“When Aaaaaaoan the Speaker gave the gourd full of long-life tincture to Wingless Reeerssseemd, it was the last of the Speaker’s baubles to give. Even so, the greatest and wisest of the many warriors to pay homage during that visitation – Fooeeeeheiiiii Most-Blessing – came forth and asked for the Speaker’s judgment in the form of an omen-object. And the Speaker retreated to think on the subject for a time. After a fourteenth of a cycle, the Speaker returned to Fooeeeeheiiiii Most-Blessing, with the bullroarer of Aaaaaaoan’s predecessor. Seven sections its grip had, a portion for each digit, and its weighted end was black heartstone. ‘What is this?’ asked Fooeeeeheiiiii upon receiving the gift. The Speaker answered, ‘It is called Loooooosaaan Daraaaaaad. It remembers the words spoken in its company, and it will award you with talents of its own choosing, suited to your person.’”–The Lay of Lusendrad
A fine bit of irony. Not even three days since coming to the Parsed City-State of Rhaagm, and already there was another society that needed infiltrating.
Ktsn threw another double-handful of cones into her sack, then moved along farther down the path she’d mapped around the trees’ bases. Hers was an erratic speed, but when she took a step forward she knew that she already had the only useful cones that had been in the exited section of forest floor. Her digits were quite sticky, and the one time she’d tried to remove the gunk by licking the affected hair all she got was an awful taste in her mouth for her trouble.
Meanwhile, Eihks flitted from place to place, picking through the most densely-clustered bundles of cones and then moving again. His slippery inconsistent travel meant he had already come close to filling an entire sack. She assumed that the new-to-her concept of eidetic memory management was the only reason he was able to keep track of his progress.
At first, that struck her as a difficult-to-justify concession. Turning the matter over in her head for a while, though, eventually yielded worthwhile perspective. How long had he lived with the amenity of unlimited remembering capacity at his disposal? Assuming it was from birth, it might not even be something he considered special or noteworthy. Another possibility, if something she considered eminently unlikely, was that no method existed for turning such a luxury off.
Actually, hang on there.
What would it mean to have one’s memory suddenly wiped out in part or in whole? He’d hinted that something to that effect had happened to him after he’d been killed and resuscitated, but only obliquely. Could he recall the nuances of his pre-death reasoning and personality? Did that make him a different person from who he’d been? She would most certainly be the first to side with those who argued one’s past formed an integral part of one’s identity. How much, if any, of his memories could be erased before he stopped being one Eihks and started being another?
Asking very strange and arguably pointless questions had been part of her pursuit of academia with her jar experiment, but now many of those questions suddenly gained new and very sharp angles. If she wished, she was sure her companion could tell her all about the benefits of brushing up on theory and other such imponderables through her cerv-mesh’s teaching ability. Yes, she liked learning. No, she wasn’t ready to try learning that way just yet.
But wasn’t that exactly what had happened to give her the ability to speak Rhaagmini?
She swore quietly when she squeezed a cone a bit too hard. The splintery flakes didn’t come out of her hand easily.
No. That was different – just a single imparting of a lot of objective data.
Sure, it was different – the whole process and the nuances of moving incorporeal data around proved so transparent and easy and basic to understand, after all; perfectly straightforward to grasp all the many implications of such a revolutionary concept.
Well, if it’s so complicated, then maybe she ought to study it, and-
A crunch among the many field sounds heralded a footwrap accidentally smashing a cone flat. A glance at the bottom of her foot confirmed its destruction. The sole had yet more little broken stabby fragments sticking out. She surveyed the other cones in the miniature forest, a thousand treasures among ten thousand similar-looking scraps of garbage.
“You sound like you have something on your mind,” the man said. “Please enlighten me, or us, or whichever – there aren’t any other people around to overhear.”
His mouth was muffled by a thick coating of grass across his whole upper body. It rustled as he dug through the tangle for more sticky woody gemstones.
She probably ought to inquire deeper about the mechanics of a cerv-mesh, so she’d stop being so conflicted and unsure about the subject.
“When are you going to make recording material?” Ktsn asked, both fields of vision scraping the environment for any possible surprises. “However it is that you do that, precisely.”
She subconsciously tried to rub the stickiness of her one hand off on the inside of her sack. All she managed was sticking herself to the sack. The effort paused a moment when a weird warbling came from the direction of the nearby river, and her ears pricked back.
“What do you mean, exactly?” came the sacking-muffled reply.
“I mean that you want to create material on our trials and travails – when is that process going to start?”
She bent and grabbed another cone. This one was green nearly to its edges inside its flaky scales, though. She dropped it again.
“I recall you spent a fair amount of your journey talking for the benefit of the… audience? Reader?”
“‘Audience’ is the preferable of the two, both will do.”
“I have heard very little of you talking aloud besides to me or the people of Tienla-Gaphra thus far. Since you almost certainly do not want to be considered a madman, I would assume you intend to record your important sections of our journey in the evening, or in seclusion.”
He stood up, throwing several more cones into his sack. It was beginning to bulge a good deal, so he tethered it to his shoulder, secured it, and opened another.
“Ah. To answer your question, then, I’ve had a few opportunities to address our audience directly so far. However, I’ve been recording with my sensory suite essentially since the instant we set foot on… whatever the local name for this planet is.”
Seeing her sudden shift in body posture, he ran a thumb sideways across his forehead.
“That’s how it normally goes – capture absolutely everything, and trim or adjust what’s shown later once the raw content’s there.”
He stopped, eyes squinting, and peered at her.
“I’m sorry; that was a bit ill-phrased of me. Nothing that happens here with you and me is going to be seen or consumed by anyone until I give the say-so. No broadcasting of this material as it’s made, no making this stuff available before it’s curated.”
He prodded the back of his neck.
“Editing is the majority of the battle, after all.”
She tossed another cone into the bag. Thomas’s voice implored her to trust the man before her, but she’d had too many surprises in far too little time to feel confident in giving that trust away. Eihks had been honest enough in every respect where she could verify his words and other promises, but he hadn’t been telling her absolutely everything either.
Yes, because telling her absolutely everything she could ever want to know would be an easy short painless experience.
“If you say so,” she grumbled.
He checked their surroundings, spending a few long seconds on watching the direction from which they’d come.
“I say so, but I’ll also show so,” he murmured. It came out quietly enough she barely heard it.
“Here’s what I mean. No, look. Actually look.”
Her view swung aside to focus on him, where his fingers emerged from his person with another of those “holojectors” in their grasp. Without a word or other discernible trigger, the unnatural shape belched forth a small three-dimensional play. It depicted the clearing they’d beheld on first arriving at the facet, but as seen from Eihks’s height.
When she saw herself, a cold flame lit in her belly. It wasn’t a mirror sensibly matching her actions. For the first time she understood what people had meant when they said she walked like her father.
A chorus of wind-rattled bamboo canes, then she heard “Bamboo!” from the ether. A long lopsided limb reached out to point at the stuff. “Or an analogue, at least.”
The nearest pole of stiff greenish grass got yanked back, and as the displayed view moved downward it brushed against a white armor-plating of little ceramic bits attached to cloth. They made a battery of chirping noises when the hand let go and the bamboo sprung back into its original posture, rattling the chips with its passing.
More of the bits and pieces of their first look at the planet played out before her. When the sillywolf creature that had attacked her showed up, though, it was in the middle of a wild thrashing noisy chaos, which ended with the animal’s death. Its head got kicked off into the distance after Eihks declared that he’d destroyed the beast.
“That part will need a bit of extra work; the tools I use don’t find it terribly easy to patch up a segment with that much going on. The scene will need a bit of reworking so the beastie gets rotated and latched onto my arm, me fighting it, an after-action explanation that I was giving a demonstration as to how one fends off these kinds of predators…”
He sounded both embarrassed and cross, unless she was mistaken.
“Anyway,” he said when they got to the point of their walking out of the little section of sort-of-wooded-ground, “This is the raw form of what’s going to be what gets changed around and sent out to the greater community.”
The little device went back into the thick bramble of his possessions, vanishing without a trace.
“I’ll have a version with you purged from the proceedings, until you give me approval for using your likeness.”
“Very well,” she replied.
They continued picking up the refuse of the forest for another twenty minutes or so, before they were judged sufficiently encumbered. She led the way back to the squat structure of Fonlat’s home. Eihks kept walking in weird freeform paths to avoid the more uneven territory. If she’d carried the same volume of material between Goskec Tktl and her little cabin, Ktsn probably would have needed several breaks and a bit of food and water. Under the prevailing conditions, she felt like she could have carried twice as much and still finished the trip.
She prolonged the journey back to the house by a minute or two, purposefully moving slower and more carefully than normal, when she noticed a shadow cast by a soaring skyward shape.
Yes, the things (which Eihks had assured her weren’t actually birds, something that was exothermic and viviparous) spooked her a little bit less now. That didn’t make it comforting when they came within twenty meters, peering down at her with their weird chopped-up faces.
Just as the cone expedition returned to Fonlat’s abode, they met the woman herself exiting the building. She held a cemented-together bunch of bamboo in the shape of a very long thin plank over a shoulder.
Ktsn’s companion said something while he was still catching up, somewhat indistinct but still attention-getting. The other human’s pace dropped to zero as she swung the weight around, head cocked. The plank was actually secured in place with a wrapped band of water. The “strap” bent but didn’t break as she slowly twisted, swinging the plank to avoid hitting anything and anyone. Fonlat’s face grew more wrinkled, then she barked something a lot more loudly than her little frame ought to have allowed.
The reply to her observation had the same sort of level, evenly-projected quality Eihks had used when first talking to her; reassurance of a sort, if his tone meant the same thing across the language barrier. As he pulled even with Ktsn’s rear legs, he waved one of his sacks around. The cargo made a deceptively hollow-sounding rattle. Fonlat made some impenetrable observation in response, and Eihks gave a little chuckle. Their sort-of-employer set down her load, then returned indoors. Before she vanished inside she made a come-hither gesture at them.
Several emptied sacks and a large overfull container later, a wooden bowl laden with hot meat and fruit was given to the lanky man. A sort of trencher lay before the karkshesh, filled with largely similar uncooked contents as well as a healthy ration of something grain-like. When he decided to switch their respective meals, Eihks got a short pungent statement from their meal provider. He waved at her, using his hands to accompany whatever yarn he spun in response. Fonlat threw her head back, whipping her long hair around, and went off without another word.
The smell of prepared food made Ktsn’s lips peel back with barely-restrained appreciation. Using only the tips of her claws to avoid any more sap-taste, she started picking through the dish as fast as was dignified.
After her first bite her enthusiasm dampened.
It wasn’t… bad, exactly. It did taste like the meat had been raised on a diet of extraordinary amounts of iron, and it was stringier than any lean flesh had the right to be. She blinked, and the fruit vanished. She drained the bowl of water which had been set out for her. The rest of the meat shortly followed.
She was hungry, after all.
Gegaunli uplift your bones, she thought at their host, licking her outer teeth dry. Face groomed, no residue left where it would make her seem uncivilized. The last bit of water went to washing a bit of the stickiness from her fingers. Very little, but enough to win some minor satisfaction – like pulling a single weed from an overrun field.
Meanwhile, Eihks had completely cleaned the vessel she’d originally received. She thought back, and realized this was the first time she’d ever seen him actually consume anything. It was an only barely neat kind of eating. Lips licked repeatedly like a cloth wiping down a table. Little quieted huffs in between swallows. It struck her as an act of imitation.
The human muttered under his breath after setting the bare wood implement down, then wiped his fingers clean on the sides of his clothing. Still he ran his tongue around his lips. It made her shiver a second, before he rose and announced something in the direction of the building.
Fonlat appeared almost immediately, wearing thick leather garb. Around her arms and waist a few bands of coherent water pulled the material taut, in addition to the harness still across her torso. Her answer lasted for a long while, obviously detailing instructions or permissions with a good deal of forethought. When Eihks tried to interpose a word, she pointed a long beat-up awl and continued slightly louder. At a break in the presumed tirade, he gave a curt acknowledgement of some kind. Then he took off his outer upper-body layer and left it in the yard, starting back along the path they’d taken from that morning’s refuge.
“Ktsn!” he said to her, waving. Without a sound, she rose and obliged his unspoken instruction to follow.
Back at their undignified bedding-down spots, they gathered up the worldly goods they’d left, and ferried them over to the… well, it was obviously a workshop of some kind, but also presumably a house. People left the buildings they passed as they walked the morning street, going from here to there with all manner of possessions and other freight. Some of them were obviously professional, others not so much.
At least, she thought so.
As they returned to their place of “employment,” she noticed Trehal standing just outside the door with the globe beside it, accompanied by a couple of men. They had bamboo poles in hand, but not held in any way she would have called threatening. Fonlat emphatically spoke at them, and when one of the unknown spear-carriers tried to ask or say something, she barrelled right over him just as she had with Eihks. As the laden travelers approached, she caught notice, and idly gestured in their direction. Both the armed men looked at the prompting.
Either a bad development or a good one, and since no spear-leveling was in evidence the latter seemed a safe assumption for the time being.
Trehal made a complicated signal with his free hand, touching the watery coil at his side, then stepped back just as the aliens drew within easy chatting distance of the gathering. He said something to the tall man from Rhaagm. The tall man from Rhaagm answered with a couple of monosyllables, punctuated by a hoist of his gathered belongings. More words went back and forth in a messy slurry, semi-formal and semi-respectful.
Both the guards walked off at a tranquil pace, giving and getting a few greetings or callouts from the other citizens as they left, as Eihks said something further to the resident of the house. She folded her shirt, and started around the side with a brusque step. She drew up a bit short when a very long fluid shape came out the door from behind her.
“Tassy!” was one of the very few sounds the karkshesh had learned to recognize, and the lanky creature answering to that name left an equally recognizable impact on her. It darted straight to Fonlat’s side and remained there for a moment before bounding forward past her. The creature moved with lithe ease on those eight short legs, reminding a little of a gpsl nuson.
Nobody could actually mistake the one for the other in profile, of course. However, it had that same air of barely-refraining-from-violence endemic to gpsl nuson herds during mating season. The dish-headed creature fluttered around without letting slip any outward sign as to its frame of mind. Many tiny tells speckled its behavior, though, and the majority of them suggested that they were walking in the company of a predator.
Tension almost drove a hand back to the handle of Ktsn’s pickax. Her fear only dimmed to a faint ember after she administered patient self-reassurance. Assaulting the domesticated animal of their host would PROBABLY not go over terribly well, and a bit of retrospection also convinced her that Eihks wouldn’t let the creature maul her, no matter the consequences for their mission.
Tassy’s path swerved around the side of the house, before the leggy form came folding back over itself to check on the progress of its three pets. A yipping noise came from an opened chasm on the edge of the head as fleshy protuberances snicked out, then the creature continued on its original route when Fonlat clicked her tongue. Obviously it knew where it was going, and Ktsn assumed that was where they were all going.
She was proven right when they came upon a fat low wide-door outbuilding, which looked like it had already been there when the village had been first founded, or discovered, or whatever. The beast’s short frontmost feet prodded at the closed door. Its head butted the side until Fonlat came up, withdrew the latch, and swung the entryway open.
The place where they were going to be permitted to stay was thoroughly watertight, obviously. Boxes and containers stood around the large single room, holding silent session. Some of the crates were quite tall, and the shadows weaving around the interior completely cocooned their tops. Many of the containers held water, to judge by the sound of gentle sloshing as Fonlat pushed some aside. Bamboo piping ran across the building, weaving between apparatus and work tools spanning the range from blindingly-clear-in-purpose to I-could-not-tell-you-what-this-thing-does-if-my-life-hung-in-the-balance.
Tassy ran into one corner, hindmost little legs knocking a crate aside. A noise chirruped from the darkness. After some scrabbling, the legs backed slowly out. The head attached to them held a fabric and wood object, playfully wringing it as it was brought out into the light.
Precisely what passed between the two humans in the next several minutes, Ktsn couldn’t say. It didn’t take long for a little nest to be assembled in a corner of the shed, though. A large cushion went down for her benefit, and a few supplies got unpacked and set out around the close yet surprisingly roomy space. While the karkshesh helped with the organization and arrangement, their host disappeared without warning. It was just the two of them once again. Their tidying was illuminated a little from the small windows near the top of the shed.
“Not a bad start,” Eihks remarked. “Not bad at all.”
He draped a curious colorless blanket around the back of Ktsn’s selected sleeping spot.
“We are not done for the day, surely?” she prodded.
“No, we’re not. But our dear landlady has afforded us a couple of hours to get settled and nap.”
A couple more boxes got dislodged from their comfortable resting places.
“I’ll be honest: it’s probably a good idea to tell her about you.”
“Oh, and ruin the secret before even a complete day of being here?”
She busied herself with looking over her tools and such, doing a bit of housekeeping. She also glanced over the bamboo specimen she’d acquired, as well as a stunted sapless cone from their scavenging duties.
“I understand that she’s travelled quite a great deal before settling down here. She’s also curious, never having even heard of such a striking specimen as yourself. Also also – and this is an inference from her behavior on several levels – I suspect she’d care very little about exploiting the information that you are my actual partner and not just a critter. Conversely, there’s the sense that she’d care very much about the implications of trusting her with such a story.”
Ktsn’s pickax slapped into the side of a fluid-filled container as she turned a bit more quickly than she intended. The chaotic slish-slosh sounded like the way her insides were busily tumbling around and over each other.
“As you think best,” she intoned. It was the same way she’d someday recite the proper words over her family’s bones, if she were asked to perform the ceremony of their rites.
Eihks made a small grunt, the beginning of a syllable pruned down.
“Yes?” she asked. In her periphery, she noticed him seated on a crate by the wall while leaning against another. Eyes closed, mouth slightly open, the first finger on his hand wagging back and forth as though keeping time to music only he could hear.
“Nothing right now. I do have something for you, though, at some later time. It should also go without saying that-”
“Yes, you shall respect my wishes and not do anything so uncivilized as giving up my secrets without my agreement. You have made that clear.”
The long figure slid down the crate to the floor, jellylike in consistency.
“They say that home is where people take you in despite their distaste in doing so,” he said, flopped down so that his arms, back, and neck all lay perfectly flat on the floor, but his head kept a perfect quarter-turn angle against the crate’s side.
“‘They’ being you, I would assume.”
“Myself and many humans as well as other assorted extrafacetary citizens.”
“I have noticed that you use quite a few abnormal turns of phrase.”
“Ah? Yes, you and most nearly everybody else.”
“‘Shut up and talk,’” she quoted him, in the hopes that he would actually get to the point.
“Heh. Very well. In a sense, and for today at least, welcome home,” he told her, rising to a sitting pose. His was a close-eyed gently recurved smile, arms spreading out to embrace the meager but measurable comforts of their shack.
She weighed a spectrum of possible responses, but eventually she started to give him a not-quite-grudging thank-you.
What came out of her instead was a familiar sort of intonation, but bound up with a thin ribbon of urgency.
“The kingmaker shall come from far places, to wield the powers and the plating of stars. The king shall make one terrible mistake and condemn many to a life of misery. The strangers shall unite king and kingmaker. This is a semaphore, quickly given and quickly abandoned.”
A long silence followed, then Eihks squawked and slipped against the wall.
“Methinks that we’re in for a fun time. Absolutely perfect.”