I don’t wanna get outta bed…
It’s Izydor’s bed. Just some padding on the ground with a blanket, but it’s soft, warm, and smells nice. The pain in my hand is gone so long as I don’t move my fingers, and even though Izydor has nodded off in the corner, his presence puts me at ease.
But sunlight seeps through the tent walls and one of the soldiers pounds a drum near the center of camp. Izydor’s bloodshot, bag-weary eyes shoot open, and a second later he’s on his feet.
“Hngh!” He stretches his back and I rise from the bed as well. “What an awful night. You feel any better?” He notices all the mud caked on his clothes and limbs, “yuck.” He starts unbuttoning his shirt and shorts.
“A little,” I raise my hand to look at the bandages in the faint light. They’re a little red and moist. “The pain is gone, mostly.”
“That’s great..! Aaaah,” he yawns, takes off his layer of chainmail, then the undershirt underneath.
This man is a peldak, he comes from the stars. He’s a tall soldier with lean muscle, long pointed ears, brown hair, and grey eyes. It’s a strange look, I never saw anything like it when I lived in my little village. His ghostly pale skin is best seen on his torso, shoulders, and legs, the areas covered by clothing. Izydor’s head, his biceps to his fingertips, and from his knees to his ankles, have become somewhat tanned from his time spent on our island. These peldaks will always be paleskins though, no matter how much time they spend in the sun.
Paleskin, sharp-ear, offworlder, invader, I’ve heard lots of names for them as I’ve gone about my duties.
Izydor finishes buttoning the tan shirt that goes over his chainmail. It’s covered in pockets, and loops designed to hold the straps of his sword, guns, and various pouches.
“I’ll escort you back to your tent so you can change too.” He walks over to me and smiles, one hand outstretched, “want me to carry you again?”
I do, for a lot of reasons, but none of them reasonable. “I can walk.” I put my bandaged hand on his, “hugk,” but a sharp pain travels all the way up to my shoulder, and I collapse back onto the bed.
“Other hand, Panopio.”
He pulls me up with my left hand, and we exit the tent. The warm morning sun has yet to fully peak over the trees, but there’s more than enough light to see. The ground is muddy, water drips from the leaves above, soldiers are slowly exiting their tents and going about the start of their day. The tents are a dark green and the camp is surrounded by wooden walls twice my height. Each wall is made of logs they’ve cut down and stuck deep in the earth, and the tops have been sharpened to a fine point. There’s four entrances to the camp, and on the west side there’s a baggage cart being offloaded with a load of supplies from back home. The center of camp has a few fires going, each set under a large pot of food with the chefs cooking enough breakfast for everyone. Assuming nobody was stolen away in the night, there’s 120 peldaks here. 100 soldiers, 20 camp workers, and maybe a dozen local islanders, like myself.
I was hired to join the expedition as a professional interpreter, the other islanders are hostages from the local tribes around the area. ‘Hostages’ may not be the best term, the tribes have taken peldak hostages in kind. It’s standard for negotiation, at least on this island, as it keeps both sides acting in good faith. At the end of the year, when it’s too cold to wage war, both sets of hostages will be returned, and new ones will be exchanged when spring arrives.
Izydor escorts me back to my tent, I’m given waves and well wishes by all the soldiers we pass. On off days I’ve taken the time to teach them a lot about life on this island, and they in turn have taught me about their homeland. It’s a world not terribly far from here, but despite it being among the stars, it doesn’t have a sun of its own. Just a ball of dirt floating in darkness, and they say it’s often cold. It’s hard to imagine, but apparently the plants and animals even glow. I’d like to visit one day.
We get to the tent and I disappear inside. It’s difficult to change with just one hand but there’s no way I’m asking for help, I have to suffer through it. We’re scheduled to meet with the leaders of a nearby tribe today, so I wear my finest clothes. A light sarong and a red string shawl tied in a crisscross pattern. Also various beads and pearl jewelry.
I sigh. I’m not feeling up to it today, but the camp is relying on me to help keep the schedule, and it’ll be rude to the tribe we’re set to meet if we cancel.
“Panopio, you in there?” It’s the major, the leader of this expedition. A man with a large bushy mustache named Leszek Kosman.
“I am, just a moment.” I have to awkwardly wiggle the bracelet onto my left wrist, using my right forearm to drag it on. Kosman is, as I understand, many centuries older than Izydor, who is himself many decades older than I, but they look young. Peldaks don’t age, and while that’s creepy, it’s reassuring to know such an experienced man is in charge.
I exit my tent and his ears perk, his eyebrows curl up. “You okay? I heard what happened last night and I’ve scolded the guards for letting the intruder slip by. They’re busy on latrine duty, if you want to go scold them yourself.”
“No, no, it’s fine. There’s no need for it.” I look down at my hand, “he only bit me anyway, nothing too bad.” Well, he also called me their pet, but I guess that’s nothing worth thinking about or bringing up.
“You sure?” Kosman folds his arms and leans in closer. “If you’re not feeling up to it, I can send word to one of the other camps and have them bring their interpreter over. No fuss, you can take all the time you need.”
My eyes shoot open, then dart between Kosman and Izydor in rapid succession. “N-no! I’ve got it, I mean. I’m good to go.”
Izydor pouts, “if you say so, but keep in mind-“
“I’m fine!” I slam my foot down into the mud.
Kosman smiles at my dedication, and Izydor accepts my resolve.
But it’s not that. None of them understand the situation. I interpret for Kosman, he’s the military leader and the only one in a high enough position to negotiate on behalf of their empire, the ‘Protectorate’. But Kosman… is a very poor diplomat. I was taken aback by it at first and only just barely managed to salvage the negotiations with the first tribe we visited. Kosman’s repeated ‘successes’ have only gotten to his head since then, and I shudder to think what could happen if someone else takes over for me.
I was born on this island, I was raised in one of the tribes before moving to the Protectorate’s growing town on the western coast. I don’t want bloodshed, I want my people to prosper. Ignoring the pain of a small injury on my hand is nothing.
I’ve never had the heart to explain Kosman’s shortcomings. None of them understand why I have to work so hard, so they all think I’m just really dedicated and loyal.
But with that, I join the rest of the camp to have stew for breakfast. Kosman stands on one of the wood tables.
“Everyone, attention, everyone. As you might have heard, there was a bit of a kerfuffle last night and Miss Panopio ended up getting hurt. The guilty party got away, and those who let him escape will work on the latrines for the next month. If we see the assailant, he’ll be put to death, I assure you. Until then, miss Panopio isn’t even taking a few hours off! That’s dedication, that’s commitment, that’s what I should be seeing from all of you! You gonna let some girlie show you up?”
All the men in the camp yell a resounding ‘NO!’ as they raise their bowls.
“Absolutely not! Now finish up and let’s get started with the day.”
My teeth are clenched and I look down at the dirt while I anxiously rub my bicep. That was embarrassing.
Izydor pats me on the back and directs me to the food line.
The man last in line notices me, then steps out of the way as he gestures me forward. “Oh, after you.”
“You got the right of way, champ,” the next soldier says.
“You might as well go straight to the front, haha!”
The line of peldaks step aside and Izydor encourages me to head up. The soldiers pat my back or my shoulder as I pass them, with plenty of praise to go around. When I reach the food table, the camp chef promptly gives me a double serving, along with a wink.
In my time with the peldaks I’ve come to understand the values they hold most highly. Self-sacrifice, duty, loyalty, hard work, I’m happy they see me this way but I feel awful. I’m not particularly loyal to this camp, or their legion, or their Protectorate, I just want things to continue peacefully on this island. I guess it’s still hard work, and loyalty to the island, so maybe I should hold my head high.
When I sit on a tree stump and start eating, I have to set the bowl on the wood and hold the spoon with my left hand. It wobbles a lot, and I drop it a few times, but I quickly get used to it. The stew is the best I’ve had since I’ve been with the peldaks. Their food is usually so bland and tasteless, but today it’s full of flavor! I recognize some of the taste, it’s all kinds of spices I had in my home village, and in the Protectorate town. So much spice in fact that Izydor, Kosman, and all the non-locals start sweating, their faces turning red. It’s hilarious to watch them desperately scarf down chunks of bread after every bite. I hope they get used to it, there’s a lot of great taste to be had here once you get past the agonizing pain, and I know plenty of spices with even more flavor than this.
Though I can’t tell the motive. Did the peldak cooks add this much spice for my benefit, was it an accident, or is this to further punish the men on latrine duty?
I suppose it doesn’t matter. We finish eating, then we all fully start our day.