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Kativa was getting used to waking up in strange places.
In all the months since Itadesh had burned, Itrelir's bunks never felt quite the same. The concrete structures were cold and unfamiliar, though they had the same shape as Itadesh's wooden houses. And waking on the trail was always a morning of disorientation; the wind sounded different in every different camp.
The ice house of the strangers from the south was a new kind of unexpected, though - she opened her eyes to a wall of glossy ice reflecting banked coals, and the memory of the earth-shaking awareness of a world outside of their known territory came flooding back. It had been strange enough to learn of new lands when Jrilii had arrived, triumphant, from her pursuit of wild snow-unicorns; the young rangers told enticing stories about new kinds of plants, preserved ancient structures, and strange creatures. But those stories were nothing to the unexpected arrival of the southern explorers and the astonishing news of cities, far to the south. There was a world that dwarfed their own, a world, Kativa had been able to glean from Malaamig, that held wonders she'd never even imagined. His knife alone was a marvel - a metal like ancient material, but un-weathered by time, with a hilt that held cunning little tools unlike anything she had seen.
Another strangeness penetrated her restless mind; there was an arm draped over her, and it wasn't Birka's familiar presence at her back, or one of her friendly age-mates. It wasn't Tolnam, she thought with a sudden stab of disappointment, because it was exactly the kind of intimate embrace she couldn't keep herself from wishing for from her oldest age-mate. But Tolnam had Jamelv now, and they were even talking of exchanging permanent beads. The elders tended to frown at such arrangements in young people, especially when no offspring had yet been produced by the pair, but Kativa and Tolnam had spoken longingly of such a relationship when they were still children and adulthood seemed far-off and magical. For Kativa, she had always imagined Tolnam as her other half in that role... but he had looked further. And then had the luck to find what he looked for.
Kativa pinched herself in exasperation. She didn't want to be the jealous ninny her heart seemed convinced she needed to be. Here was a perfectly desirable young man near her own age fingering beads in her direction, and all she could do was compare the weight of his arm to someone who didn't want her in that way.
Matelkem didn't stir, but Kativa was fully awake and restless in the quiet ice house. As carefully as possible, she extricated herself from his loose embrace and wiggled into her boots and parka.
The sun was still hidden behind the mountains to the south - tantalizing south! - but the sky was beginning to lighten. Birka was already up, and full bags of milk sat ponderously near the entrance to the ice house. The dogs saw Kativa before Birka did, and before the big stranger noticed her approach. "Haruu!" she called cheerfully, already distracted by the prospect of enticing more wonders of the south from Malaamig.
He looked less than pleased to see her, but Kativa was beginning to realize that his base expression was a sort of sullen glower, carefully guarded. Birka looked considerably more welcoming, and waved and smiled as she approached. Kativa didn't have time to do more than pat the eager dogs and chatter a greeting before Malaamig muttered something in his thick dialect and took himself off with them.
Birka watched him go thoughtfully.
"What strange people," Kativa said candidly. "I don't understand why they'd camp like this."
Birka was more understanding. "It makes some sense if you're coming from Mirthless Valley," she said. "You wouldn't know that Smokewater was just to the southwest a few days, and The Stews to the northwest aren't particularly welcoming at any time of year. There's a little shelter here by this bluff, and the wind isn't as bad as further up-slope." She pointed out the landmarks, sure of her bearings in a way that Kativa continued to struggle with. The mountains here looked all the same to Kativa. The older ranger gave Kativa a sharp look as she concluded. "And don't underestimate how much they understand. Malaamig doesn't talk a lot, but these travelers aren't idiots. Unlucky, perhaps, but intelligent."
The warning was well-timed, as the doorflap to the icehouse rustled to the side and the other southern man, Diren, emerged, blinking in the relative light.
Kativa bounced to greet him, and was answered with a tolerant smile.
He, compared to Malaamig, was quite willing to puzzle out Kativa's questions and answer them to the best of his ability. He showed her a clever little tool with a glass eyepiece and a shining brass side-dial. When she pressed her eye to it, far-off things leapt into focus, and he patiently showed her how to site the cross-hairs onto a mountain peak and the read the numbers on the dial.
"The height of the mountain?" Kativa repeated to him, not sure they were saying the same words. The numbers he gave her seemed unreal.
Birka looked too, and frowned at the numbers Diren had sketched into the snow with interest. "It's sound geometry," she agreed.
Kativa rolled her eyes. Birka could make anything sound boring.
"When you come south with us," Diren started... and Kativa stopped listening, utterly arrested by the idea. As amazing as the concept of the south was, it seemed so distant - she couldn't imagine actually going there herself. It was wondrous enough that it existed, and the idea that people might visit them from there had been exciting and elating. The idea of going there...
She looked up to find a muted mirror of her own reaction in Birka's face, a raw curiosity and clear craving.
Kativa shook her head in wonder and bent to listening to Diren's tangled speech again, explaining about 'guilds' and 'tokens'. She wouldn't leave her close age-mates to make such a journey; even as an adult, she could not imagine being without Kether and Tolnam for more than a brief range. Even coming to Smokewater for a tenday without the two of them left her feeling unsettled. And because Tolnam was with domestic Jamelv, he wouldn't be leaving. No, Kativa would stay here in the north where she belonged, and be happy with the stories the others brought to her.