labingi: (Ghanior)
[personal profile] labingi
Chapter 1
Chapter 2

Chapter 3

The next day we used the hand com to call for help. Again it was too easy. The general distress signal had been running not five minutes when an eager voice commed in:

"Hello? We are receiving. Respond please." The man spoke the Leddie language, Vunizh, for the same reason I am writing in Vunizh. For us, it's a lingua franca, and so for you of the future, at least, it should still be translatable. His accent was good but not native.

I described our situation, presenting myself as a diplomatic attaché and Chi'anové as a courier. It was so much our standard cover story it almost seemed the truth.

"I'm Tanez Shadowdell," said the man, "Of the Rha-Lutran Walking Academy."

Chi'anové and I glanced at each other. "Pardon me," I said, "You are the Tanez Shadowdell, the son of Sheseson?" If so, he was royalty among Walkers, son of one of the First to enter Jana.

"Yes, that's right." His tone, though amicable, suggested the question was a nuisance. "Two standard days ago, my fellow instructor, Soval, and I were taking three advanced students on a training Walk. Everything seemed ordinary, but when we Walked, Soval and I got slammed to this planet, like you."

"And your students?"

"I don't know. If they got slammed, it wasn't here."

I could feel Chi'anové's mind ticking over at the thought of the force--or nuance?--involved in separating three Walkers on a linked trajectory. "You've been in the forest since?" I asked.

"A native woman found us and let us stay with overnight with her family."

"Then you know what planet this is, Professor Shadowdell?"

"Nyrírla."

Chi'anové and I both frowned. It was an obscure planet in the Kiri Empire, no international ties or strategic relevance. "That's out of the way."

"It is indeed," said Shadowdell. His mother was a Kiri, I recalled, though from a mainstream world. At least, he should speak the language well.

After some small discussion, we agreed to meet at the town where they'd been lodgding. Our coms ranged us at 12.3 kilometers apart. We signed off and packed up.

Chi'anové stooped under his heavy pack. Unfettered by distance, Walkers are accustomed to carrying few supplies; if water runs out, they can Walk to a fountain. "I wonder if you think he's telling the truth?"

"I can't think of any reason why a power that could bring us here would bother to lie to us."

Despite his default skepticism, Chi'anové was inclined to agree. "If that man is Shadowdell, then we've fallen into a conspiracy to strand powerful Walkers." It was no more than honesty for him to count himself among them.

"Strand them together where they can join forces." I raised an eyebrow at him.

"But that doesn't mean much if we can't Walk." He trudged off ahead of me.

***

After three hours, my feet were hot and numb. Chi'anové, to my surprise, bore up better. Unused as he was to packing heavy, he stayed fit climbing rocks for recreation; I remembered that belatedly. At first, we discussed our mission, but finding no tie to our present predicament, we fell silent. Hell is trees, Chi'anové had said; I'd always felt goodwill toward trees, but that forest was enough kill it: trees against trees and a stillness broken only by the birds and our footsteps. Then, half a kilometer short of our rendezvous, I began to feel people. "The natives are watching."

"With what intent, I wonder?"

"They won't attack. They're nervous, timid. It seems excessive to me, but then, they probably never see offworlders." I opted against reaching out for more. I didn't want to frighten or offend any who felt me.

Just short of the rendezvous point, the signal began to move: our fellow abductees, approaching down bark trail we'd been following, three questing minds roaring toward me like a wave onto the beach: There, Ash'torian, why, Walkers, what government's opposed to both since the war?--I wonder where Papa--she looks like a Leddie, offworlders--such excitement others cowards wouldn't understand, if Papa's, they're lying probably--

"Greetings, Soul of Yoq, Soul of Chi'anové," said Shadowdell, standard polite address in the Nation of Leddra.

"Greetings, Professor Shadowdell, Professor Soval," I said.

Yes, she's part Leddie. HT, Tanez? HT, Glin. His eyes, so blue. She's nervous--

Blonde woman, Glin del-Soval, said, "This is Naira. She found us wandering in the forest." Naira: black hair and eyes, classically Kiri.

Her hair's almost purple. Strangers, won't be infected, house too small--

I said to Naira in poor Keshnul, "Thank you very much for your help." I looked down to see she'd grasped my arm in the old Kiri greeting. Know no fear, see that, ye watchers.

Chi'anové's pale hair and blue eyes had transfixed Naira: "Are you a Sama?"

I translated.

"It's none of her damn business," he said in Ash'torian.

"He's an Ash'torian with Sama roots."

Rude man, he's a Walker, wish that song out of my head. More stew, have to gather--'Eblia, wonder if you're all right?

All right, I thought back to him.

We headed back into the city toward the house. (Only trees?) Mint-green Soval thoughts, some song of other in her head. Tanez thought, Old boots of a city, Glin, much older than home-- I didn't know what he meant, and then I saw it: dwellings hewn of wood, roofed in vines, seeming stands of giant, felled logs. The houses did look like giant boots, built like boxes off gnarled trunks. We went by them, back home where Leyvar and Tásorel were waiting.

A door in a stand of tree trunks. Brother, brown, no not brother. Good day. Good day. Welcome to Southfield-city. City? That handful of log cabins? Count against us; that was Tásorel. Loose-flowing fabric, as we have in the desert. Welcome (That was Leyvar.) like we do up north-- Round room, lamp lit. Oil lamps. Table, chairs, stove. Sweet smell of sweet-roots boiling. Need to gather more for guests-- A splash boiling over on the floor.

"Breakfast?"

It's for Naira. They should go soon. But for Naira-- No, not Naira: Nyra.

Thanks. Avidly eat stew. Please stay the night; thanks. Wait. Talk. Think I'll go for a stroll.

Nyra, leaping up, said, "I'll slow you around." (No, "show," she'd said.)

Chi'anové, interposing. "Just let her go for some air."

Of course, neither understood the other. Under their flurry of Keshnul-Ash'torian crosstalk, I slipped out.

***

I found the field that gave "Southfield-city" its name, this village that had seemed to exist entirely within a forest. But here was the field, and my eye drank in the sun. I wanted to sit, but since the high, damp grass denied it, I strolled the border of sun-kissed trees, "field pines." The villagers still watched me but from far enough I could ignore it. After a few minutes, my headache faded as it always does when I get off alone. My mind unclenched like an anemone unfurling.

Southfield-city. In Keshnul, I remembered, any habitation is a "city."

These Nyrírlan accents defeated me. I struggled to keep up with just standard greetings. "Nyra." I'd misapprehended her name. She'd pronounced it "Naira," but that was a dialectical shift. "Náirila," they'd called their planet: shift in vowel, shift in stress, loss of second "r." "Waterfall-world." My life would have been much easier if I'd pursued a career in linguistics.

The grasses came up to my thighs, capped in wind-blown tassels, like Mae'joq's sketch of the fields of Yo'rûn before the devastation. I rested in that liminal joy born in contrasts, walking perhaps a quarter hour before Chi'anové fell into step beside me.

"I wonder why that hit you so hard," he said.

I shrugged. "Everything had been so quiet, and then so many all thinking at me all at once. I needed to calibrate."

"I wonder if you're all right now."

"I was always all right. They read me as an HT, Soval and Shadowdell." I was proud of myself for remembering to say "Soval" when her given name, "Glin," was on my tongue. Yet I'd still slipped up in naming her before her husband (for he was her husband). It was details like this that gave the game away. In this case, of course, the only cost was my embarrassment. She flustered me, with her great, white smile and short red-blonde hair, her immediate (and sympathetic) awareness of my discomfort. I smiled at Chi'anové. "They're sharp, those Walker minds." All Walkers were strong telepaths, if not to my level.

"Nothing we can do about it." If they knew, they knew.

"Very true."

"They had me properly blocked," he said. "I wonder what you saw?"

"They are what they seem to be; they're high academicians at the Walking Academy in a capital of Leddra. They're as confused as we are. They want to know what force would simultaneously attack Ash'torians and Leddies," two peoples at war not long ago. Our thighs brushed a cluster of fluff-topped grasses; pollen scattered like dust. I wished, for a moment, I was a tassel of grass. "And there's something wrong about the village."

He huffed.

"Everyone's afraid. Nyra and her brother--foster brother--Leyvar least. They come from the North; it's partly cultural difference. I think they're afraid of the spread of disease. They are also outcasts here, the three of them, Tásorel, perhaps only because she married Leyvar. Nyra's taken us in as a protest. Tásorel feels put upon; she's already given up a lot."

All at once he said, "I don't like her."

"Tásorel?" I said obtusely, to vex him into forgetting the fear I felt nibbling at his mind.

He gave me that look.

"She's taken with your blue, blue eyes."

"Should that make me like her?" He answered my mockery with plain form.

He made me smile. He was trying unsuccessfully to imagine his eyes as attractive.

***

Back at the house, we discussed our next course of action with Shadowdell as translator for the Kiris. We needed to make contact with our respective governments, and for that, we had two possible options: fix the com on my ship or get to the nearest Kiri tech center, the installations that lodged the higher technology Kiris foreswore in daily life. The nearest to Southfield-city was about 700 kilometers north, a mountain base, Fomsórarant, which translated, appropriately enough, "Able to Rise to Space."

Nyra was fairly bursting her propulsors to guide us; she wanted the trip. Come fall, north, seed fields, see the old home wonder if it's standing, been so long, if Leyvar won't--and see if he's come home yet-- Serendipitous for Nyra. But the rest of us had a sharp blade to grasp...

"If we make ten miles a day," she said, "and most days we should fair better, then we'll come thither in only thirty-five days."

"Thirty-five days!" said Chi'anové. Everyone was disillusioned, but in Chi'anové a deeper fear jumped up. How integral to his sense of self it was to be a Walker, I thought.

"Well," said Nyra. "I said we're like to fair better. There's road a lot of the way, so we should make more than ten a day. With luck, we might make it in twenty-five days." (It turned out she meant nearer thirty, Nyrírlan days being longer than Standard. My tired eyes already felt the stretch as the sun snailed over us.)

"By foot," said Shadowdell.

"Yes," said Nyra, a little startled by the question.

"You don't have horses or camels or...?"

Chagrin from all the Kiris. We'd touched a sore spot for their family.

"We have great-llamas--the city does. But they're in short number," she said. "Our household itself has no great-llama-friends." This is the traditional way Kiris refer to their animal companions.

"We could ask," ventured Leyvar. He had a round, open face and round, open mind that reminded Tanez (Shadowdell) of his father.

"Best we don't," said Tásorel. "I'm sorry to sound so unhelpful," and she was sorry, "but our own lives in this city lie uneasy. There's little trust of strangers here. For what few great-llamas the city left, the dwellers would not entrust them to us or to you." ("Tásorel" meant "woman of the tower." Every time I thought of her, I saw a tower. She had, I think, been an important citizen and fallen far marrying Leyvar.)

Everyone wanted to ask what had eroded trust so badly. But it was Glin--Soval, I should say--who found the way to phrase it: "Are you safe here? Have we compromised your position?"

Immediate, overzealous denials--but not entirely false. "We'll be well," said Leyvar. "But my wife is right. If ye cannot mend your ship, ye must go on foot, and it will be well if ye leave swiftly."

"Best for us too," said Shadowdell.

***

We spent the night in that house of false trunks, seven people in a space designed for three. Nyra stayed in Leyvar and Tásorel's room while we guests camped in Nyra's. Chi'anové and I both itched to bolt, and it was only the desire of each of us to leave escape open to the other that kept us both in that room so long. In the end, he seized his pillow and blanket and retired to the kitchen. He made the right decision. A little space would uncrowd him; for me, the kitchen wouldn't be far enough to give my mind much relief.

So I lay in a blanket on a hardwood floor, a couple of meters from a married couple pressed together on Nyra's narrow bed. They were, indeed, ritually married: I knew it without being sure when I'd picked it up. I reminded myself not to draw the same conclusions as I would in Ash'tor. Marriage in Leddra is not the rigorous business of allying Clans it still is for us. (It was a bit of family lore that my father had once asked to marry my mother, causing some dismay to her Ash'torian family. In the end, it hadn't happened. Back in those days when the war was brewing, a marriage to a Leddie would put any family on a watch list.)

We were all exhausted, which thankfully blunted feeling and thought alike. Glin and Shadowdell had a small, telepathic conversation about Shadowdell's father. I tried not to listen but his anxiety pulled at me. If he's not already here for us, that's some vast force, indeed. What if he's searching in Jana, if he's lost there? --Elleen will be watching over him. -- What if this is stronger than all of them, stronger than even my father? If he gets lost, if his mind goes, like Mother...

I couldn't follow all they meant, and felt guilty to hear it and self-conscious at their self-consciousness at knowing I probably had. I did know that Sheseson Shadowdell was widely regarded as the most talented Walker alive. And, indeed, if his son had gone missing, one imagined his first course of action would be to Walk to him. The fact he wasn't here said much of the enormity of the crisis.

Best not to think of it, I told myself. First things first. Tomorrow, we'll see if we can fix my com. If we can't, the tech center.

Glin's and Tanez's minds fell silent--the comparative silence of sleep-babbling thoughts; at least, they took comfort in each other's presence, and their union, unitedness--there is a good word for it in Keshnul that translates as "oned" ("the characteristic of being one")--their onedness was like my fathers'. Lying beside them as a third put me too much in mind of home and shamed me in severance from Qer'yem. Best not to think of that either.

***

I had dozed when a touch of Chi'anové's gloved hand jerked me awake.

"Sorry," he said. "I need to talk to you."

I followed him into the kitchen's chill, then out the door into the chiller night. Midnight breathed under the trees, though must be long past midnight, time oozing as if I were spying into a world slowed under massive gravitation. It took me a moment to recollect that Nyrírla had a slow rotation. Days and nights would all feel too long--thirty-five long nights and days.

Chi'anové hugged himself in the quiet cold. "I need my cap-bed."

No wonder he was afraid. I shouldn't have missed that after all the years I'd known him, all the times he'd mentioned the buzz... in passing... as if it weren't something that defined his whole life. "I wonder how often you usually use it?"

"One in five. So if this little hike of ours takes thirty-five days, Nyrírlan days, I'll miss something like nine treatments, measured in standard."

"And I wonder what that will affect your health?"

He gave me a breathless little smile. "It won't be good. I don't know, 'Eblia. I don't go around seeing how long I manage without the cap-bed before the buzz cooks me. The longest I've gone without it since they started me on it was when they were recalibrating it about five years ago. That was twenty-one days. It didn't do any permanent damage, but I had a pretty nasty fever by the end of it. And I had a hand-box to decontaminate my gloves."

"I don't remember that," I said, surprised I could have been so oblivious to his well-being.

"You were on leave. It was that time you went to R'Aej for that show of Qy'qaemlé's, you know, the Conquest paintings."

It touched me that he remembered. "I wonder if there's any way we can decontaminate your gloves here?"

He shrugged. "Taking them off at night will do something. Water would do a little more. It'd contaminate the water, of course, but if it's just me in a lake or a stream, the effect should be negligible."

"We won't tell Nyra."

"We won't tell anyone unless we have to." I could feel his sharp eye in the dark.

"Glin and Tanez will figure it out." I'd given up on their surnames. "They're experts in Walking and, I'm sure, its ailments."

"If we fix your ship, this will all be moot."

"I don't think we can."

"We have to." He took my arm firmly his thick, gloved grasp.

I almost never touched Chi'anové, but now I twisted in his grip to set my hand on his shoulder, his jacket rough like dust on a rock; I tingled with awareness that if I'd touched his bare skin it would have burned me. "If there's a chance," I said, "I'd cross the worlds on half an air tank for it."

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