At the Monastery of Ke’Sothram
Originally posted by Arinn on the forum here.
Na’al Pek was a woman of the Aodu clan, and her struggling family owned three trees in the cultivated forest along the river. Fifteen Tarka children called themselves her ko’, and lived together in her stilted shack on a dockside quay.
Na'al's charges were all gutter brats, orphans and cast-off detritus of other households. In the low town, children were all too often forced into the streets when a clan could no longer feed them, often before they were tail-high. In troubled times, a child whose mother did not prosper could not expect a bright future—unless he or she was fortunate enough to find Na’al.
By day, the children of Na’al worked hard, tending the bounty of their precious trees. The woman was old and well-versed in the mysteries of the Aodu people; she knew how to exploit an ironwood from root to canopy.
In the waters flowing around the tree’s broad base, she taught the children to anchor fishing nets and harvest freshwater crustaceans from woven reed traps. On the deep wrinkled bark of the lower trunk she had planted a variety of medicinal and edible fungi; the children learned their secret names and the trick of cutting them at just the right time, and in just the right place, so that they would bring the best price and always grow back.
In the undergrowth layer, where the trees rose meter after meter through emerald regions of greater light, the children cultivated tracts of epiphytic flowers and lush, fruiting vines. In the high swaying treetops, they kept thousands of silk spinners—and hunted the wild birds that came to prey on the helpless, nearly legless arthropods, eternally weaving cocoons which were never completed.
All of the goods that Na’al’s children harvested were sold to clients throughout the city. As members of a gutter caste, Na’al and her children could travel freely to any quarter, carrying their wares to buyers in the highest and lowest places. The old woman had a knack for cultivating very rare and delicate orchids, highly prized by the courtesans and the makers of perfume in the upper town.
Textile artisans processed and spun the raw fibers of her spinner cocoons into strong thread and gleaming, supple cloth which held its color especially well. The catch of the day from her fish and gi traps were sold in the sweltering riot of the marketplace, or taken directly to the rear door of the kitchen at a select few fine restaurants. Fresh fruit, berries and nectar collected daily could be carried house-to-house in Na’al’s brightly painted rattling cart…or taken back to her modest ko’ on the docks, where she and her children would make preserves, wines, or dyes from the crop.
It was no secret that Na’al and her wild children went anywhere and everywhere in search of profit. For this reason, it was no surprise to anyone that the old woman traded with the monastery. Such things were expected of Na’al and her kind—she was gutter caste. Scandal and shame, ritual impurity and the like were not concerns for an Aodu woman or her ragged band of cast-off brats. She was born to have dirty hands, and to make contact with all kinds of folk--even the Humaanu and their strange bleeding god.
Who was Na’al to be choosy about her customers? If the strange alien monks must worship their dying god by candle light, well--only a fool would be slow to turn a profit, when she had six hives of nectar-wasps constantly producing wax, and so few buyers for a wasp-wax candle.
Na’al came and went from the carefully walled temple grounds on the hill as she pleased. What the majority of her neighbors did not know was that old Na’al was Kr’stenu herself--a worshipper of the Hanged One. Nor did they realize that on her daily visits to the Humaanu monastery, she brought more than wax and fruit, and took away more than coin.
Na’al and her children were eyes and ears for the monastery, seeing and hearing what the city might have preferred to keep hidden from human gaze. Had her fellow Tarka known that she reported to the monks whatever news they might find of interest, they would have called her “kegena”—“listener”—and perhaps been more reluctant to let her and her children pass unnoticed.
On this particular day, the Abbot looked up to find the old tree farmer looking in through his third-story window, her head and shoulders framed in the opening. She knocked politely on the sill, her eyes pale and yellow with anxiety.
He put down his stylus politely. “Good day, Na’al.” He beckoned her into the room. “I had not expected another visit from you so soon.”
She stepped over the sill and dropped lightly to the floorboards below, still spry despite her age. “Forgive me, H’abb’e.” No matter how valiant her efforts, she could not say the word Abbe without breaking it into fragments, and adding the loud aspirated Tarkasian “H” in front of it. Na’al’s gutter accent was untamable. “I had urgent news. I thought it best not to wait.”
Her pupils flexed with worry. “There are Humaanu in the city. My children have counted four men and a woman, dressed as military caste. They came up the river from the capital. They are asking questions and showing pictures—pictures of the Monsignor.”
Despite the moist tropical heat, the Abbot felt a brief chill. “Five, you say?”
She clucked her tongue in agreement. “Five that we know. We did not see them arrive, or we would be more certain. They have split now, and they divide the city among them--but they all ask the same questions and show the same image.”
“And what is it that they say?”
Na’al’s eyes narrowed. “They are looking for a Humaan, with a brown hide and a black crest and eyes. They say perhaps that his crest is grey or white now, as he would be much older than he appears in the hologram; the image was taken some time ago.” Her pupils flexed with derision. “It is a lie. We recognized the Monsignor right away. His crest has not changed much at all.”
The Abbot hesitated. “And…what do they say that they want, with this man?”
She gave an eloquent shrug: I don’t know. “Depending on where they are, they tell different lies about why they are seeking him.” Her eyes were darkening, turning swiftly to darker gold and the deep orange of rising threat. “Are they here to do him some harm, H’abb’e? If so, I have cousins who know how to use a knife. It would be quick.”
The Abbot quickly raised a hand to forestall her. “Please, Na’al. We are men of peace. We will have no talk of bloodshed, ne?”
She lowered her eyes. “Yes, H’abb’e.” Then, softly, “May God forgive me.”
“In any case, I am sure it is already too late for that. If they are looking for a human being, someone will have pointed them in our direction by now. I am sure that one or more of them will be here by nightfall.”
“Already coming, H’abb’e. I passed two of them on my way up the hill. They were having some difficulty, I think.” Her eyes twinkled green with amusement. “Puffing like dray-beasts.”
The Abbot stood and brushed past the elderly Tarka woman on his way to the window. With a practiced gesture he seized the steel rung embedded deeply in the wall just above the lintel and hopped up onto the sill, leaning out to peer beyond the trees and down the hillside. Sure enough, two unmistakably human figures were trudging up the road, leaning against the steep grade as they walked. Their uniforms were bright red blots against the white crushed limestone path and the brilliant green verdure of the terraced hillside.
Red Section operatives. They would be versed in the language and culture. Unlikely to be misled, or ignorant of local custom. “Merda,” he muttered, dropping back into the room. “What in the world can we do?”
“I would suggest we send Thomas and Jon to work the pump.” A calm, quiet voice sounded from the hall outside his study. “I imagine that our guests will be thirsty when they arrive.”
The Abbot had long ago become accustomed to the Monsignor’s silent movements and unexpected appearances; now he did not even flinch as he turned to face the man in the doorway. “We will receive them if you wish, Reverence. But what do they want? Do you know?”
The Monsignor smiled gently. “Not really, no. I imagine they want to talk to me about something. Given how far they’ve come, how much time and sweat they’ve spent, I imagine they think it’s rather important. I must admit, I’m curious to know what they want with me—aren’t you?”
“Do you really want an answer to that question?”
The Monsignor smiled in answer, and the Abbot shook his head. He had already seen the spark of interent in those black eyes; he knew it well, and over the years he had come to dread it. Whenever that spark appeared, the game was afoot--and all the hard-won peace and tranquility of his abbey was forfeit.
The Abbot closed his eyes briefly and took a deep, cleansing breath. “We will offer them our hospitality. For everyone’s sake, I hope they want nothing more than a pleasant chat.”
Na’al spoke up boldly. “Are you really the man they are looking for, Monsignor? Were you a Lac Tar of their fleet?”
He shrugged. “Hard to say, Sister Na’al. Perhaps the man they are seeking died long ago.” She nodded wisely, and he held up his hand, a gesture of respect and courtesy. “My deepest thanks for your concern, Sister, and for your timely warning. I will remember the debt.”
Na’al bowed her head silently, her eyes softened to pale violet with emotion, and left by the window. As soon as she had descended the final rung and passed out of earshot, the Abbot turned to the man beside him. “Will there be trouble?” His tone was flat.
The Monsignor winked. “’Man is born into trouble, as sparks fly upward.’ Let’s go see what the redcoats want, shall we? They’ll have worked up a good sweat by now—the gravity of Sothram is murder when you aren’t used to it.”
The Abbot rolled his eyes. “As you say. You will be the death of us all, Father Rui.”