Hmm… what do you want to do?”
“What I don’t know.” Niriko said, shoulders slumping. “I’m no good at house chores and well… shopkeeping is not anything for me, either.”
“Hm.” Her father scratched his chin. “Go home for now. No, wait… you have been helping the fishermen to sell their cargo at the market, right?”
“…and you can read, write and count…” He pondered more than asked.
“What are you thinking about, father?” She asked quietly, wondering what her old man was up to.
“I guess you can help around here at the registries.” He concluded, still talking to himself.
“Really?” Niriko looked up suddenly, smiling brightly. That would be wonderful, because the port was full of interesting people from all over the lands.
“You can be of use there, I’ve always suspected that Karat is pocketing bribes and miscounting cargo.” He looked at her. “It’s decided; you will work here; that way I can keep an eye on you too.”
“Keep an eye on me?” She said incredulously. “I am the best daughter you could ever wish for!” She said, back to her old cheerfulness.
“You’re chaos incarnate, girl.” He knocked her lightly over the head with his cane, about the warmest gesture of affection he had in his repertoire. “I don’t want you destroying some poor shopkeep’s store.”
“Ah… there’s another thing. I met a Viryuni elf at the port. She told me to say hello to you and to tell you that a pirate ship is going to dock tonight.”
“Was this elf a woman, long and wavy green hair, wearing a fishing net as a skirt?” Gaizko looked at his daughter incredulously.
“Yes, that’s her! She read my fortune, too….” Niriko smiled happily and nodded.
“She’s a sea witch; and a very strong one.” Her father frowned. “Be careful next time you meet her… or anyone like her.”
“Why? She was very nice to me!” Niriko looked at her father questioningly.
“She’s an elf witch!” The man frowned deeper. ” That one is trustworthy, but others of her kind are not. Still, I don’t want you picking up any ideas from an elf witch, understand?”
“But father….” Niriko said, looking slightly stubborn.
“Niriko.” He said firmly. “If you are going to work here, you will be my subordinate. If you are not going to obey my orders as your father, you will obey them as your superior, get it?”
“But…” Niriko began again, then sighed. “Yes, sir.”
“Now go home.” He ordered. “I will tell Karat to expect you tomorrow, first hour.”
“Yes, sir.” she said again, turned and left towards her home quickly.
On her way, she passed along a small ship, dwarfed by some of the merchant vessels docked nearby, but having a majesty of its own. There were people unloading boxes from the ship, while someone else oversaw the whole operation from the deck.
“Heru da, Maev-ivada.” A man called from the ship’s bow. Niriko recognized him as another Viryuni elf. He waved with a friendly smile.
“Uh…” she remembered her father’s word and quickly turned to see if he was looking, but, not seeing him anymore, smiled back to the elf and nodded. “I still don’t understand your language, but I take this as a hello.”
“Indeed it is!” The man laughed. “You’re the portmaster’s daughter, are you not?”
“Yes, I am! Niriko Zarranz, at your service. And what is your name if I may ask?”
“Narmati.” He answered, leaning down on the railing. “Humans call me ‘captain’ but that is mostly a matter of convenience.”
“Hehe. This is a day of meeting elves it seems.” She smiled and looked up to him. “Is a witch with green hair and little clothing part of your crew?”
“That’s my wife and navigator you’re describing.” The elf grinned. “She said she had to meet someone in the docks and went off.”
“Ah… I was just wondering. You could relay my greetings and thanks to her.” She inclined her head. “Say, is elvish difficult to learn?”
“Not really.” The elf said. “Elf children have no trouble learning it, neither do dolphins, but they speak with a funny accent.”
“Could I… I mean, could someone teach me?” She asked carefully. She knew she’d spend much time at the docks for the time being and maybe she could use the time to learn the language.
“Sure! Sail with us in our next trip and you’ll return to Beldatz speaking as well as a full-blooded Viryuni, little cousin!”
“Ah damn… I can’t sail with you, I have to stay here.” she said with a light hunch to her shoulders.
“Elvish is like the wind; you don’t learn it sitting down.” The Viryuni captain grew a little serious, but then recovered the cheer he had displayed earlier. “Too bad, then! It would have been interesting.”
“Damn… I wish I could… I mean… It’s not that it’s easy being what I am. But then at least I could learn something of my… elf half.” Niriko looked a bit saddened for a moment.
“Then you are speaking with the wrong elf.” The man grabbed a rope and jumped, landing a few feet from the girl. “You have no Viryuni blood, that is for sure.”
“It seems so. I don’t know who my mother was though. At least you have pointy ears like I do…” She said with a mild chuckle.
“You have fair skin.” The elf raised Niriko’s face by the chin. “Sun-like hair… my best guess is that your mother is Maehvindra. They do have their lands north of here, but I’ve never visited. They have little love for the sea and we are uncomfortable in their forests and jungles.”
“Maehvi… what?” Niriko asked, inclining her head rather cutely.
“Maehvindra.” Narmati repeated. “They don’t like humans. Your father must have been a very handsome man to catch the fancy of a Maehvindra woman.”
“Well, he never told me of that. Actually, he never told me of anything about my mother.” she said, an edge of sadness creeping into her voice.
“He must have his reasons.” The elf patted her head gently. “He is a wise man. Gruff, he is; bad temper too, but wise. I might enquire when my ship trades with Maehvindrans, but I can tell you one thing from the start: your father probably saved your life. I will not say more, that is your father’s prerogative and I will respect his wishes.”
“Well….I have to get back home.” She nodded slightly and smiled again.
“Vihra-mazhi, miss Niriko.” He said. “You cannot translate that, but the closest meaning in your tongue would be ‘good luck and a good life’.”
“Vihra-mazhi, to you, too then.” Niriko said, trying to repeat the words the elf had said. “Thanks…”
The elf winked and returned to his ship in a less spectacular way than as he left it; he gave some orders in elvish to the other Viryuni sailors, and work continued as usual.
Niriko went back to go her way towards her home, taking her time. She had nothing better to do really.