"Tell me about sea serpents."
"Mmm?" he answered groggily, half awake. Their conversation had died while she concentrated on her handiwork, and he had dozed off.
"Describe them for me. Don't spare any detail." Teresa was bent over a large upturned book press, settled on the floor between her knees as she tied thin twine around the whole thing, book and press, to force the leather cover into shape with the decorative ridges of the spine. He heard the skidding of wood on tile as she pushed the whole contraption aside, and the shuffling of paper sheets as she laid them out on her lap. He turned his head to the edge of the pillow to see her sitting on the floor, her chair abandoned in the corner.
It was an odd sight, the royal vizier's daughter in cream and light green silks sitting back cross-legged on the floor surrounded by mostly leatherworking tools. Resting haphazardly on the floor was a mallet, what he thought was a chisel, or maybe an awl, strips of discarded goat leather, and an almost surgical-looking knife.
She had taken the mallet to the book's spine yesterday, hammering it into a curve while the glue hardened. "It relaxes me," she had said, then added, "or at least helps me vent my frustrations."
The head nurse had a fit with all the noise from the mallet. Though he defended Teresa more than the scholar had bothered to defend herself, the nurse promptly banned Teresa from the barracks infirmary. In retaliation, this morning Teresa moved him up to a small set of chambers in the Northern palace wing designed for visiting diplomats (not that the Meviahn court had actually received any foreign diplomats in maybe a century). Out of the reach of the prickly nurse, into the care of the palace's medical staff.
"And do you have any frustrations to vent?" he'd asked. "Plenty." She had left it at that.
"Iskender... do you need more turmeric milk for the pain?" She asked, staring at him suddenly, leaning forward like she would spring up and bolt for a nurse.
"No." He intentionally smoothed out the expression on his face. "Just thinking, making faces again." She settled down again with an uneasy chuckle.
"You said sea dragons...?"
Iskender stopped himself from asking the obvious question. Depictions of sea serpents adorned murals, tapestries, paintings, tomes on the topic of sea serpent anatomy, and finally on the flag of the Meviahn navy, speared by a winged harpoon. Why ask for his description? He opened his mouth, closed it again, trying to think. "Are you asking for a specific dragon I've seen?" he asked finally.
"Yes, exactly. Sorry." She added quietly. She fumbled with the sketch paper again. "The greatest sea serpents you've seen!"
"I haven't seen anything near the likes of Wave-Watcher, at least not above water." If he had, he wouldn't have lived to tell the tale. "The first one was smooth like a land serpent, the only ridges where along the sides of its body, where the black scales across its back met the white scales under its stomach." He paused. "It had a long flat head, something like a crocodile's head... but, not exactly. The teeth stuck out on the top and bottom like a crocodile's..." He trailed off to look at her charcoal pencil scratching quick lines across the paper, creating the head shape.
"But, uh, that's just the first one I've seen..." he said.
"I know, I have multiple pages."
"That's all I remember of that one. The second one had black scales also, completely black. The thing was invisible in the night waters but it was small enough, and hungry enough, to get itself pulled up onto a fishing vessel's deck with a net of bass. Wreaked havoc until the entire crew shut themselves in below deck and signalled a light for aid to our ship. The fiend ate through half of the bass by the time we drifted close enough to board, and refused to leave the rest until we had to kill it. It was a thin and slimy creature, ugly face like an anglerfish."
"Why at night?" Teresa fixed her eye up at him.
"Why were the crew fishing at night?" Now she seemed more interested in his story than the serpent's description.
"They usually work well into the night if it's been a bad day for fish. That bass was probably their desperate last attempt." he explained. "They feel more confident fishing for longer and in deeper waters if they know a navy vessel is in the area, like we were that night."
Sounds reasonable... she must've thought by her subtle nod, and turned her gaze back to her papers.
More than an hour passed, and Teresa filled in the pages with sketches of the serpents he described, twelve in all of his closest sightings. She'd drawn them even more accurately than he had described them, filling in the blanks with her own knowledge and titling the pages with each serpent breed's official nomenclature. Her drawings were rough, and he watched her tag the unclear parts, fins, jaws, tails, with notes so she could reference them from diagrams later. Again, he failed to see the point in her asking him. He shifted in bed uncomfortably. I've spent the better part of eight years at sea but she's probably memorized more facts about sea life than I can remember moments of my own life.
He enjoyed talking to her, and was beyond just grateful for her company. He hung onto their daily conversations like a lifeline after nearly two weeks incapacitated and confined to a bed. All the same, he got the impression his input to her knowledge was like dropping rough pebbles into a chest of rubies and emeralds. He guessed, with a father like hers, she must be the most well-educated woman on the island of Meviah.
Teresa put the pages aside finally and pulled her oversized cotton shawl from the chair behind her. She wrapped it around herself against some chill he hadn't noticed from his place under two covers. The shawl was the sign she had come to see him directly after her classes (after picking up her book-binding materials, of course). The plain, off-white shawls were made to cover one's casual clothes when on university grounds, some old scholar's unimaginative design of a uniform. Iskender could guess ideas about modesty and holiness were involved in the rationale.
She sat in contemplative silence while her gaze drifted from tools, to book press, to sketches, and then towards the door while she fidgeted with the hem of her shawl. He could make out the profile of her nose, mouth, and chin from this angle but otherwise the right side of her face was obscured. Common among Meviahn women, at least when they wanted to keep their hair out of their face, she wore a band of twisted fabric around her head, tied underneath her brown-black hair with the remaining tails of fabric resting down across her right shoulder. Uncommon among Meviahn women, she had an extension of the headband fabric wrapped down across her right brow and cheek to connect with the headband again under her right ear. It sat over where her right eye would have been.
On the second day, almost two weeks ago, she was his first visitor after he'd woken up. She'd given a long rambling 'thank you', her voice wavering with emotion but sounding relieved as she stood like a distant fuzzy shadow above him. Until then, for two years, the energetic scholar had passed by him countless times in the palace halls and had never spoken a word to him.
The third day, her father, the royal vizier, had visited him. The man known in court for his quick wit but meticulous planning had sat beside him and spoken to him in a kind, grandfatherly way while offering his gratitude. He looked almost as ragged as Iskender felt, minus any of the injuries, fortunately. The drooping bags under his eyes, shaken expression, and disheveled silver hair made the vizier look seventy instead of his near fifty-five. The vizier returned the following day too, for the last time. After that, Iskender imagined he had a shipload of work to get back to. W-what is it they're thanking me for...? He remembered asking himself with a foggy mind.