“The last and most deplorable betrayal is to face a person you call friend for a final time, bearing a hard and caustic truth – then tell them a comforting lie instead.”-Inscription on the front of the Scule building, at the Kinsmen College of Information-Integrity Preservation
The suns were – simply put – flagrantly too bright.
After moving into the new venue she’d purchased, and making the little houselike structure into a homelike structure, the lady known as Fonlat had wasted no time in offering her woodworking. Largely due to a few rumors of her skills that predated her arrival, she managed to get a few decent tendrils sunk into channels for supply and provision. Several of these arrangements had been made before she’d even reached Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur, establishing the details on the heels of her real estate acquisition. Others were a bit more involved.
So, as Ktsn blinked the facing daggers of freshly broken day out of her pupils every four footsteps or so, she stumbled Southeast. She made a heroic effort to keep her brain inside where it belonged, but clearly the privilege of booze gave it pretenses. It wanted to get out! See the world! Travel abroad!
According to her companions, the ability to move in a straight line was quite a useful skill (though Eihks did admit that a cerv-mesh made such things possible for everyone). Thus, armed with payment, she journeyed in her straight line way to a rendezvous with capitalist ventures.
“I am never ever drinking that much at once again,” she muttered under her breath in her own language. It came out as a series of half-whispered stony grunts and snorts, even if the hypothetical listener understood her homeland’s tongue.
The converse couldn’t be said about the people around her.
She hadn’t anticipated the challenge she was making for herself. As it transpired, hearing people talking around her and even – especially – knowing that she shouldn’t respond in words, she felt subtly pushed to reply. It wasn’t just when she passed what she assumed was a brother-sister pair, and one of them blurted something to the other about the “scary tooth-monster” before stepping out of her way. Besides being insulting, it was also wrong, annoying, and not a bit depressing to hear herself thus described. She felt compelled to reply in remedial terms, possibly with a biting criticism of inebriation.
She found herself slowing when she heard a broad-chested guard tell his companion that it was a simply beautiful start to a day. They weren’t talking about her, they weren’t looking at her. From their vantage facing away down a side-street toward the horizon’s upward glow, they probably didn’t even know she existed.
However, looking at an azimuth just far enough from the suns to avoid fire-eye, she definitely agreed.
THAT, ironically, was the closest she came that morning to idly saying something distressingly comprehensible aloud.
While she walked onward, she cut glances to one side or the other, taking in the scenery. Despite a piquant floatiness to her present-moment lucidity, the sense of that’s neat still vigorously jotted notes for her. Notes that she would journal later.
She found a pump setup, for example, that was quite unlike the others she was used to seeing around this corner of civilization. It used the water from two aqueducts to fling a big wheel around, but with the wheel housed in a spring-loaded groove that moved it parallel to the direction of water flow. Slowing to a stop, she realized – or thought she realized – that the contraption made use of the mechanical advantage to accommodate very different inflow rates.
Maybe she was still a bit drunk.
The curiosity vanished behind her as she continued onward, rounding a bend, going over a short dirt-covered bridge and under a breezeway connecting two stone buildings. She had a fair idea of exactly where she needed to go. She didn’t, unfortunately, know precisely what would happen when she got there.
“The place with the black sign and four living-water sconces” was very descriptive, probably easy to spot when lined up next to several others, and absolutely nowhere in sight.
The road almost seemed to rattle under her when the dirt gave way to paved streets. It was both comforting in its solidity, and a bit unnerving just how many of the stones gave just the tiniest bit beneath her feet. Nothing to throw her off balance, even head-challenged as she was; only little lurches and jerks that made her insides clench.
She passed under a flapping line of clothing and through a gaggle of children. The children only took as much notice as was needed for one of them – chasing the other eight or nine – to vault over her, sprinting after the others in a dead tilt screeching tumble. Very briefly, the smell of sweat and skin chemicals overtook the massive blur of unidentifiable odors.
Ktsn watched them, vaguely remembering similar scenes of herself and her siblings dashing through the family orchard or across rainy fields.
Her reverie shattered when a door slammed so vigorously behind her that it sent a small puff down an ear canal. She hissed, eyes scrunching.
Turning around, a pair of burly less-dressed individuals departed the building whose indoors had been noisily quit. Each of them had over both shoulders a big sack of something. The sacks of something were deforming in their holders’ grips, needing a couple of adjustments as she watched the carters take them up the way she’d just come.
A little peripheral motion caught her attention. Looking up, it turned out to be a shadow moving back and forth against the higher part of the building’s wall. A black sign read “QUALITY GOODS AND TRADE OPPORTUNITIES – INQUIRE WITHIN AT THE BEHEST OF TRINATID” as a bleeding yellow shout across its top half, happily slung above a second story door. Below that portion of the sign was a far more colorful and elegant partition, emblazoned with “ADANAIL’S SIGNS FOR ALL SEASONS” in… was that metallic leaf?
In a place of deliberate visibility beside the door, four small cage sconces sat in a line. The boli of living-water resting in them were mostly normal-looking, the one at the very end showing a pale faint glow. They all sat there looking nice and calm and useful, and Ktsn had very little firm idea of what they were supposed to do.
Well. A question arises: the method of ascent.
She glared all about the tiny square for a way to gain altitude, such as a well-placed and hopefully wide staircase, or a ramp coiling around a turret or other building. Some two minutes went by like this, Ktsn accumulating more stares, before she remembered how the shop’s stairs were actually located indoors.
“Must be one of those new Fanlilite mules,” someone whispered too loudly to hide from her ears. “That’s in bad taste.”
She stopped, and very deliberately without saying anything turned to point one eye straight at the offending party.
The woman stopped conspiring with her neighbor, and bent back with a small reflexive movement. As Ktsn continued to stare, the gossipmonger’s face got more and more outlandishly distorted. The idea of fear reactions generally encouraging non-confrontational behavior was still bizarre, and yet she could see a kind of sense in it.
She had to carefully restrain herself from rattling her claws; she had a feeling that would cause the woman to do something that somebody, somewhere, would regret.
“I swear – it’s looking at me!” the gossipmonger whispered from one corner of her mouth at the other human.
The idea of “ventriloquism” was something that had first sounded like Eihks trying to play some sort of joke on her, built-in dictionary or no. Those unnaturally stretchy lips begged to differ.
Ktsn turned her attention back to the building, moving up to the door the burly less-dressed individuals had exited. One door-opening operation later, she was inside a shop. Books grew from the planters of shelves and counters, paintings put themselves on display with foreign glee. The floor had rugs covered with springy wool, stained only with brown dye but in so many shades they implied a whole palette hidden behind the color of dirt. Each of three walls had a couple small awning-skirted windows up high, letting in a bit of daylight.
The fourth was hidden behind a counter, and beside that counter was a set of stairs growing up from the building’s innards.
Ktsn made for the stairs, while having to carefully navigate through the shelves. It turned out that she was a bit widely-built for the average shop’s thoroughfares. Her jacket and garment intermittently brushed against bound and unbound tomes alike, as well as scrolls and tablets of everything from skin to ashen stone. She felt a little twinge every time.
Conversely, the rugs’ substrate was like the footstep equivalent of hearing your beloved’s voice. She hoped Fonlat would consider branching out in her investments; even if a rug like these would get full of sawdust inside of a day, she’d make it her personal duty to clean the thing every morning and evening.
“Yes, I’ll keep an eye out for any new material on the subject,” she picked up after a second, “but… wait. Hey. Hey!”
She finally diverted herself entirely to a thin-looking long-coated man with a tremendous amount of hair on his face who was stepping into view behind the counter from some back room. A woman with incredibly tall hair stood beside him, looking perplexed and more than a bit disturbed. The man’s large mouth hung partly open, showing exceptionally uneven teeth. The sort of teeth that might unmake an arranged union back in Goskec Tktl, she thought.
His very long and fast stride closed the distance from the counter in no time. His sleeves flapped as his arms flipped into the air, shooing motions that didn’t know how to be inelegant.
“I don’t know where you came from, but we DON’T have animals of any kind in Trinatid’s! Go on, get!”
He had designs on driving her back, and maybe even beginning to push her bodily through the door, but he drew up short when he assessed that such a decision might cause the shop’s wares some damage. That divide came upon considering Ktsn’s outer teeth.
Dental instrumentation is a mixed blessing at times.
The man (who Ktsn assumed was the proprietor) halted, and motioned at the woman with the hair. His manner abruptly changed to the effortless indulgence he’d been exhibiting when talking with the client a moment ago.
“Be with you in just a moment, Deralim.”
Ktsn’s ears flipped back, remembering that she had a tool to help navigate this logjam.
As Trinitad kept his arms and shoulders spread wide, she reached into one of her bags, drew out a thick sheet attached to a thin bamboo backing, and closed the bag.
He was saved from the indignity of having to decide on a proper method of evicting his unwanted guest without touching her when she held the document out to the man.
This is from Fonlat, owner of the woodworking shop that’s downhill from the fountain of the ugly vomiting codger. I’d like to request a commission of Adanail’s superb signmaking skills. I’ve written details for transactions and meeting options I’d like to explore.
The man went through the spectrum of surprise ranging from mild startlement to complete mental breakdown over the space of two or three heartbeats, then looked back at Deralim with his teeth showing.
“This… is most unusual,” he mumbled between the long wavy spears of foliage above and below his lips. “I think I will have to ask a moment more, as this-”
He waved the document, still keeping his other arm up in a defensive posture.
“-should get to Adanail. I…”
Ktsn didn’t step forward at all, but she reached out and chewed the air with one set of fingers. A more clear “please give it back” pantomime she couldn’t imagine.
The man’s eyes widened and he took a short backpedaling retreat. Flipping the document back and forth to see whether there was anything on the opposite side, he glanced to the stairs. He wasn’t so keen on letting her go to the next floor.
Annoying, but not utterly intolerable. Just vaguely demeaning, and a little disheartening.
Ktsn waved at the stairs as well, deliberately making it a bit haphazard as though she were a beast with imperfect articulation.
Trinatid’s eyes stopped being eyes and started being some sort of strange cancerous growth, rapidly bubbling out of their sockets.
“One moment,” the man said, and began carefully moving toward the risers after she began carefully moving toward the entrance of the shop. It was a bit complicated by the fact that she had to step without rubbing her feet along the floor; it would be a terrible shame to shear off a chunk of papyrus or vellum or such.
Nobody said that Ktsn actually had to hand the thing to the illustrious and skilled Adanail. She’d just… hang around and see if her mission was actually carried out. The matter of what to do if the decorous owner intended to just discard Fonlat’s document would be… complicated. If that should happen she’d think of something.
Just as she reached the liberating dusty air through the entryway, the proprietor started up the steps in earnest. He shouted something that escaped her ability to discern.
Her nostrils ballooned a bit as she looked up at the side of the building. The second of the living-water sconces was just now dimming from bright to dull, leaving only the one still glowing. A tally of people in the building complex, perhaps? She was the second “customer” in Trinitad’s demesne. But how would the mechanism know to differentiate?
Her brain shook in her skull. “Speculation should be removed from all possible reasons for distraction, or else it might become distraction itself,” Ryodket had written. At this hour of errands, there were already too many reasons for distraction.
She tilted her head a bit at the magical contraption, and resolved to ask Fonlat. The woman had described the feature, so she might have an idea of what it was supposed to do.
Happy that the gawkers from before were now gone, Ktsn strained to detect any sort of happenings in the second story. After a moment, the blunted stabs of loud-spoken words crept out from the gaps in the walls. A masculine voice and an indeterminate voice folded across each other.
Ktsn waited a few moments longer, watching through the doorway as Deralim idly turned and examined one tome or another as she waited.
Eventually, a fast-moving set of footsteps flapped downstairs again.
“Terribly sorry about that, madam, but when unusual circumstances arise…” he began.
“Think nothing of it. I’ve not got any pressing need to go tearing off today. Negotiations probably won’t be going anywhere until most of the year’s longsilk comes in, so there’s nobody waiting for a meeting or a deal right now. But… that’s the price we pay sometimes.”
Ktsn didn’t wait around to hear Trinatid’s response, or even whether he gave one. Delivery delivered, message messaged. All shall be well.
She did a quick about-turn in front of the facade, and began shaving the distance between herself and the destination of her next chore.
It was a new day, and she wasn’t expected to be back any time sooner than an hour or so. Maybe a good chance to see the sights and get a better feeling for Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur’s culture. She’d noticed more than a few places that stood out from the rest of the local architecture. Checking a few out sounded like a neat idea. That one place with the stone steeples in particular was making a very very good effort at not complying with the city’s other standards of design or function.
A slowing-down, when she saw a big hive of vertical capsules rising not too far distant. They were a great deal taller than first appeared, since they sulked some sort of basin or other land meniscus, and she guessed that their bases stood probably ten or twelve meters lower than her current ground level. Each of the silos had a series of stays or struts running down to supports at different tiers. Lateral and longitudinal vanes lent additional load-bearing assistance.
Ktsn remembered, then; Goeyren the Lean had received a name for penury in some of his dealings. Conversely, he’d endeared himself by ensuring that the people had stockpiles to help outlast major tribulations. What was that phrase she’d heard from Fonlat?
“Long live the king, and may his wisdom live longer!”
Yes, that was it.
The hair down her middle crept up just a bit, as she heard voices raised in dissonant accord. Following the noise, as well as interspersed brassy percussion instruments, she saw a progression of some sort. It was going to go past her, down and in front of the place she’d had identified to her as a bank.
Moving with some haste, the originally plotted course got hastily revised, then revised again when the path of the crowd jinked once to go around an amoeba of other early-day pedestrians. She bounded over a couple of spots that small creeks had formed on the street, rain not quite having gotten the memo that it shouldn’t overflow the gutters. A few exclamations followed in her wake. The suns’ yellow-white ached.
Coming to a precipice beside a roughly-built house, she measured the distance from a ramp stumbling down in switchbacks, toward the silos and other things built in the area of the depression. A moment later, she found herself skirting the edges of a crowd that had beaten her to a bridge over the ramp. Many people of all ages, but increasing with number as they increased in years. She wasn’t familiar enough with biology yet to guess at ages, but she’d wager the onlookers’ average age must be substantially higher than Fonlat’s.
Curious as well as a little disturbing, how Eihks and other Rhaagmini humans had no effective upper bound on how old they could get, and yet the “normal” range of human life expectancy was about as long as it had taken her to leave childhood.
A different, more level voice drew her attention up the road passing beneath the bridge.
“… may find themselves incomparably blessed.”
The voice wavered into clarity as the speaker came riding closer on a tall mount. She hadn’t seen much in the way of blue coloration so far in her adventures on this planet, but the king (for he was clearly such) wore the slender black and blue sigils on his raiments with dignity and self-certainty. He had a beard that was thin, long, and incredibly heavy – like a very supple rope growing out of his chin.
“Please, clear the way!” a stocky guard urged. He stood at the fore of a protective walking cordon, a double-handful mix of soldiers and other people maintaining a four meter distance. He, and the others, carrying a mix of living-water weapons and shortbows.
The people on the road under the bridge got pushed back and to the side, almost flat against the walls in some places. The people up on the bridge received warning looks from the protective squad, which became spiked glares when two of the bow-wielders nocked and drew back arrows.
“We aim to improve the lives of those not only in Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur,” Goeyren declared. “We aim to make this kingdom better for all of our people… by any means, at any cost.”
The king’s beard rope swung as he gestured like a fieldhand with a sickle, gathering in the whole world as he passed under the bridge. Ktsn moved out of the way as the crowd followed him to the other side with varying levels of enthusiasm. They did make the transition slowly enough to avoid drawing arrow fire from the archers.
“We value all people everywhere. But – as is mete and right so to do – we value those of Dōdielnan above any others.”
The king’s display got several responses. Most of them supported his declaration. One woman who was actually watching the shouter more than Goeyren muttered something about trade with Nognāt being disrupted, and a young man with wild hair half-screeched that their iron supplies weren’t just dwindling to uncomfortable levels, they’d be gone before too long.
“Any who have served our house will be rewarded for their devotion to…” the king continued, gradually exiting easy earshot with his guard.
One of the men nearby – a strange-featured creature with nose and ears that looked like pinched clay beneath a tasselled hat – watched the procession with eyes that never blinked. When many others splintered off to follow the regal caravan, he didn’t stir.
Eventually, the man spat on the ground to the side, then trotted off at speed.
As Tdsd-Who-Writes said, “Love and hate are cousins in the same house.”
The sound of a clanging bell caught her attention, and she glanced at that many-steepled building. Between two of its spires, a long thin metal-and-wood shape swung ponderously at the behest of rope pulls. A simple glance revealed that the median of the suns was indeed the point a quarter-stretch across the sky. She slapped a bit of dust from her clothing, and began picking out a route to the next stop on her list of errands.
She left the bridge.
Finding the blacksmith’s shop wasn’t hard. He had put his business directly next to that of a whitesmith, and their respective mastery of their arts meant that they worked together on many a project. Some of those projects were curious little windchimes that used the tensile strength of living-water to good advantage. Anyone within two hundred paces of the stores, Fonlat had told her, would know exactly where they were due to the sibilant noise.
There was a very distinct smell as well. Roasting grain, perhaps? Judging from the distance to the silos, maybe the farmers of whom the towers were silent beneficiaries stopped this way to trade leftover supplies when they refreshed the stockpile.
Ah, yes. A bakery.
She blinked twice, then a third time, when she saw that the middle of the thickly occupied square had a single towering chimney near its center. Smoke came from it in browns and grays and blues. As she drew closer, and the buildings and terrain slowly moved aside, it became clear that the furnace was a shared commodity for the adjacent nations of Soft Metalwork, Hard Metalwork, and Breadmaking. Three shallow-depth but strongly built single room stores formed a simple triangle. At their shared heart was a heat source, presumably compartmentalized for the needs of each.
She trip-trapped around to the part overseen by the sign reading “blacksmithing.” The square’s edges had other single-story buildings jammed together more tightly than the strongest set of teeth. A couple of the stores on the outer edge were feeling a bit generous, and spilled their wares out from their roofs’ shade into the morning air. The slippery smoothness of glazed pottery begged her to reach out and pick up this jug, or that bowl, or that not-quite-ewer. She actually did have to keep herself from going closer to look at a pithos with intricate whorl etchings.
Clambering around a few displays of clothing whose purpose she couldn’t identify, she swept under the smithy’s terra-cotta ceiling and awning shield. Immediately she felt warmth claw its way under her skin.
At the back of the open half-twilit room, a brute of a man stood hunched. He was, as it happened, nearly as tall as Eihks. Unlike Eihks, he had a thoroughly broad figure and vivacious corporeality. Suggestions of tendon and sinew and joint that only graced her partner’s frame as notations on a diagram manifested their true architecture on this man, cutting through his gossamer-thin garment. Each finger looked like it was the size of one of her foot flagella. His rippling hair reached down well past his shoulders.
It was amazing he hadn’t set himself on fire, considering how close the spitting metal on his anvil was to his mat of curls.
She quickly peered around, trying to take in the scything blocky chaos of metal, suspended and stored all around her.
Weapons, in a couple varieties. Hammers and chisels. Pliers and vises. Every kind of knife imaginable. A casket full of metal pellets keeping company with a stack of circular ingots. It took three glances to convince herself that the huge thing crouched in the shop’s hinterlands was actually a plowshare. Or maybe it wasn’t; the whitish black wedge had to be nearly half her size.
How one would even make such a thing, or why it should be all metal instead of a border of toughened material and a base or core of heavy wood, she couldn’t even muster a guess.
Eventually the man slammed the edge of whatever he was making one final time, quenched it, and wiped a small rainstorm of sweat from his forehead.
When he shook his hands and stepped back, he didn’t act surprised to find her standing in his place of business. He didn’t react in the slightest, for that matter.
“Oh?” he grunted. Her voice was lower than that of many male humans. She imagined a bellow from this man would set every head within throwing distance ringing.
Ktsn wiggled her digits at the man. That seemed to be a safe gambit in the greeting game.
“What have we here?” he asked, treading closer in lazy strides almost as long as she was.
A fishing expedition in a bag yielded a document much like the other she’d delivered.
The man stared at what she held out, but not to read it. Instead, he glanced from it to her claws, then back, before turning and barking at the rear of the shop.
“BOY! GET OUT HERE!”
A youth popped from behind a door, bald head shining in the heat.
The smith gently but firmly removed the document from Ktsn’s grasp, holding it out toward the youth. It crinkled a bit as he tapped it.
“Read this for me,” the man rumbled.
The youth crept into the main area. He was small and thin, and he eyed the sheet held by his master from a short distance.
“‘This is from Fonlat, woodworker and new resident of the city. I hope to buy some of your best on-hand work. If you don’t have anything you’d consider at least halfway to top quality, don’t bother, and I’ll buy something else when you have stock back up. Cheat me and you’ll have dead animals in front of your store every morning until I’m senile. Give me a good deal and we’ll have a wonderful friendship and much moneymaking ahead of us.’”
A listing of specifications for several kinds of tools flowed like a recital of sacred relics.
“Huh. Rasps and hammers, eh?” the smith said, scratching the back of his head.
He looked down at her, still holding the thing, and eyed the pouch at her side holding the money. His eyes looked quite pensive, and she suddenly felt just how much smaller than this giant she truly was.
Being “stronger proportionally than any native” was one thing. If he felt that he wanted to just wrench the pouch from her and beat her to death, she had high confidence that outmatching this titan would be the final thing she failed to do. It was, like her arrival on this strange planet, a very strong, very poignant reminder of her limitations. Her memory suddenly called up Eihks’s warning from that first day once more: the claim that thinking things would be their most significant threats.
The very temporary worry, fortunately, proved very temporary.
Eventually, the smith put the request from Fonlat vaguely into the satchel womb from which it had been born, then tapped it vaguely down. The thing stuck out at a vaguely jaunty angle.
Ktsn fixed it.
While the blacksmith backed up, evidently waiting for… something, she reached down and disconnected the money pouch from her belt. She stood holding it out.
“Boy! Get the money from our… guest!” the blacksmith said, then pulled open a small sack from a pile of them near the back of the shop. “And chop a bit off the price – if this fine lady is going to be buying with us like I think she is, then we’ll have us a very good season!”
He began piling a series of tools together in a clatter of efficient geometric coaxing. Somehow, he braced two ball-peen hammers on either end so that the collection stayed one solid whole even when he picked it up and slid the sack around it.
The youth approached Ktsn, watching her as warily as if she was a gpsl nuson freshly entered into mating season.
She jangled the pouch, and extended it a bit farther. The loop on the pouch was long enough she strung it on a claw to present it, a dangling gift.
He snatched it and moved toward the counter to verify that the bounty was sufficient to cover costs. It took him a moment or two to open up the bag, and she noticed how the hand holding it was warped and scarred and short a finger.
“Twenty seven here, Master.”
“And how many do you think should be returned to the bag?” came from the master, as a thin rope went around the sack’s mouth.
“Two, so that we would charge twenty five.”
“Two? Not four?”
The boy looked up, and she looked away, forgetting that he probably wouldn’t think it odd that she stared at the act of rattling shiny things around. Instead, she looked past him at the back of the shop.
She licked her inner teeth when she saw a beautifully forged pickax. Its head tapered from a scalloped wide blade to a needle point. It mirrored the hearth’s light in the same heart-aching way her own tools sometimes caught the sunrise, back in her little cabin.
It made her think, really internalize all the way down to the ground for the first time, that maybe she could truly carry home around with her.
“Twenty four would buy the same amount of materials, plus enough bread for a day, Master. Twenty three would not even get the bread.”
“Very good – my thoughts exactly!” boomed the blacksmith, startling her from her trance. He carried over the sack of tools, and started to determine how he should tie the extra rope around Ktsn’s waist.
When she held out a hand, he stopped, leaned back a little with head askance, and rustled the hair on his face.
“Wherever this thing came from, it’s the weirdest critter I’ve ever seen,” he said. The words flitted in the direction of the youth without actually being spoken at him.
He passed the sack of tools. Ktsn double-knotted the goods to her belt.
The youth put coins back in the pouch and finished stacking the others into five pillars. The pouch, after a shaky couple of seconds, found its way back into Ktsn’s possession. She tested the fastenings, and found everything to her standards.
“Master, I swear it’s listening to us,” the youth said from one corner of his mouth.
Funnily enough, the karkshesh trotting back out of the smithy heard his words, and her dancing neurons discarded them immediately.
When your brain is full of valuable things, either you store those things somewhere or you start spilling them.