I have come with my father these past seven years to the trade meet with the Cousonans. Ever since I was tall enough to sit a horse unaided, I've come to help fetch and carry, and later to wrangle the horses while the adults are trading. (Horses can always use another set of hands to ensure they have enough food and water.) Every year the Cousonans bring us jars of paste that glows in the dark, dried starfish and mussels that can't be found elsewhere, pelts and tiikwood, and the amazingly supple cloth they say is made from vines. We trade them, in return, leather, pottery, grass baskets, and jerky and horn from the elk that roam our plains. Only some of them speak our language, the rest often hang back and murmur amongst themselves, but I never felt that they didn't like us.
This year my father has been selected trade leader. As my father's oldest child, even though I'm a daughter, it's my duty to sit in the tent and listen in on the trades, making notes to compare with him later.
The trade tent will be pitched on the plains a day-and-a-half's ride from our village. We use the same place every year, so even though the tent is always broken down and taken away, we know where it goes because the grass is only shin-high, not hip-high like it is elsewhere. The grass in the circle of the meeting place always gets trampled into the dirt by the third or fourth day from all the people and horses. And the dogs.
The Cousonans bring their pack dogs with them every year. My first time, I was terrified of them. The dogs come up to mid-thigh on me now--they were taller than I was back then but still short enough to be hidden by the tall grass. I had just dropped down off my pony, hadn't even gotten the head reins off yet, when suddenly eight wolflike dogs bounded into the clearing. They're all tall with broad backs and square heads, though their ears are not quite as pointed as a wolf and their snouts are shorter. They come in every colour, from grey to black to mottled tan-and-white. The dogs are friendly, and I quickly got over my fear of them when I saw one whining like a puppy looking back and forth between his human and the strangers. As soon as the burden was removed from the harness on his back, he bounded over to us, wagging his tail so hard his entire back end swung around.
This year, my father and I are among the first into the cleared circle. We have half the tent poles loaded in our wagon and without us, the meet couldn't get started on time. Kilea and Diiman are carrying our half of the tent leather in their wagon--as the lead-second it's his responsibility, and since they have no children old enough to write yet she will take the place of note-taker for him. The Cousonans will bring the other half of the poles and tent leather. I thought it was a nice gesture, to share the work, but father says it's because they like to make sure they can construct their own backdoor. The others from our clan who have been chosen to come to the meet will trickle in with the food and trade goods as the afternoon wanes. We can see a few of them already, tiny specks against the golden grass. They'll be here within an ouren, maybe a half-ouren if they're riding fast.
Kilea and I saw to the horses while father and Diiman clasped elbows with the Cousonans and the men put the tent up together. A girl about my age tended the dogs, I remembered her from last year and the year before. She wears her long hair in a braid that trails over her shoulder, and the same odd-looking, slightly tight fitting clothes as the rest of the Cousonans do. This year her braid was longer and she wore a necklace with a squirrel embroidered in beads on it. It was really well done, I could tell what it was from across the clearing. I smiled and waved at her, she smiled back. Once the trade tent was up, a few others had arrived and Father and I set up our own tent in the circle around the large trade tent. Buskem had already arrived and started his fire. He cooks for all of us while we're at the meet, and I'd noticed the Cousonans seemed to like his fried dough as much as we did. I ate six of them before deciding it was time to think about going to sleep, tomorrow would be a long day.
The next day I was settled in the trade tent with breakfast still cooling in my hands. I had my notesheet, made only from low-quality grass pulp because it was just for me to be able to read back to Rakiim for the official agreement. Father and Diiman paced into the tent wearing their best leathers and sat on the rugs placed on our side. A moment later Kilea slipped in, looking a little flustered, to take her position behind her husband.
"Couldn't find my charcoal," she mouthed at me, waving her writing stick.
I passed her one of my dough balls with honey inside. She grinned at me and ate it whole. The Cousonans filed in as well, two women and a man sat on the front row of vine-cloth mats on their side of the tent, and four more people of various ages filed in behind them. Directly across from me in the back row was the girl who had been tending their dogs yesterday. My father nodded and smiled his friendliest smile while they all got settled. Not a single one of them had any paper, or clay tablets, or even a sand tray, there was not a writing stick to be seen anywhere. I wondered briefly how they managed to record everything but before I could finish my thought, my father spoke up and I snapped my attention back to where it belonged.
"Welcome, kinsmen. I trust your families are well this year?"
We waited while the younger of the women in the front row (she was sitting a little off to the side) turned and said something in their round-sounding language.
The man spoke up. "Thank you, kinsman! We are well, and welcomed, indeed. I hope your families are also well, and that your game traps have been full."
The translator had been murmuring to the Cousonans underneath his speech but it still took her a moment to finish entirely.
Now I understood why trade meets always took at least four days. We'd been in the tent a quarter-ouren and I'd had nothing at all yet to write down. We spent all morning in there on pleasantries, they changed translators twice during the morning--the young woman swapped out with an older man from the back row and then he swapped with the young man. I understood the need for the ritual, though. Despite only seeing them once a year, our legends and culture say that the Cousonans are actually distant kin, clansmen who wandered further south and decided to stay, so we did actually care about how they were getting along. By lunchtime we'd established that all was well in both groups (at least as far as anyone was willing to admit at a trade meet, I didn't think Liilu's lovelorn status was something the Cousonans needed to care about) and we could move on to discussing who had brought how much of what. But first- a break for food.
Outside the tent, everyone not involved in the meet had been getting along doing whatever. Most years a gang of boys from both clans would form up and go off hunting up mischief but the adults kept an eye on them. In previous years, I'd have been busy enough with the horses to keep out of trouble. The negotiating group came out of the tent and everybody simply mingled where they pleased. I ended up taking my skewers of elk meat over to near where the Cousonan girl sat by herself.
"I like that, that's good. Did you make it?" I pointed at her necklace as I sat down.
"I...still...don't yet...understand...too quickly," she faltered.
"Oh! Right." I slowed down, pointed again at her necklace. "A squirrel."
She looked down and back up. "Squir-rel," she tried the word out.
"What do you call it?" I said slow and clear.
"Ranitena." I tried.
She laughed. "RanaTENna," she emphasized the syllables more clearly.
I tried again and got it right, then pointed to her necklace again. "Did you make it?" I mimed sewing for good measure. She beamed.
"That's very good."
She smiled again, offered some of her bread. It was faintly green and a little crumbly, but I tried some and found it quite good--a little sweet, and little salty, a tiny bit of spice.
"Oh! I like this, what is it?" I talked too fast, but she understood my smile and pointing at the bread.
"Cor bread," she said, "Me, I'm Tana."
I offered her some elk. "I'm Deniia. Nice to meet you."