Thelana turned to the captain beside her. "I feel it," she answered at length, "but it does not affect me."
"If I were you, I'd be shivering. There is a cool front coming in from the East, I believe."
Captain Sif was fitted in her usual gold cuirass, pouldrons and boots, with a white linen undercoat and chain skirt, leaving only her face, neck and hands exposed. Thelana, by contrast, could not have been more naked, but for the knot in her braid. Her quiver was in her quarters, along with the dagger sheath she sometimes fastened to her thigh. "Are you not weighed down in all that metal? We are not at battle this moment."
"No, but it reminds the crew of my place. They must not see me as a companion, but a superior."
Part of her envied the captain. The regal accouterments of her station fitted her well and the patterns etched into her armor and along the trim of her undergarments were elaborately beautiful. But she and Xandr were committed to abstaining from clothing. "It is always a matter of appearances with your kind. My people do not dwell on such things."
"But have you not noticed how the men ogle you? Do you not consider what they must be imagining?"
"You think me naive, and yet you believe yourself immune to their fantasies. Do not think for a moment that because you are their captain, they see you as any less of a woman. At least I do not give them power over me, by hiding myself, by cowering in shame."
"I am not . . ." Sif stammered, ". . . I am not ashamed!"
"Prove it," Thelana said. "Throw your clothes into the water, here and now."
"I prefer to keep my dignity."
"What is dignity, if it can be taken away? Do you not strip your captives bare? Your slaves? If you fall in battle, they will do the same to you, and what then will that armor signify? My dignity cannot be stolen, even in death . . . I surrender it only by submitting to your customs."
"So, you intend to remain like this when we reach port? Stand naked before the masses? The queen's court?"
"Why should I not? Besides, I am not naked---that is your word. In Ilmarinen, I might ask whether you intend to keep covering yourself."
"Your homeland is no more, Thelana, and humanity has moved on, has become, well . . . civilized."
"Is it civilized to shun what is natural? Under all that armor, we are no different, only you choose to hide it. What shame is there in flesh? In being as you were born? What need is there of clothing, truly? It serves no purpose that I can see."
"I respect your devotion to your people. In a way, it is not so different than the wars we fight, to preserve our identities, our way of life. You fight your own battles, I suppose . . . one that exists in the hearts and minds of men. But, to survive, we must also change. Adapt."
"You know . . ." Thelana took a long, deep breath, "I remember the first time I saw outsiders, soldiers from Kratos. Many were wounded or dying. We gave them shelter, fed them. At first, I did not understand what I was seeing. Were they ilma, or some other kind of animal? Their captain was a woman---strong like you---but I was not certain she was female. But oh, the colors, the reds and whites and golds! I'd never seen such beauty, but in the flowers that bloom in low moon, and I wanted only to join them. And yet cotton does not grow in Ilmarinen. There are petals, and leaves in abundance, only they are too fragile for clothing. The day I left home, my mother forced me into a frock, a plain, ugly looking thing. I hated the feel of it, how it grated my skin, but now I realize how it made me see myself. I needed to change to suit the outside world. On that day, I learned that I came from a lesser people, and that I should be ashamed. I joined Kratos, and for two years dressed and acted and lived as they did, telling no one of my heritage. I changed, adapted, and hated myself every single day. My family would never have recognized me, and if they were to have sought me out, I would have denied them. And what did I learn among the civilized races? Colors. Colors beyond my wildest imaginings, and yet, so much red. Blood red. The civilization you take such pride in is built upon murder and slavery. Your castles and high walls were made for it. You wear armor and weapons for war, and carry bright banners for war, but in war there is only suffering and death. In Ilmarinen, we fell a tree and mourn for it. We kill when we are starving, and never without respect. When I returned home to find my family, they were gone, as were my people. I never saw my mother and father in anything but their skin. My sisters and brothers likewise. They perished, and I among them survived, and for what? Colors? To dream that I was not human, but a butterfly?"
"I did not expect this turn of events," Sif said after a time. "We are headed for Thetis, and I do not know how the people there will react to your . . . custom. Queen Frazetta may not accept you at court. For all we know, we may be lynched."
"No," Thelana said, "we must meet with this queen, stand before the high born, prove that we are not savages, that we have a rightful place among the peoples of Aenya."
"You will need a voice to come before you, someone to represent you to the world. For what you have done for us, I will be this voice. But the people of Thetis are bound by tradition. They will not know you as I do and will not take your story to heart. But I have an idea that may work in your favor . . ."
"The coastal city states are a stubborn lot, I admit, but prone to rumor and superstition. Already, there is outlandish talk of Batal; they say he fought and killed Lunestes, the giant that holds up the greater moon; they say he moved the world . . ."
"He did, in a way."
"Truth does not matter here, only belief. What if we were to feed into this myth? We will proclaim Xandr a god among men, and you will be his goddess. After all, only gods could have done the things they've heard about. It's risky, to be certain; we may be branded blasphemers, but from what I have been told, the queen usurped most power reserved for the temple. She is no fool, and will likely see our ruse for what it is, but the masses may not."
"I still don't understand. How does pretending to be gods help us?"
"Gods are not bound by mortal custom. In Thetis, as in Hedonia, the gods make the law. In essence, you and Xandr will stand above their priests and monarchs. Men need clothing and armor, because they are vulnerable. Gods do not."