Soon after her experiences meeting the strangers in the forest, the enquisitive young Lusa is inspired to find answers. But in her world of strict cultural code, it doesn’t do to ask questions. She must find out herself.
The Haast — Part One
Several weeks after Lusa’s encounter with Taal and despite having numerous questions of the strange multi-coloured society, she had not yet mentioned their meeting to an Amba, as he had requested. One day, on her way to teach a group of small children how to colour themselves, she stumbled across some Amba guards unsuccessfully chasing after an unpainted dog through the streets, in an attempt to slaughter it for it’s blasphemous actions. As an animal lover, who had turned a blind eye to such actions in the past, she felt guilty, and for the first time wondered if actions such as these where not for the greater good. Why would killing a poor dog who knew nothing of the culture it had inadvertently offended be part of God’s will? It was then that she decided to go back to the forest and try to find out more about the Haast.
The Azool diplomat had just served himself a large spoonful of blueberries to go with his steamed fish, and was about to take the first mouthful of his supper, when there was a knock at the door. He squinted at the tall white clock in the corner. It read: Hour eighty-five. Unusually late for visitors.
Lusa stood in front of the heavy, blue and white door for what seemed to her like a very long time but didn’t like to knock again in case of disturbing the resident. She turned and had just begun to walk away when the door creaked open. Sands stood dressed in his light blue informal robes. He wore a sea blue mask to cover his unpainted face.
‘Apologies. I wasn’t prepared for visitors. I had to find my face. How may I help?’.
Lusa took a step closer.
‘I’m sorry to come by this close to the end of day, but may I come inside to talk?’
‘Of course. I am Envoy Sands, and I am at your service, always on duty when here.’ He stepped aside and waved Lusa in.
Inside the small but cluttered abode, Lusa took the opportunity to drink in the blue, grey and white items that could never fill an Amba house. She inwardly marveled at the unfamiliar designs of the Azoo furniture. Most, if not everything, carried marine imagery of some kind or another, all of which were prohibited outside of a designated Azoo house.
‘Do you mind if I remove the face? It’s a bit late in the day for painting. Of course, if you are offended…’
‘No, it’s fine, thank you for asking. I have seen unpainted faces before.’
‘Oh?’ Sands removed the mask revealing his natural light brown skin colour. ‘Well, that wouldn’t have been in Ambras. You’re quite young to have traveled far from…’
‘In the forest. I saw some people there.’
‘Please,’ Sands paused, directing Lusa to take one of the spare chairs, ‘You need not fear. We Azoo are tolerant of all belief systems. Perhaps that is why you are here?’ He looked longingly at his plate. ‘Do you mind if I eat while we talk? I arrived home not long ago and I’ve had an extremely long day discussing matters with the Amba Council. If you’re not offended by my face, then I assume me eating won’t be a problem? It’s Azoo fare. Are you able to tolerate the smell of amberless cooking?’
‘It’s fine by me. This is your house after all.” Lusa sat down at the table as Sands tucked in. She ran her finger tips along the ridges of the cerulean table. Not much different from a yellow or gold one.
“I’ve never seen Azoo furniture before.’
“Naturally. We can’t paint it until it’s inside the house. The law dictates that no blue items can be taken out in public apart from small personal affects I need for work. Did you know that our food must be covered up while it’s being transported? Fish is brought to the city in sealed crates. Only specifically trained guards are tasked to check the contents, and as soon as they have, they go straight to a priest for absolvement. It was the same when some of the more personal pieces, like that clock,’ he nodded to the corner, ‘…were brought from my home on the island. Most of the other furniture I had to buy from local craftsmen, and paint myself. But it’s not such a hardship, Ambras has the best carpenters in the whole of Kroma.’
‘I hadn’t thought about that. I’ve never seen a fish before… it doesn’t seem that bad.’
‘No, it really isn’t. But the law is the law. Some wealthy and progressive Amba are starting to taste it for themselves. Once it’s been marinated and coloured according to their faith that is. You wouldn’t see then eating it like this.’ Sands paused for another mouthful.
‘So, tell me. What brings you to visit me?’
‘I was wondering if you could tell me something about the forest people? They’ve not been mentioned at school or in temple.’
‘Oh, the Haast! Yes of course. The unpainted peoples. You’d find it difficult to find mention of them anywhere in Ambras. They are considered to be heathens both here and by the Arga. We Azoo are more accepting. The Haast have never attacked anyone as the other factions once did. But, they’re not really a faction either. It’s more that they lack a belief system. Well… as far as I know they do. Whatever they believe, it rejects the Kromatic system. I’ve not had much dealing with them myself, and they prefer to keep away from all of us. They’re a hermit society of sorts. Although, occasionally, they have traded materials and other items for fish. And they will eat anything they want, according to what I’ve been told. Any colour, blessed or un-blessed, they have no fear of committing sin against a shade.’
‘So they’re not dangerous then? The one I met said that Ambras had killed Haast people before now.’
Sands rested his spoon on the table.
‘I have no knowledge of such things, my child. The Amba church does have strict rules, and they must be followed. As you will understand.’
‘So the Amba haven’t really ever killed a Haast then?’
Sands stared at Lusa as he considered her question.
‘I cannot speak on matters of the Amba church, but as you know, each church has it’s own beliefs and ways of doing things. In the past, the red faction, the Arga hunted and killed anyone and anything not considered faithful or sacred. The Amba probably do still regard the Haast as dangerous, and they have reported aggressive actions from the forest dwellers, although I’m afraid cannot verify. I did hear that the Haast have killed Amba monks who strayed too far into the forest, but I can say that the Azool have never had a problem. We only carry out trade missions with them, no colour cleansing or other activities. And we ourselves, have never attacked anyone because of their faith. Our army exists solely for defence reasons. And it always has been that way. Even when the three tribes were engaged in full on war, we only held defensive lines.’
Lusa waited for a moment before replying.
‘The Haast man I saw told me that it was the Amba doing the killing. I don’t know why they would though. Is it because we paint the trees? He didn’t seem dangerous. I am interested in seeing their multi-coloured cities. Do you think I can?’
‘Oh, they don’t have cities. They live wild and free in the forests. No-one is sure where they are and they keep themselves well hidden with camouflage. You were lucky to see any at all. I’ve never heard of them coming to the nearest part of the forest before. I wonder why they were there.’
Lusa stood up.
‘Thank you for help.’
Sands also stood.
‘You’re most welcome… what’s your name?’
‘I must go.’ She replied.
“I understand. You know I am the Ambassador for Azool here in your city, I presume? Everything we discuss is entirely confidential. That means I will never discuss private meetings with any of my Amba counterparts, so you need not worry about difficult questions from your church. It’s my hope that you will feel free to come and see me again.’
As she approached the front door Lusa noticed, for the first time, the boy sitting on the stairs at the far end of the room. He shyly watched her with large silent eyes, and nervously touched his bright blue Afro.
‘Oh! That’s Phog, my ward.’ Sands turned to address the boy.
‘Why aren’t you in bed Phog?’
‘Goodbye.’ called Lusa as she turned to leave, but stopped in her tracks when she spotted a blue vase holding a bunch of white flowers, reminding her of the many hundreds, perhaps thousands she had collected and burnt for her church. She ignored a knot in her stomach and stepped out onto the yellow cobbles, checking up and down the street to see if anyone was watching, before walking quickly away.
The next morning, at dawn, Lusa packed a small bag of supplies, and avoiding any guads, slipped out of the city and headed for the forest. She found her way to the meadow where she and her cousin had gone to pick non-Amba flowers the previous Cleansing Day. She noticed that a number of red, white and blue flowers had already began to crop up in among the yellow and orange ones that the Amba favoured. She crouched down and took a blue flower head in her palm, and with fingers clasping the stem, began to tug slightly. But instead of picking, this time she released it. The flower sprung back to its original position as if nothing was more natural.
Lusa stood and scrutinised her surroundings, searching for the tree where she had first seen the boy. Once located, she set off instinctively tracing the route along which she had chased him, and soon managed to locate the clearing where she had encountered Taal. She paused here for a while, taking in the atmosphere of the space. It felt empty, but she called out anyway. When satisfied no one would answer, she set off in the general direction in which the mysterious forest people had fled. The yellow-painted tree trunks accompanied her for some distance into the forest, becoming increasingly patchy the further she got from Ambras, until she could see no further trace of her people’s handy work.
Lusa called out several more times at this point, but for the breeze, saw no movement and received no reply.
This distance from the city, carpets of wild flowers grew in a multitude of different shades, with red, white, blue and mauve ones growing happily in in amongst yellow and orange. She stopped, intrigued at the mix of colour, and so captivated was she, that all thoughts of navigation was forgotten. With the sun and dual moons concealed by the dense canopy, Lusa was lost.
She sat down by a collection of rocks that had gathered at the foot of an earthy rise about half the height of the trees, and took out a leather gourd from her bag. Her drink was interrupted by a shuffling noise coming from above. She stood, trying not to breathe, staring up towards the source. Following a second scraping sound, Lusa quietly placed the water away and shouldered her bag.
‘Hello? Is someone there?’ She called.
The creature stuck it’s head up to see who or what had disturbed it’s foraging. It examined Lusa with huge unblinking yellow eyes. Sized between a cat and a wolf, if resembled neither. The orange fur with black stripes meant it could be considered holy to the Amba, but this creature was new to her, and it didn’t look friendly, let alone holy. To Lusa’s mind, it’s elongated body gave it an unworldly appearance. In that moment, it occurred to her, how little he knew about the world she inhabited, and wondered what else had gone untold in Ambras. She stared into the eyes of the animal and it let out a deep guttural snarl. Lusa began to back away.
The creature scurried downward, snaking in between and over the top of the earthy tufts that formed the edge of the ridge. It stopped suddenly, halfway down to stare at her once again, showing rows of small, pointed teeth. Lusa turned and walked swiftly away, checking over her shoulder as she set off. The animal scuttled down to the ground and began to give chase. When Lusa broke into a run, it galloped after her.
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