“No more attendants to drop olives into your mouth and lay down in every puddle in your path. I hope you’ll be able to keep up.”
“Bite me, Leb,” Tand said, hefting the straps of his pack as he climbed the next rib of the forested slope. Whatever image he cultivated for the Ddro, he was not weak. That didn’t change the fact that much of his time was spent scribbling behind a desk or at the arbitrator’s table. There was rarely time to explore the hills around the Marn. The early days of their march would condition him, and he expected to be sore and tired the next few nights.
Already at the top of the rib, Leb spun around, flashing a huge grin at him, his sharp teeth very white under his heavy dramma cheekbones. His eyes were more Talame, smaller than a dre’s, his sclera white and his irises brown.
“I might feel inspired enough to spoon you bites if you’re too weak to eat tonight.”
Tand rolled his eyes.
“I always wonder if your eyes are going to get stuck when you do that.” It was an extremely Talame expression, and tended to look bizarre to anyone raised in the Ddro.
Ifim was moving around the curve of the rib of the slope, pace assured, eyes scanning constantly. The hills west and north of the Marn were mostly oak and walnut, titans reaching out to block the sun. Their leaves already hung shriveled and brown, some already dropped, patches of stark sky visible through the canopy. There were still a few scattered magnolias, bright red jewels peeking out of their seedpods.
The the first time Uio had taken past the courtyards of the Marn, the sheer immensity of the trees had overwhelmed him. Nothing so big could have grown in the latimbne where he had been born. The trees had frightened him in their alien, awesome beauty, because they reminded him of how small he was, and how immense the world that held him captive. He could run for his whole life and never get anywhere.
At dusk they made camp between the knees of a spreading oak, the twigs of its lowest branches almost low enough to touch on tip-toe. Ifim pried open three acorns and set them roasting by the small, conical fire while Tand portioned out the pemmican.
“Yunesec redid the triangulations?” Leb said, massaging his knuckles closer to the fire, his humor turned sober.
Tand made an assenting noice, grinding a waxy chunk of pemmican in his molars as he reached into his pack for the file.
“He’s calculated the coordinates of where we lost radio contact, and a line where they could have landed given the prevailing winds and the terrain. There’s a good chance they wouldn’t leave the transports, but if they do we’ll have a good idea of how they’ll move with the land.” He passed the map around.
“I don’t like that canyon,” Leb said, studying the sweep of topography.
“Neither do I.”
“I know a stretch of it,” Ifim interjected, “but in the northeast. The river is mostly dead now.”
Tand told them, “I’ve helped scout the the oak savannah here,” tapping the region on the north west side of the canyon. “We don’t know of any of our contacts currently in the steppe who could meet us from the other side, but Caibi is still trying to reach someone.” He gave no other names yet, not unless he had to.
“What did they have in terms of supplies?” Leb asked, breaking off a chunk of crumbly pemmican with his back teeth.
“If they were able to obtain the recommended inventory, they should still have several day’s provisions if they rationed it well. Betyc would make sure of it. But it was always in question whether they would able to get everything they needed.” Tand felt his own uneasiness reflected in the silence.
“I still hadn’t heard rumor of any air movement from the northeast when I left the Marn,” Ifim said, testing an acorn with his knife.
“Tefasj,” Leb said emphatically, slapping his sternum, then his lips with three fingers. It was a gesture from the central hill tribes where Leb lived, the kind of relief you expressed when lightning struck so close you felt the jolt through the ground, or when the melt-season river didn’t wash your tribe away. Or when the Talame landed in your children’s village and only took captives, he had been told by elders, more than once. It wasn’t an expression Leb would have normally used, which probably said how much he meant it.
They continued to discuss the terrain, filling in detail where they each had experience, but there was only so much they could surmise before they reached the first search area. Their pile of twigs and small branches dwindled, and finally the coals.
“How are you feeling?” Leb asked, no teasing now.
“You can massage my feet before bed,” Tand told him blandly, carefully repacking the file.
“Mine too,” Ifim said, stretching outrageously. It was always a little jarring, how someone so self-contained could take up so much space when he wanted to.
Ifim took the first watch, and Tand fell asleep almost instantly, Leb’s back pressed against his.
The short season was claiming the forest, sucking the color and life from the leaves, preparing the way for the long sleep. It was early in the season, warm and dry, but there was something invigorating about the stark beauty of the coming cold. The Marn stayed cool and rainy, but the northern hill tribes saw snow.
She didn’t think, as she walked. She didn’t think about her destination, or her journey, or her purpose, or her past. She walked, and watched, smelled, listened, touched, let go of herself. It refreshed her, shedding a name, a self, leaving it behind like a coat on a warm day, to be put back on when the chill came again. She was Shafa, and Shafa was wandering.
It was her second day without food, and she let her pace be more casual. Just before midday, she stopped in a shaft of sunlight between two massive walnuts and built her fire.
The semelis was a traditional bahm for drarse, like the irara was for dre. She had performed it every day since her passage into adulthood. It grounded her, building the small fire, the aroma of the juniper needles as the heat sprung the oils into the air. She let the warmth of the tisane soak through the clay into her hands for a long time, the sunlight soaking into her skin, before she drank, closed the bahm, and set off again.
As the light faded she performed a bahm for the health of her lemal before making camp. Pulling away a few fallen oak leaves, Shafa shed and packed her clothes, crossed her legs, and drew a circle around her in the earth with a small branch. For a long time she only sat still, hands on her knees, eyes closed as the cicadas buzzed.
They had never given each other personal names. She had once heard someone call her lemal by a general name but even that was too intimate to be appropriate. So she used the public name he had given her when they had been formally tied, Zejamer. It always seemed inadequate, trying to send someone healing through the outermost layer of their self.
It was dark and moonless by the time she finished tracing her fingers along her skin in the ritual patterns, and broke the circle by drawing a toe through the earth. She found her bedroll where she had laid it out and climbed into cool cloth, waiting for it to warm to her body. The stars were clustered in brilliant patterns, turning the night sky into fade-edged patches of blue. Through the hole in the canopy she could see the loose formation of three twinkling red stars, the Talame latimbne hanging in the stratosphere.
She woke on her back to the crystal light of dawn, her heart beating too fast, drumming urgently behind her sternum.
By the third night she began to miss Nak, and the next morning she broke her fast. She ate slowly, savoring the grainy sweetness of dried persimmon, making sure to drink enough water. Her heart slowed to a hard, steady thumping. Her mood lightened as the food began to digest.
Nak had slept with her the night before she left the Marn. Nak was no longer a drarsa, but the response of Shafa’s system to her adolescent pheromones had anchored to her scent even as she matured and her pheromones changed. It was something of a novel freedom to sleep alone, and sometimes a loneliness. They rarely saw each other throughout the day, and they had few interests in common, but they always had the intimacy of sleep.
“You’re tense,” Nak had said reclining on her side, rubbing the center of her forehead in small circles. Her hair was the color of flaming maple leaves in the short season, hidden by the dim. She was a drarse in truth now, but still so young.
“Uio asked me how you were sleeping.”
Nak had shoved a pillow on her face.
They had fought, laughing, until Nak had said, “Brush my hair, then let’s sleep. I know you’ll be up early.”
Nak had brushed hers afterward as she sat demurely on the edge of the bed, ankles crossed and hands laced in her lap. The pleasure from the bristles massaging her scalp had tingled down her neck and into her shoulders.
The fourth day Shafa started thinking about where she was going. She had stopped to dunk her head in a brooklet, throwing her head back and combing green strands out of her face. Shucking her pants and soft-soled boots she waded across with her pack on her head, the burbling water coming almost to her thighs. Dressing again on the other side, she gazed up the slope, tucking her pants into her boots, then she charged upward. She laughed breathlessly at the top, walking along the gentle, wooded ridge until her breath had quieted.
Her lemal would have reached the first village in the circuit. The circuit began in the younger forest villages north and east of the Marn, where half the paths were cobbled and they herded guinea fowl. She wondered what other people saw when they saw him, his unreadable red lenses, the metallic bur of his voice through the ventilator. A pang hit her, and she pushed the thought aside.
Her opportunity was that she didn’t have to think about him. She didn’t have to see him going about his business in the Marn almost every day and barely speak to him, never touch him. She could throw her body into the journey and focus.
Ten days ago they had lost all radio contact with thirteen planes. The two remaining functional Talame sensory towers on the outskirts of Marn territory had detected a single, distinct wave of an unidentifiable energy signature originating within a league of the wing’s last known coordinates.
They had not regained radio contact, and the wing had been five days overdue when Shafa left the Marn. They didn’t know if the energy band was directly responsible, but between that and the possibility that the planes had been shot down, aerial reconnaissance wasn’t an option and the site was out of the towers’ range unless the crews found some way to generate a signal.
Somewhere it was probably written that the sensory towers were a Talame peace offering, but from what Shafa had gathered they had simply failed to mention they wanted the equipment back in the ceasefire negotiations because it was too much trouble. The other dozen established towers had all malfunctioned or fallen into disrepair within twenty years of the truce as the dramma struggled to learn the intricacies of Talame technology. She wondered if the Talame had expected them to last this long.
At her steady pace it was another four days to the river crossing. After her semelis she passed a pungent fox scat, half covered with leaves on a game trail through the brush. There was a urine marking nearby, dark and damp, and Shafa paused to inhale the essence of it. Male, the scent weak. There had been a female fox territory a league east the last time she had traveled through. One of her kits, maybe, or a bachelor might have moved in from the south.
Shafa adjusted her course slightly to skirt his territory. Foxes generally avoided dramma in groups, but alone she was a target.
“Heart rate eight score by the flower. Respirations two score and six. Arterial pressure four-fifths.”
The sounds of awakening.
“Temperature a score sans three. Oxygen absorption five score sans five percent. Radon absorption seven percent.”
Pain. A prick on the inside of the wrist.
“Responsive to pain. Showing irritation of the handle meridian.”
He sat up when the assistant gave permission, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, skin against sterile sheets. A pale-gloved hand swung a harsh, pinpoint light across his eyes.
“Pupils equally reactive. Crown, flower, yoke, cage, and loin meridian complexes all active.”
A soft hammer tapped against all the meridian points on his legs, his reactions carefully recorded with stylus and tablet. His urine carefully collected. The inside of his cheek, nose, ears swabbed. There was no injection this cycle. Then his meal, systematically nutritionally formulated, altered by minute, fastidiously recorded degrees.
“You may begin,” the assistant said, pointing with an elbow toward a pale tray on a pale table in the pale room. He stood ready the required five paces back, stylus to tablet. He picked up the spoon, scooped up something soft and moist, colored only by the heat it emitted. He mashed it up with his tongue, swallowed.
“Describe the taste sensations you are experiencing.”
Tapping on the tablet. The assistant pushed a floating hank of dark iridescent hair behind a heavy lobed ear as he continued to eat.
When there was nothing left on the tray, “Of the following options do you feel completely sated, mostly sated, sated, unsated, or very unsated?”
“Sated.” Not empty, not full.
Turning, the assistant tossed him a prepackaged towlet. He was slow to lift his hands, and he caught it against his chest. The assistant noted his reaction time on the tablet.
“Go ahead and clean up. The first task is in half a score.”
He cleaned his mouth and hands, took the tray in both hands and carried it to the disposal chute. The doctor came in, and he and the assistant spoke in a ricochet of Elevated Professional tones he couldn’t understand. The assistant beckoned him over to a pale cubicle, and seated him in a chair, and he anticipated all the postures required to attach the sensors around his skull. The assistant fidgeted with the last sensor, stepping back as the doctor moved forward.
He snapped back the blind hiding the rest of the cubicle from view, revealing a tumble of colorful, boxy, organic shapes.
“Your task is to manipulate the objects into as many possible formations as you can devise. You may begin.”
Tand opened his eyes to a dazzle of white spears and hazy shadows.
He fumbled inside the pocket sewn in his sleep sack for his goggles, slapped them over his eyes, and instantly the world was more comfortably red, depth returned to more familiar proportions, shadows distinguishable from objects.
“Heart rate,” he recited under his breath in the Elegant Voice, rolling out of his sleep sack. Ifim was already poking through the ashes for coals. “Arterial pressure. Respiratory rate.” He pinched himself, and scanned the duff automatically for sticks. “Responsive to pain. Crown, flower, yoke, cage, and loin meridian complexes all active. Experiencing basal meridian irritation.” His feet were sore. Now he had a small armload of firewood, and dropped to his knees to break up a larger branch. “Pupils equally reactive. Oxygen absorption probably five score sans three to five percent, radon absorption nil. Mucus membrane cultures negative.”
“Now what do you tasting?” Leb finished for him, suddenly squatting beside him and offering him a single red berry. Tand took the berry and popped it in his cheek, a gush of tartness.
“What do you taste,” he corrected, hefting his load of firewood.
“Are you back on the ground with us?” Leb asked, dropping his atrociously intoned Elegant Voice in favor of his native Marn-eastern dialect.
“I never really left,” Tand said, half a shrug with one shoulder.
“You’ve never watched you do that.”
Leb walked with him back to the fire, munching on another berry. Ifim accepted a stick to add to his pile of kindling, blowing the coal he had salvaged into flame. Tand took over feeding the fire while Ifim inspected the sole of the foot in his lap. The goggles cut out at least eighty percent of the ultraviolet light, allowing his native vision to regain temporary predominance, turning the world into shades of not just color, but heat.
“How’s your cut?” Tand asked. Ifim held his foot closer to the fire, the ball streaked with a crusty red tear, flexing his slim toes.
“Drying out. Doesn’t seem infected.”
Tand gestured with two fingers and Ifim transferred his foot to Tand’s lap, pulling his pant leg up over his calf. He found the point where the spring meridian should have started just below the knee, traced it down the shin, and moved the breadth of a finger inward before gently pressing with his thumb. Ifim’s foot didn’t twitch so he massaged deeper.
“Tell me when you feel something,” Tand told him. Ifim watched down the length of his leg, lounging back on his elbows. A few moments later Tand glanced up at him.
“Nothing,” Ifim told him.
“You might not have developed that meridian, or it could be underdeveloped.” Experimentally Tand pressed deeper. “You really don’t feel that?” Ifim touched his earlobe. “I’m just surprised. Most lamdra have that one.” He moved two fingers around the curve of the calf where the arch of the wand meridian ran close to the skin and pressed. Ifim jumped.
Adjusting the pressure, Tand massaged the point in alternating spirals, then held his finger on the spot.
“Mark it, massage it.”
Ifim sat up, replacing Tand’s finger with his own and reclaiming his foot. Tonight was the fierce moon and the sky promised to stay clear. They had taken a afternoon rest in favor of hiking the evening and night through, and to give Ifim time to assess his foot.
“Think we can leave by the time the coals die?” Leb said. Ifim waggled his spread fingers in an affirmative.