“If broken things look the same after their fixing, you court the same problem.”-Ast aaned proverb
“Sorry about the mess,” said the tall human, hunching over a little cabinet and pulling a variety of objects from its flat top, while he stared at a collection of glowing symbols on its side. Many of these objects he threw into the air, and Ktsn noticed the way they jinked and swung at awkward unnatural angles, prolonging their flight for half a heartbeat here and there. They moved onto shelves, and a desk, and over in one corner by a large backpack or rucksack or something. She turned to the shelf, keeping her other eye on the remainder of the room.
She glanced over the assortments of goods stacked absolutely everywhere. Some were blatantly obvious in their function or meaning, like a little whistle of bone. Most, however, had impenetrable purpose, such as a fat clay urn atop a set of shelves which jostled and cooed at distant intervals. A stand for holding clothing by the side of the shelf was doing its job, uplifting Eihks’s clothing on a thin sprouting staff near its apex.
At least, she assumed that was the stand’s job – but she’d need to start making SOME assumptions about this brave new world. Unless she wanted a thick layer of I-don’t-know covering everything and systematically undercutting her ability to reason, appearance of function needed to be assumed as representing intended use until otherwise proven.
This philosophy warmly embraced, she immediately had to eject her new epiphany, when the cabinet over which Eihks hunched made a soft noise and then opened to disgorge some manner of food.
“Here,” said her host, “I think you might like this.”
He set it on the edge of the table, then pulled the chair he’d located for her over to its side. Noting the new messy sprawl of those things he’d relocated from the food-box’s top, he started picking up several of the larger offending articles. These he tossed onto the shelving as well. One of these was a long-bladed dagger, the looping lazy swing of which she noticed slightly after it came within a handspan of her ear.
“Ach, wait,” he grunted, and held out a hand. The dagger whipped out sideways – away from her head – and returned to his hand. He laid it out next to the dish, and Ktsn realized that it was actually quite blunt.
He placed next to it a series of several other implements, each of which must have been eating utensils as imagined by a mind very very different from her own. A fork, and a leash, and a knife, yes. There was also a scoop, and a spiny-ball thing. At either end of the utensil lineup sat little triangular scalloped shapes that were too small for knives, but too large for… what in Gegaunli’s name were you supposed to do with-
“Just the fork and knife should do you fine,” said Eihks, his legs folding as he descended into the seat that he’d gotten for himself. The anterior side of the seat had a vertical plane against which his back rested. That back-rest, in fact, was almost comfortable-looking when he used it.
The farmer briefly wondered how well she might be able to maintain such a pose, and quickly realized that while technically possible for short periods, the experience would be an imposition.
Not sure what she was seeing, but suddenly realizing that she was actually hungry enough to try the whatever-it-was plated before her, Ktsn picked up the knife and fork, hefted them, and started trying to cut through a shank of some kind of meat. Carefully, she lifted and tasted it.
It was oddly textured and not particularly strong-scented, but the flavor almost made her gasp.
Her crushing teeth kept splitting fibers and making room, until her mouth was empty enough to converse again.
“You call me – us – karkshesh.”
“You many are karkshes; you as an individual specifically are a karkshesh. More specifically, of the Gegaunli subvariety.”
“Is that what you call anyone who is not a human?”
“No. As it happens, there are numerous other names we have for other kinds of people. You recall that pohostinlat lady back at your home?”
“The red one with the ears longer than yours, you mean?”
“Just so. That’s her kind; just like there is the human kind, and the karkshesh kind, and so on.”
Hands waved and spun various meanings into the air.
“There are a great number of non-thinking kinds, of course – gpsl nuson, and rugfos, for example. Also, we have a distinction between biologically different kinds and legally different kinds that we can go into more detail about at some future point; not especially relevant just now.”
“I see,” remarked Ktsn, after another chew-swallow cycle.
“To be additionally clear, the other creatures which we call karkshes look somewhat different from yourself, like so.”
He generated another image for her edification right next to her on the table, almost making her shove her plate at it until she realized it was also a not-there visualization. It was… well, she could see why he had to include a phrase containing both “somewhat” and “different” in his descriptor.
“Wow,” she mumbled around more of the strange meat, and obtained a bit more as she perused the moving depiction. It didn’t have any of the patterns of pelage that she herself possessed, but it had the same density of coat. Its eyes weren’t laterally located, but they did have the proper orientation instead of the screwed-sideways flat setup of the human eyes watching her even now. Its limbs wouldn’t let it turn over and make use of highleg-fastleg postures, but at least it had four of them.
She wasn’t sure what to think about it.
As she continued chewing, she contemplated further the many varieties of people she’d seen living around the vast expanse of Rhaagm.
Then she froze, stuck inside herself, at the thought of how – if his evidence was to be believed – she might technically be the only living thing in Eihks’s place of residence.
“Tell me,” he said, and she slowly looked up to see his mouth pursed in an obscene forward-pushed knot. One finger on one hand extended, curved, and rapped the top of his head.
“You’re curious about my being dead. Correct, or no?”
She blinked. He waved.
“Part of what I and the other volunteers for your rehabilitation project had in our learning material includes how to read and understand your body language. PARTS of it, at least, though I suspect with less than optimal ability. Now, with that said, there were literally people camped outside my door waiting to learn about just the subject you’re pondering. Granted, you wouldn’t have an interest for the same reasons as they do.”
A thumb reached up, and swept sideways across his face above his eyes.
“That’s neither here nor there. The point is, I’m pretty confident you’d like to know more.”
“I would,” she admitted. At his cocked-head look she began powering down more food at speed, trying to mollify her interrogative sterility with obvious appreciation for his skills as a meal provider.
She took a second to swallow, and slowly start in on a collection of sliced-up red things, as he closed his eyes and leaned back.
“Forgive me,” he softly murmured after five or six breaths, “this isn’t a story I’ve actually told any single person in full before, though a couple have heard most. A long while ago, I was a different person from who I am today. Not bad – there are no bad people, only broken people, every one of us. But I’m glad I’m different from that person now.”
He rose, not smoothly, and started pacing. He kept one of his eyes trained on her, while the other one spectated the underside of its eyelid. Vocalizations dropped suddenly and drastically, to below her own usual pitch and timbre.
“A younger me, when just starting to get interested in the sort of work I do today, was traveling down the streets of Rhaagm. To somewhere. From somewhere. Mostly not relevant, except that some absolute cherry of a driver struck me with the broad side of a luxury disk.”
At her bewildered look, he sniffed and hummed, “Let’s just say that those things weigh more than enough to murder any person with whom they collide, barring significant protective measures. Alas, I had no such protective measures. Very shortly afterward, once I had slipped the mortal coil, a man came along. A delver, as they’re known – people that specialize in finding and curating interesting random and unsorted information for anyone who might pay. Often, they sell accounts of what they know to people like those carrion eaters outside.”
A thumb indicated the portal to the exterior, a bladeless knife thrust.
“In the case of the man who found me, he felt confident someone would want the man who’d killed me to Get In Trouble. He decided an interrogation would be for the best, and brought me back from the dead. Now… for reasons known to him and whatever deities happen to consider knowing worthwhile, he decided to use one of these things, made from redmetal.”
The toneless click of something tapped through cloth drew her attention to the inside of his leg.
“These things, arcane caps, are part of a special discipline of magic that is very, very illegal to practice without lots of precautions. They’re usually constructed from materials like bone or glass. Redmetal (or anankite, as we call it) is extremely close to indestructible. Very time-expensive to make, as such things go. I assume he would’ve ripped it out again after he was done questioning, and let me expire. Unfortunately for him, my getting revived started causing a scene, and I didn’t have anything useful: no description of my killer, no identification for the disk. I was barely capable of language. It was… messy.”
Being honest with herself, Ktsn was pretty sure she had successfully parsed his attitude on the subject, and found it maniacally cavalier.
“You are very comfortable with talking about how you died,” she said, mildly.
“Not nearly as much as you might think. Even so, it happens to people all the time,” he quipped, hands swung apart and teeth peering out of a crooked cavern. “In truth, it’s not generally so problematic for us. We have a great deal of medical technology, and even methods of cheating death under the right conditions, so… geh. Not important. Can’t focus.”
A quick pause descended on them both when a jar resembling a downsized version of Ktsn’s new pithos rocked on the top shelf by the door.
The human stared intently at it for several seconds, before he declared, “NO.”
When no further movement came, he waved once more, and poked the little box on the back of his neck.
“It’s not strictly illegal to be affected by Tufcich craft, like myself; only to practice it. That doesn’t mean that such people are treated the same as everyone else, and with good reason. We’re dangerous, very dangerous, to almost everybody – even creatures that have immunity to most other kinds of magic. If they get the chance, one Tufcich can become two, then four, then eight. Not always – the arcane cap I’ve got has put dampers on me. Instincts suppressed or highly subdued, emotions a little bit wonky, and no compulsion to communicate the affliction. I can’t pass it on without quite some difficulty. Granted, even if I did, the affected people would die shortly after, since they wouldn’t have a cap like mine to keep them ‘alive,’ but… well. It spreads very fast when it starts.”
He pressed his long fingers together, peering at her with eyes like cuts scored into his face.
“To give you an idea of what I mean, if you became a Tufcich back in the vicinity of your village, then I estimate that every living animal on the continent you call home would be overtaken with the same condition within five to eight days. Possibly a bit more, though not by much. There are a few documentaries for the basis of that particular estimate, but you shouldn’t watch them while eating.”
He huffed, lips trailing after their expulsed air.
“In any case, I just didn’t tell people, and they just didn’t put it together. Except for fewer individuals than you could count on one hand, and some very capable professionals in certain branches of our government, nobody knew. I was nervous for years that I’d get an official visit from an official somebody who wanted me to do an official favor. Never happened, thankfully.”
He gestured, a twitchy flip of the head.
“But then, you came along, and ruined it all. And in a way, I have you to thank for a material improvement in my life and style of living.”
Ktsn froze as she was shoveling a pile of coily legume-things into her mouth.
“Why?” she asked.
“Several reasons. Relief that I no longer have a threat which could be used to leverage me. The fact that the secret’s existence no longer needs constant guard. Most significantly, I have cultivated a reputation for complete honesty and forthrightness for a long time, and – with this single monstrous deception out of the way – that reputation is shattered. Now, I have the chance to take those pieces, and see if I can make them into something better.”
A sideways shuffling almost-stumble. He returned to his seat, balancing his head on the backs of his hands, not looking at her as she set down her utensils.
“Of course, there’s more to it than that, but that’s the essential outline.”
He glanced over the remains of Ktsn’s food.
“But enough about me,” he said. “Please, do tell your story, if only the relevant parts. I think it’ll help.”
Ktsn prodded at the base of her mind, debating what ought to be told foremost. In a fit of magical whimsy she decided she DID want to continue eating the beanish stuff, picked up her fork, crammed another helping of it down her gullet, then resumed her placid poise.
“I suppose so,” she agreed.