The first time I met Po was the first time I'd ever seen a naga.
It was midsummer, and would be a few weeks yet before harvesting and feasting and then packing up the village and moving south for the winter months. Every few seasons the naga traders would come from the east and the whole tribe would be buzzing and preparing to do business with them. It was a lot like a wedding or a funeral or the celebration before or after a big hunt, only with a lot more nonsense about foreign fashions and women chattering endlessly about jewelry and men nodding to each other about "good iron". (I guess the naga made better metals than we. They ought to have, since they seem to kill one another with greater zeal than the Plainsfolk.)
Uncle Gram explained it to me then, but I didn't fully understand until some years later. Many years ago, the naga ruled all our lands from one sea to the other. Then I suppose the wolves just got tired of them and made a war against them, and after a few centuries the only naga left lived in the great Bal-Naga swamp far away in the eastern lands along the sea. The wolves surrounded the swamp and kept them inside, and only ever let a few of them out into the West under guard to do trade with us. It was all very strange to me, but the point was that seeing a naga was kind of a big deal. Other than Gram, there were very few people who'd ever really known one of their kind.
So that year I was determined to meet one. Their coming had been told to us a few days in advance by some outrunners, and immediately all the grownups started taking stock of furs and food and trinkets in preparation. Foreigners were never allowed within the village itself; they would set up along the game trail to the north about half a day's journey away, and even then only a few of the tribe would go off to meet them. Gram was one of the chosen, as he was the only one who knew the naga tongue well enough to be an intermediary and settle any disputes. The naga could speak our language, but Gram assured me that it was best to understand what they were saying to each other. Naga, he told me, were no different from anyone else when trying to scam other folk.
After pleading with my mother and father and doing all my chores and giving extra help in any way possible, they decided to let me accompany my uncle. Mother vigorously reminded him to trade some of her hand-sewn ceremonial blankets for some sort of perfume. Most everyone was determined to get their hands on the medicinal mixtures the naga were renowned for, or genuine steel blades, or useful things. Mother would give up a whole year's worth of exquisite, meticulous loom-workings just to smell pretty. There was a lot about Mother I never really understood.
When the day finally came, we loaded up the pack animals with everything that wasn't tied down in the village and headed off for the game trail. There were thirty of us, give or take, and I felt tremendously important for being one of the only children to make the trip. I had even filled a small satchel with a fistful of precious stones I had collected from the riverbed ever since spring, hoping to haggle for something myself.
Everyone was quiet, even Uncle Gram. The way people acted, it seemed like the naga were some sort of evil spirits (generous ones who were good to trade with, but evil just the same). Why we would make them stay half a day's journey from the village and visit them as a small party was also strange. I pestered Uncle all the way.
"Why must we travel all the way out to them, Uncle?"
"Because they are not welcome at the village, Mika."
"But why? Are they evil?"
"No, not evil," he said. "But there has been bad blood in the past between our people and it would anger our ancestors to bring them to our homes."
"Aren't our ancestors with us wherever we go?"
"Then won't the ancestors be angry with us anyway whether we walk way out there or not? My feet hurt."
"Then you must walk more often instead of lying about like an idle idiot."
I'd blown my half of the argument. Uncle Gram had a lot of answers, but giving him the chance to change the subject meant I'd have to try again some other time.
The sun was high when we finally arrived. My feet ached horribly, and as soon as our caravan stopped I seated myself on a rock and stuck them into the air.
It's funny how finally seeing something real that you've only heard about in the storyteller's tales tends to be horribly disenchanting. I remembered imagining naga as if they were incredible, magical creatures, like the Fire Serpent or Thunderbirds. In my dreams they were radiant, mysterious creatures with eyes of flame and voices like forest gods. The shaman must have really buttered up those stories, because the creatures I saw that day were powerfully disappointing.
They were certainly strange-looking things with their long, snakelike tails, vast, pointy ears and feet that looked like another pair of hands. One of them was juggling with all four limbs, another was blowing into a long, pipelike instrument and playing with with his feet while his hands beat a drum. Those were neat tricks, but the fact remained that now, here, in the light of day, the mysterious creatures of my dreams were just dusty, earth-toned, slightly exhausted people just like my own kind. If it weren't for their enormous tails, it might even have been difficult to pick them out of a crowd of elkfolk, really.
The whole affair took place around some hastily constructed lean-tos and tents encircling several large elephantine beasts of burden that swayed back and forth in the midday sun while their tails swatted at flies. The whole place stank of their shit mixed with the smell of strange, foreign foods. The naga moved mostly amongst the structures, some, like the juggler, moved through the small crowd of elk doing tricks and making a spectacle for the other few children, who mostly blushed and turned away. Outside of the cluster of bodies were several wolf warriors, their blades and spears at their sides, watching the naga intently.
Wolves I had seen before, and I knew enough to leave them well alone, and not just because they were big, mangy, and scary-looking, though that was certainly the case. They walked alternately on their hind legs or stalked around on all fours, keeping the naga traders in check. Wolves were easy to bother and usually would just as soon kick you or snap at you than have to bother making conversation. The rule taught to me and everyone else in the tribe about wolves was simple: If you weren't a wolf yourself, they were enormously difficult to deal with on the best of days, and on the worst of days they would eat you without even bothering to cook you first. These wolves looked particularly unpleasant; black-furred, distant fellows who seemed to always be sneering. One of them had such big teeth he couldn't even close his mouth properly. I kept my distance.
You couldn't find a single trader that was free to talk to. Everyone was clamoring to be the first to have at their stock, and jabbering through stunted snakefolk and elkfolk speech for what seemed like hours. Uncle had managed to corner three naga at once and was chattering at two of them while the other rifled through sack after sack with a flustered look on his face, I guess looking for Mother's perfume. The naga language was awfully ugly, I thought, a rapid series of clicks, pitch changes, and rolling "R's" spoken at such a clip that if Uncle weren't speaking it himself I would swear was just gibberish meant to confuse people. Maybe it was.
I clutched my little satchel of stones and rocked back and forth on my heels behind my uncle, waiting for him to be done so that I could do business myself. After an eternity of him nearly talking himself hoarse about Mani-knows-what, I decided I didn't have the patience and wandered off to look at the elephant-beasts.
There was a single tree near the animals that gave them decent shade free of the crowd, and I made my way over. They ignored me, mostly, chewing their cud and lowing in the hot summer air. I approached one to touch its thick, rocklike hide when it suddenly raised its tail and blasted such a loud, overpowering, trumpeting fart that I tumbled backwards over a gnarled pair of tree roots and onto the leathery tail of a she-naga that stood motionless against the trunk.
Her tail undulated slightly and shook me off like a common fly without so much as an "excuse me". I brushed myself off, stood to my feet, and looked up at her. She stood a full three heads taller than me at least, her arms folded across her chest with a stern, sour look on her face and her nose turned up, facing a pair of patrolling wolf-warriors twenty yards away. She could have been a naga-shaped outcropping of tree-bark for all it looked like. But what caught my eye most was her hair.
I hadn't been close enough to notice it on the others, but naga hair is rather strange, if you've never seen it. Instead of thin strands that are knotted, curled, or hang loosely, it's more like long, curvy stalks of grass shooting outwards from their heads, and feathered ever so slightly. Even in the afternoon shade of the tree, it shimmered and shined, and I thought to myself how it looked like an exquisitely-groomed porcupine was clinging to her head.
"Hello!" I said, approaching her. Her head snapped around to face me without her body budging an inch, like a bird, one eyebrow already raised. She flipped out a single word in the naga tongue which I could only hope was a greeting. (I later found out that naga greet total strangers by saying their own name. It wouldn't be til I met her again much later that I realized "Po" was her name, and not naga for "hello".)
Mistaking her clipped greeting for an invitation towards further conversation, I summoned my most adult-sounding voice and informed her, "I'd like to make a deal."
Her eyes followed the wolf warriors as if she were policing them rather than the other way around. I had cleared my throat and was about to repeat my proposal when she said flatly "I have nothing for sale or trade. Off with you."
Now mind you, I'm somewhat used to being brushed off by people. My own mother had rendered it such a routine that she no longer even bothered telling me to go away, instead simply ignoring me or talking over me. So I have fairly thick skin when it comes to being unwanted. But the thought of returning to the village with only tales of being offhandedly dismissed by the only naga I was able to actually speak with didn't seem at all glorious or remarkable, so I stood my ground.
"I want to touch your hair," I said matter-of-factly.
I think it was that she didn't know elk-speech well enough to immediately translate it in her mind, because she'd turned her gaze away from me as if to imply she had more important far-off things to stare at before her head snapped back around to look at me like I'd just dropped my kilt.
"Your hair," I said, gesturing at my own unkempt mop. "I want to touch it."
One of her eyes half-squinted. "My hair."
"Yes. It's very fascinating."
She looked around like she expected someone to sweep through and take the crazy kid away from her, then squinted at me again. "Why my hair?"
I ignored the question, and dug my hand into my satchel and produced several shiny, brightly-colored rocks. "I want to haggle, and you say you have nothing to trade. Well, I will give you one of these nice stones I've found if you'll let me touch your hair."
"How is that haggling?" she asked, regaining her condescending composure.
"I will give you something, and you will give me something. Haggling."
"That's not haggling. That's just an exchange."
My turn to look confused.
She sighed and explained it to me using her palms. "An exchange. You give me a rock and I let you touch...my hair. Haggling implies that we attempt to come to an agreement from two different positions and reach a compromise in determining value."
"Like this: If you say, 'Let me touch your hair and I will give you this rock', and then I say 'Give me three rocks and I will let you touch my hair', then you offer two rocks instead of one, that would be haggling."
"So I should give you two rocks?"
"No, what I mean is that each party meets in the middle. You're simply suggesting one for the other as a simple exchange."
"Does that mean you want three?"
"Give me a damn rock."
She snatched a large red one from my hand and held it in front of her eye. After turning it in her fingers for a moment, she slid it into a small bag tied to her belt and looked back towards the patrolling warriors, who had stopped to stare with amusement at her business dealings with the tiny idiot elk boy. "Alright, come on."
She stooped down, averting her gaze from the snickering wolves while I rubbed my hands together and cracked my knuckles. I delicately combed a shock or two of her hair between my stubby little fingers.
"It's cold!" I declared. Very strange, it felt like cold fish oil, but left no residue on my hands. Instinctively I wiped my hand on my kilt and reached out for another stroke, but she stood tall and out of reach, folded her arms, and resumed her position against the tree.
"That's done with, then."
"Another stone? I want to touch it again," I said.
"Get lost, vijkiya," she hissed, her hair visibly bristling slightly.
"How about something else, then?" I asked thoughtfully.
This didn't diminish her ire much. "What."
"How about a trick?" I supplied.
"I am not a damned monkey!"
"Just one?" I pleaded. The adult voice I'd unsuccessfully tried to cultivate was completely drained by now.
She let loose an exclamation in her native tongue that caused a few perching songbirds to flee from the tree branches above her in horror, then fixed me with an icy glare. "Very well. One trick."
I shifted in place and braced myself expectantly, very pleased with my business skills. She stood unmoving, and stared off at the wolves again as if we hadn't said a thing. After a few seconds I frowned, beginning to suspect that her "trick" was simply going to be "ignoring me with extra vigor". Just then, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around. Seeing no one, I turned to face her again.
"Well?" I asked impatiently.
"Trick's over. Now scram."
"Wait a minute--" I began, but before I could muster another word, she cursed again, and thrashed her tail (which had lain between my feet, causing me to bowl over backwards) and launched herself up into the tree. A few leaves and twigs fell as she skillfully swam through the branches, leapt across the backs of the pack-beasts, and disappeared into the crowd of traders.
I looked toward the wolves, who had shrugged and gone back to solemnly talking with each other. It wasn't until late that evening when we were almost home that I realized she'd taken the entire contents of my satchel of precious rocks.
That was Po. But I didn't know that was her name at the time, so I simply called her "Hag'Gorrah bar'Qua Isshbyo", which is the ancient elk-tongue for "Oily Four-Handed Bitch". Uncle suggested the name, since he'd gotten fleeced by her moments later in a rigged game of dice. You could say that Po had made an enemy of my family from the start.