Those who have been there say that when they first set foot on the shore, they wept, and wept again when they had to leave because they knew they might never again see such beauty.
The islands of Aoya lie just south of the Wild Waters, en route from Aman to Overseas, basking in the heat of the twin suns and enjoying endless summers. Those who survive sailing past the notorious Needle Cape and into the fearsome Wild Waters themselves, find themselves resting on dazzling beaches of fine white sand, enjoying the shade of palm trees and the famous Aoyan hospitality. Piles of exotic food await the hungry, often shipwrecked traveler, and after weeks of surviving on ship biscuits or clinging for days to whatever will float, Aoya seems like a dream.
The food that looks so tempting, and which is offered on broad flat leaves by a beautiful young girl wearing nothing but a necklace of sea shells, contains some of the hottest pepper known under the twin suns. The girl with the sea shells knows some very powerful curses, and is here in an official role to make sure the washed up barbarians behave. Her mother hunts sharks with her father. The charming little boy playing the conch? His village has great hopes for him. He knew you were coming… The marvelously friendly and easy-going people of Aoya live on the beautiful islands surrounded by the world's most dangerous oceans, because they can.
To a Naressine merchant from the big city, arriving here at the end of the world in a sturdy caravel that dwarves the huts and even the largest boats of the natives, the Aoyans might seem primitive. They live in huts, sometimes built from driftwood, and the few household items they possess are carved of wood and bone. There are no large settlements other than that in which the High King resides on the main island, overlooking the only stone port, and no roads. Most people live in small village communities scattered across the hundreds of islands. While their parents fish, farm, and paddel to the neighbouring islands to trade and visit, the children spend their day playing naked in the sand.
Those same children learn the names of the constellations from their elders, who also teach them how to steer a boat by the stars. Mathematics and navigation are considered sacred arts, first taught to the people of the islands by He Who Guides the Stars, and they have been practiced ever since in his honour. Those who wish to become true navigators seek out the masters of the craft for instruction, who offer their knowledge in exchange for food and sometimes housing. As their skills increase, the aspiring navigators accompany more experienced members of the craft on increasingly longer voyages, until their training is complete. Aoyan navigators are considered to be the best, and they often find themselves working for other seafaring folk as well: Captains from the Aman Empire who need to dare the Demon’s Run on their way north, or merchants from Naressina, notably from the guild of the South Traders, who risk the long way across the Wild Waters for spices.
The Call of the Sea
The closest word for ‘navigator’ in the language of Aoya translates to ‘pathfinder’, someone who finds a way across the trackless ocean. But that is not all an Aoyan navigator does: In their own language, they are called ‘gao’, which describes someone who ‘speaks with the sea’. A gao can and does chart a course, but they also advise a ship’s captain on the weather and, literally, the mood of the sea. The sea can provide a gao with news of events it has witnessed, most often news of severe storms and other vessels, and a gao can literally negotiate on behalf of the ship and her crew for safe and speedy travel. She Who Calms the Waves is the patron of most gao, and their ability to sooth a raging storm is what makes them living legends among the southern seas. There is also She Who Brings the Storm, the dark and decidely capricious twin sister of She Who Calms the Waves. All gao deal with this undpredictable and fearsome entity, and all can call on her powers of destruction at need. Dark whispers tell of gao who have even called The Wave that Swallows All down on their enemies.
Both men and women become gao, humans as well as zereshi. It is the sea that chooses them. Often, the local gao will be one kind, and their student the other. There are many zereshi in Aoya, and unlike in other places in the world, relations between the two species have overall been friendly, due to the policy of many High Kings to choose their advisors equally from both. In the words of the Aoyans themselves, they are one people of two kinds. They are Aoyans first, the People of the Sea, and human or not, second.
In similar fashion, Aoyans emphasise the village community over the importance of individual families: Each hut in a village is owned by the person, or persons, who built it, and lived in by the owners and whoever joins them. Some of these liaisons last a lifetime, others only a season. Sometimes a hut becomes too small, and a portion of its inhabitants builds a new hut. Children happen. Very often in the wake of ‘fun on the beach’. Although parents often live and raise their children together, a life-long monogamous marriage, such as is common in other parts of the world, is not custom. Babies and children are cared for by the entire village, and where that is possible, regardless of species. Quite often, certain huts develop a reputation for good child care, and might find themselves housing a large number!
Hunting, fishing and working the fields are similar community activities, where the bulk of the work might be done by certain huts, and the rewards divided among the entire village according to an ancient system.