13 Mar

We ran along the beach past many poles with lines of rope strung between them, cloths draped over and flowing in the breeze as Rak and I and headed towards the city, finding cover in the scrubby brush as we made our way up a rocky slope. We ducked down, shaded from the bright light of day as we reached the top, just high enough to get a vantage of the colony. 

For every one Pouli I saw flitting about in the sky above us, there must’ve been two more mulling about the place from the ground. Coming out of buildings, exchanging shiny silver pebbles for foodstuffs in the market, boarding and unboarding the massive ships that made our old ship look like a rabbit in comparison. 

Hell, these ships were akin to small movable islands then anything else. Even bigger than the creature we had just jumped off of not hours beforehand. 

What challenged my mind most though was the garments they wore.

They draped loose, flowing cloths about them in nearly any style and color imaginable, from just a simple wrap around the waist to cover the dangly bits to as excessive covering that you could barely make out who was underneath all that cloth.

Rak bumped my arm with his hand, keeping his voice low enough that the sound of the waves crashing into the white sandy shore masked it to anyone further away than a few feet. 

“Looks like we should follow suit with those cloths they have on them.”

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I looked at the leaves bound around my waist, all green and new. “I just fixed this up,” I complained. 

Rak looked behind us and pointed to the cloths on lines along the beach. “We could probably get into the tribe relatively unnoticed if we use those to cover ourselves,” he explained. 

It clicked in my head. “Oh, right.” I turned back to the city. “I don’t see a single psari out there. You’d stick out like a sore thumb.”

“You would too,” Rak said, grabbing my arm and holding it up. “Your baby skin is too naked to pass for a pouli.”

I swiped my arm away from him. “I don’t think I’ll have to pass for one. There’s humans here.”

I pointed over to the boat unloading passengers. 

Just like I said, coming off the boat was a line of humans, who all looked to be bound together at the wrists. They were just like me; dark hair, dark sun-toasted skin. Whatever leaves they wore around their waists had turned brown and crumbled; they must’ve been on that boat for a while. 

Pouli guards stood watch over them with long, pointed sticks they used to poke and prod any of them who lagged behind.

“Those couldn’t be the people of your village, could it…?” Rak asked. 

“No,” I said quickly. “They all died. I saw their bodies in the village. It couldn’t be them.” 

Rak-Li made a noise I took to be apologetic. 

“I don't think it wise to pass as one of them. That looks more trouble than it's worth.”

“Hmm. You’re right,” I said. “Staying unnoticed would be ideal.”

We walked back to the beach, keeping a close eye on the sky. It seemed that the pouli patrolling there seemed to stay almost entirely to above the colony, contained by the surrounding vegetated hills. 

We continued talking strategy as we pulled cloths off the lines and tried to make sense of how to wrap them about ourselves. 

“How do you think we go about getting a boat?” I asked.

“You don’t think they’ll just give one to us if we ask nicely?” Rak said jokingly. 

I shook my head with a smile. “We don’t know if or when another ship will be here. Maybe we should just steal the one that’s there.”

Rak-Li scoffed. “There’s at least fifteen guards posted all along that walkway to it! How would we manage that?”

He choked as a piece of the thin, navy blue cloth he was draping over his head flew into his mouth. 

He pulled it out with much disdain. 

“We’ll have to wait and see if they stay there the entire time. Doesn’t matter if they’re bird-brained, everyone’s got to take a piss eventually.”

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to wrap the singular, long piece of maroon cloth into something that would both cover me entirely and also stay pinned to my body. Frustrated, I took the rope I’d discarded from my previous attire and wrapped it around my waist several times to get the stupid cloth to stay up.

“Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to a garment like this,” I commented.

“I’ve never seen the need to cover the body,” Rak replied, equally unhappy about the disguises. “Us species were made to look a certain way for a reason, best adapted to the environment on our own. It’s unnecessary.”

“Exactly! What’s even the point of this thin, see-through fabric…” I held it up to my face, able to vaguely see Rak behind it. I looked at his face; there was no way he’d be able to get through the city looking like he did.

“I hate to do this, but you’re twice the sore thumb that I am,” I said, as I reached up and tied the cloth around his head. 

He began to protest but quickly stopped, settling on a low grumble instead.

“You can still see, yeah?”

He sighed loudly. “I can.”

“Good. Let’s finish up and go then.” 

We did our best to make ourselves look as naturally belonging as possible, covering most of our bodies to prevent us from looking any different to them. Then we headed down the beach towards the city once more. 

A singular pouli flew off overhead on our way there, and we froze. We watched anxiously as the feathered girl paid us no mind, continuing instead off towards the large butte that abruptly ended this stretch of beach. The girl touched down atop it, disappearing into the trees and brush. 

“Are you sure this will do the job, Rak?” I asked him, worried.

“So far so good,” he responded confidently.

I wasn’t so sure I shared in his confidence. I took one last look over to the butte and continued on.

Rak-li and I walked onto the main beach towards the large collection of huts, towers, and people. The sand path beneath us turned to stone, and the further we walked the more populated the walking path became. The few side-eyed glances at me and my tall friend shrouded in cloth were enough to trigger intense paranoia. 

My heart was pounding. 

I pulled Rak down a side road and into the shade, away from people. 

“I can’t do this- they, they know we’re not like them, we’re going to get-”

“Don’t think so much,” Rak said insistently, his soft voice muffled a bit by the cloth. “Calm down. Take a breath or two. We need to keep moving towards the ship.”

I closed my eyes, trying to steady my breathing.We waited there for a little while, just to ease my own mind. Despite the shady looks people had thrown at us, there was no commotion, no rousing of the guards, nothing. 

So far so good, Rak’s voice repeated in my mind. 

I looked around the corner at the people walking down the path, exchanging small conversations and going about their day without a care in the world. 

“Ready to keep going?” Rak asked. 

I nodded. 

We continued on and found ourselves in what appeared to be the center of town. Vendors lined the streets touting goods and services from far away lands. 

“Step right up, people of Rao, and behold! The rarest of mahogany, hand crafted into tableware sets that you can take home today! That’s right, today! Not a fan of mahogany? Too bad!”

The man laughed to himself as I stopped paying attention to him, and by the looks of it, very few around us paid him any mind as well. I wondered why he’d go through so much effort since it had so little reward or chance of being paid attention to. 

He did give us one valuable piece of information though: Rao was the name given to this colony.

I made mental note of it.

This center of Rao was the most color I’d ever seen in one place- golds, reds, violets. Only the rarest of flowers near the top of the volcano on my island had ever come close to being as vibrant as the cloths that hung draped on wires overhead. The people here dressed very similarly, adorning the darker base cloth wrapped around them with smaller slivers of bright fabric tucked in their hair and feathers or worn like a sash.

The sounds of singing and music filled the air, but the singing wasn’t coming from a mouth. A pouli woman was plucking metal strings suspended between different sides of an intricately carved, angled wooden frame. Each string when plucked made a different pitch of sound, and she plucked them in succession, making a very pleasant noise. I wished I could’ve stayed and listened longer, but Rak pulled me along.

We went up and down several flights of pouli-made stone steps, trekking from one side of the city to the other. The further we went, the more dilapidated the buildings and paths looked, Even the people seemed to be dirtier. Trade here was done with darker pebbles, and fewer of them. The goods they traded for weren’t nearly as colorful either, and the foods were not fresh. This area was less crowded, and it appeared that most of its residents kept inside the buildings.

Three unclothed feathered children ran through the streets, giggling as they played some game of chase.

Here, we could see the wooden walkway that led out over the water to the ship clearly. They had finished unloading the humans from it, but now, other, more dirtied and muscular humans walked aboard, dancing around each other as they pulled crates and boxes off of the ship. Bright red and pink gashes ran along several of their backs. I grimaced as one who was still bloodied and bleeding made his way onto the boat. He was visibly unwell, unsteady on his feet, and the pouli guard closest to him responded to it by stabbing him with the sharp wooden stick. He screamed in pain and collapsed on the wooden walkway.

The kids who were playing nearby us stopped in their tracks, turning towards the men. 

The Pouli guard knelt beside him and barked at him to get back up, verbally berating him the entire time. 

For a moment, he struggled to get back to his feet, but it was too late. The guard was fed up with him. He kicked the human back down and ground his heel into the man’s back. He writhed in utter agony.

A pouli woman rushed out of a nearby building and grabbed the three children, ushering them inside and telling them not to look. 

It was too late for me though. I couldn’t take my eyes away. 

The guard finally put the human out of his misery, plunging the spear through his back into his heart. 

The pouli kicked the dead man off the walkway and into the water with an unpleasant splash, a vibrant crimson stain spreading around him.

I doubled over and threw up.

Rak patted my back in sympathy. 

“Ah, it doesn’t get any easier seeing a life get snuffed out. Even if it was a slave’s life.”

I turned and looked at the man behind us. He was a big, portly yet strong pouli, with brown and white speckled feathers about his limbs. He wore scratchy beige cloth around his waist and over one shoulder. 

In that moment I was grateful my disguise covered everything except my face; despite the difference in our species, the facial features of human and pouli didn’t differ much.

“Caught me off guard,” I said, clearing the hoarseness that accompanied retching out of my throat.

“I doubt anyone could be prepared to witness that, young man.” He held out a wooden mug to me with clear liquid inside. “Care for a drink?”

“We don’t have payment,” Rak told him.

He waved my friend off. “It’s water. Soothe your throat, free of charge.”

He seemed not to pay any mind to the fact that Rak had his face covered.

I took the mug from him and sipped on the water, nodding him my thanks. 

“Care to take a seat at my establishment?” He offered, gesturing to the building just across the street. It was shaded by a wooden roof on stilts attached to the open front, under which sat a few tables. Just inside was a counter lined by stools, and around several of the tables sat many pouli men and women, quietly chatting amongst themselves. All looked run down, beaten and bruised by the city.

I looked to Rak for approval, and he turned from the ship and nodded. 

We followed the kind pouli man to the counter and took a seat.  

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