Futures Minus Comeuppance

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“I hate the obligation to be mature.”

“Well, I hate hearing other people gripe about what ails them, and yet here we are.”

-Tol and Absalom Greeph, The Mind’s Doors Use Bodies As Locks, Act II

The smells were sharp, the sounds felt like they could cause an echo in the confines of a skull, and the humidity served to adhere cloth to bodies in the wake of last night’s rain.

Ktsn pulled the sack up, righting the hump that almost doubled her height on fastlegs. A sidestep here; a swinging creak around a corner there. Just behind a pair who were laboring to carry a lengthy pole bearing a trussed-up skinned animal. She scurried over unpleasantly moist heaps and trenches. She bent under one lean-to made by a wagon tilted against a wall. It was something she no longer needed her whole attention to do.

As a matter of fact, despite the fact she was hurrying a bit faster than strictly necessary, her step had a little ease in its follow-through.

Over the forty or so days since she and her partner-in-exploration had arrived in the strange place called Tienla-Gaphra, she’d occasionally needed to work to keep her spirit up. That was especially the case whenever she got stuck in the mire of wallowing through her “animal” status again – though she’d gotten assurances that that situation would soon change. Even so, a little kernel of satisfaction dwelled next to her heart, because she was nourishing and tending to a new life. She was both building a new place for herself and shoring up those around her.

She wasn’t happy, but she could call a small parcel of contentment her own.

As a matter of fact, she found herself becoming more able to put problems behind her with time. A major reason behind that placidity was her increased acclimation to a slightly unorthodox pursuit of academia.

Bits and pieces of that academic pursuit’s realization panned forth and back and forth and back through the river of mind. Not a couple little snippets of chatting and elucidation at Eihks’s behest, getting her thoughts and opinions down for solidarity. It was a bit uncomfortable when she was repeatedly asked to voice those thoughts and opinions on the fate of herself and her people.

She was taught about the basics of her adoptive society in Rhaagm; history (as messy and psychotically complicated as it was), philosophy, economics, some social etiquette. Days carrying out chores and odd jobs, nights lying on the ground while they chatted or lectured or – occasionally – joked.

She found it odd that he was hesitant to discuss a couple of topics. Once – on the sixth day of their stay – he even flat-out refused to delve into the subject of her interest: namely, the implications of herself becoming a Rhaagmini citizen. He’d been open to it at first, but then she’d resuscitated his words from back when he’d given her her mesh.

She’d asked about how it could be so difficult for a culture as advanced as his (theirs) to add to the count of their citizenry. He’d tensed.

“I am flattered that you pay such close attention to my words,” he’d muttered, low and uniquely severe for once. “But listen closely now. You’ll learn more on that subject when I deem you ready, and not before. It’ll do your mental health ill, I suspect. Until then, know this and nothing more: it’s a matter of combinatorics.”

He’d leaned back, a finger tapping his two-nostril nose.

“For now, put to good use what I HAVE taught you, and focus on branching out and stabilizing.”

So for now, she tried to put to good use what he HAD taught her, and focused on “branching out and stabilizing.”

She took note of the walking speed of the pedestrians around her.

She attempted to quantify the weird chalky taste of the air – ripe, darkly sweet.

She counted signs, and attempted to grasp a little of the written language. She failed, but didn’t let that stop her.

Faces around the town turned toward her, and she drew stares aplenty. Not a few of the watchers realized they’d witnessed a scene or two fairly like her current nimble hurrying, though, and diverted their worry energy elsewhere. “It’s that odd one again, with the saddlebags and the weird legs,” they were probably saying under their breath. It proved much easier to ignore them, given that she comprehended not a single blessed word.

An artfully-carved kiosk loomed out of the near bedlam. She opened wide the bag at her side, and snagged the little leather pouch that scooched around in its belly. Two claws waved, jingle-jangling the tokens within as she wove toward the kiosk. It made little enough of a racket in the noise-jammed street, but the intended person heard it.

Chelet, as he was known, was a shopkeeper with long dark hair that he somehow kept standing straight out from the back of his head, and a mustache that managed to curl over itself three times. His scarred face whipped around at the sound of business’s siren song. He recognized the figure that had been visiting him infrequently, since Fonlat had first instructed the one to rendezvous with the other. A wave beckoned her closer.

She set the bag down on his table. Another practical triumph of that novel idea of “currency.” Neat and odd.

Ktsn idly wondered if Rhaagm had yet introduced the idea of symbolic money to her own people in their ancestral home.

Chelet dumped the purse’s cargo and spread out her offering for inspection, counting up the contribution. A neat fan of metal disks, each with a dot of living-water at their center, glittered with a strangely happy welcome.

He reached back behind his racks of goods. Rummaging around, he drew forth two rolls of loosely spooled wire, and a brick of special-made wax that reminded her of a larger cerv-mesh just a little. He hesitated a moment when she offered both hands palm-up, then he placed the goods in her grip. From there, they got packed away in her most voluminous bag, on top of several other bundles of stuff she’d acquired.

She clapped her hands lightly to thank him, and this time Chelet just waved back at her without startling. They parted ways.

She had long since mastered the knack of orienteering her way around Tienla-Gaphra’s guts. The paths and gaps between buildings were less civil framing for free-standing structures, and more veins carved through a strange mine. Big landmarks were to be found in the few exorbitantly tall structures – like the stocky tower at the northern edge of the central square – and the distant hills and other terrain. 

She’d also experienced something odd that had never happened to her before in village living. This could have been the denser distribution of people around the land, or something else entirely. Specifically, she’d found benefit in mapping out not only geography and date, but time of day as well.

People became busy in the pre-dawn and post-dusk not merely around the wells and watch stations and other particular notable places, but all over the settlement. Lateness, earliness, in-between-ness all came and went. It struck her as quite arbitrary in some cases: one produce stand would be selling its wares to a bundle of pedestrians some fair time after the first sunset. Unless she was mistaken, two herders were almost always out in the fields with their flocks before anyone else even woke up – but it seemed random which two herders might actually get out at such a young hour.

It was strange in particular because it should have made the settlement more of a single cohesive organism and less of a collective of individuals… but if anything it had the opposite effect. Adaptation happened in a much tighter-knit environment than Goskec Tktl, yes. However, the organisms doing the adapting had a more carefree slapdash manner to their conduct than she was used to experiencing. That cavalier attitude followed certain patterns when viewed from afar. Fewer people were in positions of authority, and there was more motivation for each person to try and carve out a slice of that authority themselves.

In short, she got used to people being more interested in seeking solace in the consistency of regular behavioral tics. That in turn meant she expected the smaller southern end of the market area to be empty or near enough for quite some time.

As she passed through the market section, though, she saw a host of people jostling to get closer to the sides of the smallish plaza’s dais. It was a crowd that one simply couldn’t penetrate; less a forest of human trees and more of a massive rock with human designs upon it. The people shouted, the people waved, the people made a horrible beautiful messily choreographed spectacle. She got buffeted by a peculiar and nearly tangible stench, one that she’d come to associate with the village’s crowds when they got sufficiently dense.

On top and back from the lip of the dais stood one person, bearing a scroll and mouthing as though reading from it. Sadly, the assembly’s noise was such that even they probably couldn’t hear the reader. At the reader’s sides stood guards with long axes, dead-water heads nestled in sconces of metal. They each kept vigil over one side of the crowd, heads snapping to any sudden or overlarge motion. Ktsn noticed that a wide bag – or maybe scroll-case – at the reader’s side, as well as the metal-banded wooden helmets of the guards, had long thin devices of black and blue. She remembered seeing the same pattern exactly once before: on the garb of a person whom Eihks had identified as a messenger from Dōdielnan. She’d since gotten used to the idea of “royalty,” in theory if not in practice, and had made note of the design the visitor had worn.

Whatever they were saying, the combination of the villagers’ reception, the odd use of that special device, and the way that the trio on the stage were behaving convinced her that this was a very important thing she was witnessing.

Without making any conscious decision, she’d come to a halt, idling near the rim of the amorphous living geometry. Bags hanging with resentful lethargy received none of her attention. Instead, her eye became as thin as a blade of grass when the thicket of hands stopped flailing and started… “advertising” was the word she thought she wanted.

The reader looked out at the gathered crowd after a curt bumpy pronouncement, like a run-on of consecutive bilabial stops. The scroll was rolled up, and stored away in the case, before another similar scroll got withdrawn and partially unfurled onto some sort of handheld board. Into the figure’s free hand went a writing tool. Eager eyes slid out over the crowd, and the reader spoke a slow and lengthy grave phrase, tapping the side of the board.

A few seconds of relative near-silence blessed the gathering, then a brain-sanding cry went up. The volume was on par with someone lighting the entire crowd on fire, and it made Ktsn’s ears immediately pin themselves back.

From the edge of the crowd, a bent-backed man with a bent-backed beard clambered onto the dais. In his hands he gripped a smaller similar board, and the reader made a hand-sign at him. The sign was returned.

A magnificently florid wave from the reader silenced the crowd as thoroughly as a decapitation. The reader said something apparently in connection with consulting the board. Then, after making a mark on the sheet and coughing out another more eloquent phrase, the crowd’s hands and noise rose once again with fanatic intent.

Two sets of salutes shot up on the far side of the crowd. They were acknowledged by the reader with almost ebullient shouting. The reader’s sleeves flapped at the individuals, coy yet hard.

Another signal from just in front of Ktsn, accompanied by a short tirade. In quick succession, four more people made highly visible gestures. Only the last of these received recognition. Many more followed, building on each other to reach a towering din.

The gathering obviously served a couple of purposes. One of these was the dissemination of information to a wide swatch of locals. Further, the visitors seemed to have a special status; perhaps they acted on behalf of the ruling party or some proxy thereof. What made her really pause and consider the subject more, though, was how the residents of the village were getting involved with the proceedings. The rounds of hands raised and lowered in sequence, the rule-governed manic drive behind their enthusiasm (she’d never yet heard of tricks in a card game, or card games for that matter, but she might have made the comparison if she had). It put her vaguely in mind of the way Goskec Tktl periodically held a census for tracking births and deaths and travels to and from the village.

I will have to ask Eihks and see if he or Fonlat might have any confirmation about this meeting’s purpose.

Someone – maybe Gegaunli, maybe the Way which her human compatriot occasionally mentioned – had clear designs on seeing her will realized. No sooner did she think such a thing than a shorter wildly waving woman impossibly forced entry into the sentient morass. The clothing, posture, and hair of the figure gave Ktsn an inkling of her identity. The voice of the faintly audible shout, and the way that the people in her path practically merged with their neighbors in their haste to not be in her path, confirmed that the grumpy frumpy battleax employing the aliens was in attendance.

At a break in the din after one of the reader’s longer vocalizations, she pulped the air with a raucous shriek and upthrust fist. The reader pointed at her, and the noise picked up right where it had left off.

“Behind you,” a familiar voice comprehensibly and softly grunted.

Eihks’s long torso would have been perforated by claws, save that she’d started to expect him showing up at any time or place. He wasn’t looking straight at her as he came walking up beside her, frowning. Still, it didn’t take a genius to catch how his sweeping glances included her in their periphery.

Eihks slapped his thigh as he wordlessly tipped his head back in the direction from which he’d come.

A stiff walk away from the chaos of the scene, the people became an articulated river roar, then a vaguely wordlike gale, then a stiff rain of shouts and argument. Those people they passed on the way back to the workshop-cum-domicile were doing basic and lazy things. Teams of animals ran around the yards and squares with dull simple abandon. The only major remaining sounds were the barely-noticeable background rattle of water in aqueducts, and the crush of steps on hard ground.

It was like a holy day. Maybe it was just that, with gatherings and rituals utterly beyond the grasp of the uninitiated.

“We may be getting somewhere interesting now,” Eihks told her as they went around the back of the familiar building Ktsn had come to vaguely think of as “hers.” One quick detour allowed her to unload the goods she’d gone to fetch. As she pushed the stuffed bag over the partial wall into the workshop, a stirring sound greeted her. The curled shape of Tassy straightened out and stretched toward the little door, bending double before pushing her way through the opening. Not long ago, Ktsn would have shivered as the flowing form rubbed up against and wound around her legs, before licking her.

Now, she found herself having to avoid running a hand down the weird geography of the lanky creature. Tassy wasn’t a pretty animal, and yet she had become endearing in her own way. Ktsn supposed she had started looking at the whatever-she-was much like the Daephod estate’s livestock.

Some small changes for the better.

Once Ktsn made sure the groceries she’d retrieved were safely stored, she and Eihks retreated to their little shed. The day’s dull light filtered into the small free-standing room. She considered what Fonlat might say if she returned and found her assistant workforce taking their unauthorized leisure.

Well, come to think of it, the woodworker’s assigned tasks had been attended. Beyond the coarse cooked breakfast of grain and wheat they’d gotten that morning, they’d received nothing else yet. Under those circumstances, the thought that the pair felt it necessary to get more comestibles to fortify themselves against the rest of the day’s work wasn’t a sickness-born fantasy.

If some talking went on at the same time, there weren’t any rules against that, now were there?

“I assume you were curious about the auction in the middle of the village,” Eihks said, reallocating to Ktsn a good portion of the suet their landlady had given them. The karkshesh had come to realize he didn’t eat a great deal.

“I am curious about a great many things. But that is among them, yes.”

Eihks broke out into a broad half-face smile, the sort of look she’d come to associate less with mischief or light happiness, and more with discovery and attainment of progress. He hopped up and grabbed a few things from their roosting places around the shed, throwing them without looking so that they landed in or very near one of his open bags. Tassy snouted her way through the shed’s door just in time to get a small carved figurine – something the human had recently chiseled from the bamboo-composite stuff Fonlat used on a regular basis – bounced off the top of her head. It landed in the bag as well.

The long critter startled a little, then shook herself. She examined the shape that had ricocheted off what one might call her face. After a moment of such careful scrutiny, she attempted to pour herself headfirst into the largish satchel. It did not work.

Before Ktsn asked him what he was doing, the lanky form of Eihks held up one finger of one hand.

“Don’t count on it just yet, but I was talking with Fonlat earlier, and she’s optimistic about what today will mean for us. There’s a possibility of a big change in our fortunes.”

“A good change in our fortunes?” Ktsn probed. She made a shooing motion at the resident guard animal, and after a moment Tassy extricated herself. A few seconds later, eight legs powered themselves out the door in reverse, and Ktsn picked out the faint sound of the workshop’s small door flapping.

“An excellent change.”

Eihks paused as he picked up an article of clothing. Ktsn recognized it as the old blanket that had been tailored into a thin-cut jacket for her own use, as he held it out to her.

Having cleaned out the more covert nooks of the shed, he made a rickety almost-pirouette off his foot, punched one small crate from atop another, and reseated himself.

“It just so transpires that a few major changes have occurred in the capital of Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur. Some tremendous numbers of people recently immigrated to the city, after… well, lately things are getting a little complicated around this country, let’s say.”

He leaned sideways, elbow on knee.

“However, much of the time – though admittedly not always – nature abhors a vacuum. That includes the nature of thinking creatures, mind. So the following is happening: a lot of people are moving into an ecosystem at once. Those people are filling some of that ecosystem’s needs.”

Finger and thumb rubbed together in a circular polishing motion.

“Of course, this is a fiscal ecosystem as well. Money, my lady, money. If you have something you wish to attain, you need to expect to trade something.”

His eye glinted, as he specifically didn’t continue that thought to its conclusion.

“One would presume that one of the ecosystem’s needs not currently being filled is for a woodworker,” Ktsn offered. “But what does that have to do with auct-”

She stopped, silent, as she ran through possibilities. Finally, she quirked her head, listening to her own thoughts as an observer.

“Fonlat has gone and purchased a… something, in the capital,” she said. Her hands tightened. Without quite knowing why, she looked aside at the wide bowl she’d filled with dirt and used as a planter for her bamboo shoot. Several shoots, rather – after a very short time, the plant had gained enough height to require trimming.

It would need to be transplanted soon.

“Right in one!” Eihks chortled. “Actually, it’s quite interesting. There happens to be another woodworker in the village, name of Lurdir. He’s been training a couple of his apprentices for years, and they’re now ready to begin carving up wood on their own for the betterment of the community. HE wants a place to expand, and perhaps even take up a few more students.”

A flat hand snapped against the side of a crate, dislodging a large mote of dirty dust – or maybe dusty dirt, it was hard to tell.

“Coincidence of coincidences, one of the buildings in Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur happens to be the shell, or even the crypt, of another nexus of woodworking business.”

His face scrunched up.

“Well, I tell a lie; part of it used to be dedicated to the craft of woodworking, but it also had, and presumably even still has, the trappings of carpentry, masonry, ceramics, and textile industry. The apartment of interest, at least, is very well-suited for someone like our dear landlady.”

One hand reached out, and pushed some of the loose stuff he’d tossed around into his bag.

“So the other woodworking talent of the village has a home in this location. Fonlat, in her turn, has bartered for premises in Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur.”

“Presumably. This village is going to be the only one bidding on the goods that the accountant back there is announcing today. Most of the people in the area will hate to see Fonlat go, with the other woodworkers being excepted. Even so, they aren’t going to stand in her way if she’s interested in something. She doesn’t want much, and what she does, she does with a passion. I think you’d get along with her very well, in that respect at least.”

Ktsn snorted.

“I think we would either come to accept each other in some occupation, or we would be trying to tear each others’ throats out,” she said.

At Eihks’s raised eyebrow, she added, “You have gone over human psychology enough times in recent days for me to recite bits of it in my sleep. She may be angry or upset with me, and I know that I am terrified of her. At least, I am conditionally terrified of her pet.”

“And thus you’re concerned about coming to blows sometime.”

She ran a thumb across her head sideways, in front of her eyes. It wasn’t quite the same “don’t know” expression Eihks favored, but it was close.

Eihks diverted his attention to the corner of the shed. It was not distraction, and it was not a demonstration of desire to do something else; it was a piecing-together of language in an appropriate but maximally effective format.

“That’s another thing I wanted to discuss with you,” he said. “In fact, it’s why we left in a hurry, and why we didn’t bother hanging around even though Fonlat hasn’t given either of us orders for the rest of the day.”

In a motion both slow and bleedingly direct, his head smoothly turned toward her, and one of his hands raised toward her, palm up as though presenting an invisible offering.

“I think it’s about the right time we talked to our host about the topic of you.

“Now? Go and tell her that I have been a person this whole while? Sorry to mislead, but we have decided it is the proper moment to make some revelations?”

Eihks gave her an up-sign.

“Yes. Before we might move into the capital, at least.”

The man had not yet steered her wrong, as such. That wasn’t to say his decisions had never negatively impacted her; quite the opposite, in a sense. But two people couldn’t work together like they had without developing a modicum of innate unthinking reliance. Despite the thin shell of mistrust in Ktsn’s heart, rooted in her various minor and major degrees of betrayal, the explorer had taken more than one opportunity to put himself at her disposal.

Even if she couldn’t bank the unease of unsealing this particular subterfuge – regardless of whether she’d originally wanted to be known as a sapient – she could consciously decouple herself from crippling apprehension.

“Very well,” she conceded. “Although, do keep in mind: you must do the talking for now. I presently have an extreme aversion to augmenting my brain with more cerv-mesh features.”

Her claws quietly rattled. Eihks’s gaze lost some of its rigidity.

“I am very glad to hear that,” he said, picking himself up and walking over to the door. “Because our guest of honor is coming here right as we speak.”

Before she opened her mouth to ask the human what he meant, she heard the sound of enthusiastic steps coming closer.

“I am going to open the door,” Eihks told her. “When I give the signal, introduce yourself just as you might to a stranger visiting your village. Don’t worry about the words being comprehensible; either you’ll get understood without much difficulty despite everything, or I’ll translate for you if needed.”

“Very well,” she repeated, in a more pointed tone of voice. “But-”

Before she could follow that lexical lunge through with an argumentational thrust, the door flew open in a way not quite describable by the term “bursting.” On the other side of it stood Fonlat, whose face practically leaked suspicion. In one hand by her side she held a knife, and the other remained spread wide.

Behind her, Tassy nearly writhed with anticipation. The creature’s mouthparts gnashed a fevered constant flux, and the sound she made was slightly unsettling.

Fonlat’s gaze settled on Eihks, and the woman’s marginally wrinkled countenance wrinkled further. As he began to say something general and vaguely explanatory, she barked at him. There was a pause before his reply began unspooling, slow and implacable and pointing at the karkshesh on occasion. Ktsn’s name popped up twice.

The counterreply struck sparks. Fonlat’s muscles relaxed, her knife went back to its sheath, and her digits snapped with whiplike volume to ward off an attack or other intervention from Tassy. Despite that, the glacial way she comprehensively focused the entirety of her attention on Ktsn was the single most unnerving thing the karkshesh had experienced since leaving Rhaagm – and that included her encounter with the udnura, or sillywolf, or whatever it was.

A strung-together handful of syllables exuded from the shorter human, and Ktsn’s name was at the center. Eihks’s translation was entirely unnecessary, as he extended a hand and rolled it with a gentle “If you’d please.”

“My name is Ktsn Wdondf Daephod, lately of Rhaagm,” was the only response she could possibly give. “I greet you and pray that Gegaunli might uplift your bones.”

Eihks started to provide linguistic support, before he was brought up short yet again with widening eyes. His head ratcheted around so fast that it should have continued spinning and come unfastened from his neck, at a soft and tremulous something-or-other from the other woman. That shaking quality of her voice was joined by a shaking in her arm; one finger extended like the chisel of Do-Ag-Dr-Susup making the map of the world, and it was extended at the partly-risen karkshesh.

Another short question from Eihks, and another short reply from Fonlat.

“Interestingly enough, I think things are a bit simplified for little old you and little old me,” he remarked to Ktsn a moment later. It was the sort of manner she would have called “breathless” if she knew he found breathing necessary. His lips pressed together so tightly that the fleshy pink exterior edges completely vanished, and his eyes shut with infinite care as he leaned back against an elbow.

“It’s certainly not from Rhaagm or any other place outside of the facet, but apparently Fonlat’s mother was also from… somewhere else.”

He tapped the side of his head as his and Ktsn’s stares met.

“A bit like us.”

Gegaunli save all people from interesting developments.

Ktsn both realized, and utterly failed to appreciate, the humor in that thought.

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