The elder stood; rust-toned pants billowing past their feet with a garment forming an ‘x’ over their chest. Intricate pigmented designs adorned their torso and arms only partially hidden by a rich indigo cape. Silver hair was split in two sections with the top fashioned in a bun while the rest hung free.
In silence they listened to the muffled chatter; shifting brown eyes the only part of them appearing to move.
Their gaze soon landed on a being wearing the same color clothing who gave a nod. Without a word the Elder raised their left hand thus silencing the room. “Greetings on the Suns’ warmth.” Their voice was commanding yet smooth, “I come with news which will impact our sense of balance in the near future.” Studying the crowd they continued, “Visitors from the neighboring expanses will be arriving. Some have been selected to host and guide them through the ways of our lands in order to enrich their experience. In turn, those selected will then visit the other expanses to be enriched themselves.”
A rise of murmuring erupted; “How do we know if we’ve been selected?” “-I didn’t think this was happening again for-” “-I don’t even know how long.” “-When are they coming?” “-How long do they stay?” “-How long are we gone for?”
The Elder simply watched with thinly veiled amusement shining in their eyes. Once enough questions been asked they rose a hand once more. “I will leave you to prepare.” With a bow of the head they calmly strode through the crowd, departing with their aide in tow.
For the remainder of the work period one topic of conversation dominated all others: the Elder’s announcement.
“You think Ishtar will really be home?” Marjani was trailing behind Sethunya; collecting her still damp curls and wringing them out.
“She should be. Especially if there was an Elder announcement.” Sethunya explained though she couldn’t be too sure. Knowing her friend she could be home or already be in a neighboring expanse…Once at the familiar tree she unlocked the ground door with ease, “Ishtar! Are you home?!”
There was no reply.
“Oh, come on.” Sethunya mumbled to herself. “Ishtar!” Climbing up the levels they passed through the kitchen- stomachs clenching at the simmering food and spice laced air. It wasn’t until they were at the very top that they found Ishtar tending to plants among the canopy. “Ishtar!”
“I was wondering how long it would take you to figure out I was up here. I could hear you shouting levels down. ‘Ishtar!’ ‘Ishtar!’ ‘Ishtar!’” Ishtar was carefully extracting pollen from a tube-like plant with great purple petals. “You didn’t touch the food did you?” Peeking from behind the plant with narrowed eyes she relaxed into a smile at the sight of her guests. “And you brought Marjani!” Ishtar placed her wears down and gave them each a hug. “-Now pick up some wares and get to work. Sethunya, you focus on yellow and Marjani can focus on pink.”
Sethunya and Marjani exchanged a stifled laugh, but did as they were told nonetheless. Ishtar, now content with the workload; began humming along to an unrecognizable tune.
“Ishtar?” Sethunya asked after several ticks passed.
“Yes. Yes. What is it?” Ishtar practically spun around Marjani to reach the next flower on her target list.
Sethunya couldn’t help but smile, “An Elder visited today.” She watched as Ishtar’s movements momentarily stilled; glancing at Marjani who also seemed to notice. “Visitors from the other expanses are coming soon and someone said they didn’t think it’d be happening already…Do you have any idea what it’s-”
“I should of known you’d come to me about it.” Ishtar had already picked up pace again. “We’re do for rain soon so hurry and finish collecting the pollen. We’ll go into the kitchen and I’ll explain.” Her words were quick. “And here I thought you’d just come for a meal.” She chuckled.
“Well we did go through the kitchen and it smelled pretty good…” Marjani teased. Sethunya smiled while Ishtar just snorted.
Once Ishtar confirmed they’d collected an acceptable amount of pollen she tapped her foot on the floor so a portion slid away to reveal steps. Passing through her personal laboratory she stored the pollen away before bringing them further down to the kitchen to check on her preparations. “Okay. Okay. Hurry up and fill me in on the your encounter with an Elder.” While looking for a blade she plucked Marjani from where she sat and set her work on some fresh fruit.
Sethunya took her cue to regale the story from earlier in the day…
“…It’s strange to think it’s already time again.” Ishtar’s voice was uncharacteristically far away. Both Sethunya and Marjani watched her curiously until the older being blinked back to reality. With a sigh Ishtar turned to face her guests. “About every seven hundred years or so, all the expanses participate in a swap that lasts around three years.”
“Seven hundred years?” Marjani’s mouth fell open. “How have we never heard of this?” Sethunya added.
“I’m sure you have, but it was probably just a passing a story when you were very young.” Ishtar swapped Marjani’s fruit for roots to crush. “Besides, fifty to a hundred years after these swaps and beings tend to fall in routines with new stories to tell. Unless you ask, why would any of us remember? And unless we were chosen or close to someone who was…there isn’t much to tell about the experience itself.”
“What confuses me is; we can travel between expanses whenever we want, so why would there be a specific movement?” Sethunya asked.
“Very good question.” Ishtar replied, her speech returning to it’s usual fast pace. “To travel on your own you have to make your own way, might take another being or two, and will certainly have an adventure.” She agreed. “But during these swaps your lodging is taken care of, you’re with a group being inserted into other groups, and you know for certain you’ll have the chance to visit every expanse.”
Sethunya nodded slowly. “So the enrichment of others and ourselves is…”
“A trading of lifestyle and culture until you return home.” Ishtar finished. Taking out pieces of meat she’d been smoking wrapped in leaves, she took Marjani’s root paste and began coating them.
“So how are beings selected then?” Marjani pipped in.
Ishtar smiled. “It all starts with the expanses selected to go first. Those elders will pick who they deem fit and send them off with the other expanses’ selections.” She handed Marjani fruit to make juice. “Then the rest of the expanses make their choices by seeing who they think would be the best host for the incoming guests and the cycle continues.”
“Then it really could be anyone.” Sethunya surmised.
Ishtar raised a curious brow. “Are you interested in being chosen?” She posed the question while handing things off to Sethunya to set the table.
“A ticket to all the expanses with someone to host you who’s been paired with you in mind? Who wouldn’t?” Sethunya shrugged. “Too bad it’s going to be impossible to get.”
“What makes you say that?” Marjani asked, finally taking a seat.
“Because there’s who knows how many beings in our expanse alone and what are the chances one of us gets selected?” Sethunya popped a piece of fruit in her mouth.
Ishtar smirked. “You could always go out on your own and see the expanses. It just might take longer.” She passed pieces of meat around the table and began eating her own.
“Well I’m not getting my hopes up.” Sethunya decided easily. As much as she wanted to be chosen she refused to allow herself to slip into fantasies about what it would be like.
“I’m going to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Marjani decided, nodding to herself.
“Oh?” Ishtar turned her sights on the curly haired being.
“Mhm.” Marjani enjoyed a swig of juice.
“Then I wish you both the best of luck on being chosen.” Ishtar held her juice in the air. The others followed. “To our future guests!”
That night Marjani traveled home alone while Sethunya took up Ishtar’s guest room for the night.
“You might want to try spending the night at your own home for once, you know.” Ishtar’s voice sounded in the room.
“I will. I will.” Sethunya waved it off.
“If you get chosen as a host you’ll have to take them somewhere that isn’t someone else’s home, so you might want to make sure everything’s even still there.” Ishtar teased while placing a bowl of nuts in the room. “Sleep well and lock up when you leave! I’ll already be gone.”
“You’re leaving already?” Sethunya asked.
“Of course! What good will staying here do me? It’s not like the elders are picking someone my age anyway. Plus this way I can come back to lots of gossip.” Ishtar winked.
“I’ll make sure to fill you in.” Sethunya smiled and rolled her eyes as she laid back and relaxed to the sounds of the night. Thoughts of her own home filled her mind but soon seeped back to those dangerous ‘what if?’ fantasies.
For the next several days every morning at work was met with silent holding of breath- the beings unsure if it was the day they were going to be greeted by an Elder again.
“Did you want to cross the other river today? It’s been a while since I’ve been Davke.” Sethunya spoke quietly while Marjani worked on an avian’s wing.
“Sure, I…” The words died on Marjani’s tongue as five Elders’ aids silently made their way to the platform. Each wore variations of the same rust colored apparel with few pigmented designs marking their skin.
“Greetings on the Suns’ warmth.” One particular aid stepped to the front. Out of the five they had the most markings- most notably ones forming a crown on their forehead. “Once you have finished your deeds the Elders request all present make their way to the central stone village. A ceremony will commence when the fourth sun finishes it’s descent to welcome our guests and announce their appointed hosts.”
As soon as the aids stepped off the platform, the beings began to talk amongst themselves.
“It’s finally happening.” Sethunya could barely believe it.
“Right? And we’re going all the way to the central stone village.” Marjani added.
Sethunya pulled a face. “Yeah.” She glanced around. Many were picking up the pace. “Do you have any more after this one?”
“Nope. This one’s my last.” Even as Marjani spoke, her eyes never left the creature in her care. “Go ahead before everyone starts rushing to the cleansing stations. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Alright. I’ll be waiting by the the boats.” Sethunya went and took a place in line, quietly mulling over the impending trip. Stepping inside the cleansing tube she released a deep breath as water washed over her.
The central stone village…it made sense to have the ceremony there she just…had hoped it would be held in literally any of the other villages.
And for good reason.