It was an especially cold year, Xuan Xue noted idly, watching her younger and lesser cousins working so diligently to prepare the docks and receiving zone for the barge that was carving its way through the white-capped waters of the great sea.
The ground beneath her feet rumbled, rattling crates and buildings alike. Not a one of the youngsters around her paused nor stumbled with the motion, a refreshing change from dealing with the land bound southerners for these past five years. The Sands had grown soft and decadent in the millennia since the Mariners had gone.
“Losing yourself to torpor again, Sister?” the source of the disturbance rumbled, his voice, even in spirit, a basso rumble that seemed to vibrate the air.
Xuan Xue reached up, carefully adjusting her hat to fix its angle as she looked down placidly at the paved stone dock built atop her brother Panggu’s back. “There is a difference between thoughtfulness and torpor, Brother,” she retorted. “Cease your fidgeting. Our guests are nearly here.”
Her response was a twin set of rumbling, curmudgeonly snorts. Panggu was rather less fond of their foreign visitors than she. Rolling her shoulders once, Xuan Xue began to approach the dock, the butt of her jingling ring staff tapping out the tune to a shanty from more youthful days.
The stone barge was already sweeping into the dock under the dull, stormy sky. The gleaming gold of the sun disc painted on its sail glowed with fiery light, and steam rose from its polished white decks. It was a wonder, Xuan Xue thought, that such a vessel with its single sail and deck and low sides could cross the sea at all.
To call its owners “barbarians” was to do a disservice to both them and the concept of truth alike, but the southerns did love their conceits.
Her eyes scanned the deck, passing over the heavily wrapped men performing the labor of docking as she searched for the barge’s captain. The Patriarch had high expectations for this expedition. Of course, she knew this captain well, so it was likely…
At that moment, the disc of molten gold embossed upon the sail of the barge flared with noonday brightness, and a swift shadow leapt forth from the deck, framed by its corona.
The ground quaked as the shadow came to earth but a meter away from her, landing with a catlike grace and a flex of muscular limbs. Arms as thick as a mountain ogre’s rose, extended like the wings of a bird, and oil-polished muscles flexed beneath skin the color of burnished bronze as the light from the sail reached its zenith, casting the massive foreigner in shadow.
Xuan Xue regarded her foreign contemporary with a quirked eyebrow, her staff still idly tapping out a tune on the docks.
“Hoho, you are still as stoic as ever, my spindly friend,” the giant chortled as the light faded, its rays gleaming on the golden collar that spread across his wide shoulders and the similarly gilded bracelets and dangling rings which hung from his ears.
His accent with the Xuan tongue had improved, Xuan Xue noted absently, craning her neck to peer up at the foreigner. “The sands have long passed us by, Mehmet,” she chided. He was late.
Mehmet grinned, gleaming fangs peeking out between his lips as his shaved scalp caught the last fading embers of glow from the barge’s sail. The strange blue-green paint with which his people colored their eyes made the predatory red irises stand out all the more. “So cold, Xuxue,” he laughed, mangling her name as he always did. “The sea dregs have lost their caution this year. My warriors won a glorious harvest, but it did delay our course.”
It was out of season for raids, Xuan Xue noted with a frown, eyeing the foreign captain. His half-transparent linen skirt left no question that he was without wounds, but that was expected. A battle fit to wound a man such as Mehmet would have been felt at a considerable distance.
“Then why are you searching so closely, Sister?” Panggu’s serpentine half whispered snidely.
Xuan Xue ignored her Brother with the ease of familiarity, raising her eyes back to the foreigner’s face. Had he grown even taller? The man was already closer to three meters than two. “Good hunting then. This one must ask: is the Patriarch’s cargo safe?”
Mehmet’s boisterous expression grew serious. “You wound me, O captain. After your Patriarch’s generosity, of course we would deliver our end of the bargain without fail. Father himself rose from the stone sleep to lead our warriors and raze the Pythian temple which housed your prize. To lose it would be worth more than my head!”
“Apologies,” Xuan Xue said, offering a low bow. “This one meant no slander upon thy word. The acquisition went favorably then?”
“I found many worthy foes to add to my flesh,” the foreign giant said, his cheer returning. The battle between Father and the Priestess sank the isle beneath the dark waves. Glorious indeed! I expect when I return, Mother will be awake, and I shall have a new sister to dote upon.”
“This one offers her congratulations,” Xuan Xue replied politely. “I shall not keep my honored guest waiting on these humble docks for any longer then. Shall we proceed to more comfortable environs?”
“Of course! I shall enjoy partaking in your steamed leaf water. Such an exotic flavor!” Mehmet laughed. Xuan Xue cocked her head to the side, taking a moment to enjoy the view as he turned back to his ship and clapped his hands, letting his booming voice carry out over the waters. “Dregs! Begin unloading the cargo for my fine friends.”
Xuan Xue gave the activity on the deck only a brief glance. She knew the smaller, low caste foreigners would obey Mehmet’s words without question. They were not quite human, not like her own subordinates. As the two of them began to walk toward the housing complex built farther back on her brother’s shell, Xuan Xue glanced up at her towering companion. “Might this one ask after the other matter?”
Mehmet chuckled and reached up, plunging his ring-adorned fingers into his right pectoral, the oiled flesh distorting like clay as he drew forth a scroll case of polished ivory embossed with a gleaming, gold-stylized eye. “His Majesty, God King Horemheb II, has heard the request of the Patriarch Xuan. Expansion of the routes is approved.”
Xuan Xue accepted the scroll case gingerly, immediately sending it to her storage ring. Its contents were not for her eyes. “So easily?” she asked curiously. “This one expected many years of negotiation.”
“After his mighty victory over the depraved spawn of the Night Serpent, His Majesty’s mood was quite good. Luck favored your family, my spindly friend,” the giant man laughed.
Very much so, Xuan Xue mused as she led the foreigner inside. Between this and the rumors of the Bai finally investing in their port and shipping, things were looking bright indeed.
Well, it was bright if one was not the Xuan liaison to the Imperial Court. She had no doubt that the poor liaison would have much southern whining to endure.
She said a silent prayer for her distant cousin and turned her thoughts to the more pleasurable matter of entertaining her honored guest.