summer_jackel: (Zhava Running)
[personal profile] summer_jackel
So, I am writing a novel! I'm not engaging with NaPo as a writing exercise, because I am perhaps 3/4 of the way done with said novel.

I will soon have 'The Lives of St. Valerai: Rosegarden' available as a google document in as much of its extremely unfinished, messy, rough drafted glory as exists. For the nonce, I leave the scene I've been working on for the last couple of days. I was going through it and realized that it contains the book in a nutshell, and is probably a decent indicator for whether a reader will find the thing interesting. If you like, this, there's 548 pages and counting (sob) more of it.






66. Honest dogs


The air was tangy with afternoon cold. Orchid was grading the oval track, though technically he was off shift. This was his time, and he relished it. As the chill sun began to dip toward the treeline, his body thrilled to wake and act.

He stretched and paced across a section of track just behind the flat-harrow, muzzle down and blowing softly in the finely graded earth. He was healthy again, really healthy, and it felt wonderful.

The placement of his hands was careful and deliberate. Slowly, Orchid began to dig at the track, stretching and uncurling his fingers so that the broad, soft tips below his claws touched the ground. Grunting a little, stretching his wrists, he drew his heavy claws through the deliciously even soil, digging harder.

Stronger than he had ever been, and it felt amazing. Orchid’s blooming brain responded to the sweet sensation of claws in earth by opening pleasure receptors, kept him digging harder as he loosened his jaws, foaming slightly under the steel bars that bound them. A sour note; ignore the muzzle. Enjoy the digging.

Sudden concern. Humans? No. Orchid took in a deep breath, tasting the wonderfully familiar scent of track and eucalyptus, autumn gingko, dog. Nobody near.

To control the bloom was to indulge it where possible. Orchid raked deep furrows with his long, powerful claws, feeling the scent glands in each claw-bed swell pleasurably. He felt the feedback loop of pleasures intensify, sunk into the ritual pause, then allowed it.

Besides, this was not only an inoffensive place to indulge his need to scent-mark and dig, it resulted in an even more finely graded track. Pleasingly civilized and efficient.

Not acceptable to dig a hole in the track, Orchid reminded himself. Taste the air, reassure himself that there were still no humans, and don’t go too deep into any one place. He would even the track afterward with the mechanical grader, but harrowing it by claw, drinking in the feedback of his musk mixed in the fine dirt and the sweet, chill air, was wonderful.

He felt so good. A pause. Dangerous? No. He felt so good.

With a little groan, Orchid poofed the coat of his neck and shoulders, curled his tail hard, clawed lightly at the track and sank onto his left wither. He pushed his shoulder down into the ground with a satisfying pressure and turned the slide into a roll.

For a long moment, the tall vayan indulged, feeling the fine track dirt work into his back and mane, rescenting him with the homeground dust mixed in his own claw oils. Enjoying it so, so much.

Too much? Stop, breathe, re-center. Taste the air.

Human and dog. Orchid rose to fours with a zing of excitement, feeling his focus having shifted and sharpened.

Orchid took a deep breath, feeling the air nourish him, move slowly down the heavy length of his neck into his belly. Slowing himself. Beneath the muzzle, his mouth moved away from tusk and fang and his jaw dropped slightly, enough for him to lick the roof of his mouth and draw scent across the receptors there more slowly.

Human and dogs. And this human. Orchid’s pulse quickened.

The big vayan shook his coat carefully, flexed his mane and crest, and lifted his muzzle into the wind. She was coming with it, very plainly—-had moved into it, to warn him.

Of course she had. She was a sensitive and thoughtful ape. As careful as she was frightened and angry whenever she was near him. He could smell her tension rising like spice coming off of good curry as she approached, felt his own response answer with the quick power of water having been released from a spillway.

Orchid raised and settled his mane and crest, repeated the mantra of calming as he identified, separated and eased her potent cocktail of chemistry and emotions. If he could consider the physics of water movement, perhaps it would not drown them.

Civilization demanded the finest behavior of him; and should he fail, Orchid welcomed its inevitable consequence. He would not wish to live with himself. But she smelled so, so good, an exquisite savory intensified by her denial and perfectly reasonable fear.

Orchid leaned back onto his sit-pads, crossed his hands on his knees, and waited for her. His face flashed < calm : greeting : civilized welcome > , and he welcomed the familiar pattern as it calmed him, the act of announcing his civilized intent itself creating civility and bringing it into context.

He only wished Zela could see him. The ability to actually communicate would make things so much easier.

At length, she came around the curve of the track, moving with an easy pride and three hounds beside her. Zela’s aspect was severe. Her tunic was below knee-length and of a fine black fabric that billowed behind her in the winter-breathing coolness, leggings black and slippers of soft black suede. Her headscarf was of a melting silk, black touched with threads of ruby. All of it was new, and fit her perfectly; from Valerai’s dressmaker, from the smell of the cloth.

Their eyes met across the distance. Orchid flexed his crest and flared his nostrils, even as he steepled his hands and lowered his muzzle.

Zela came to just within polite distance and stopped, signing respectful greeting into the shared ambient. Orchid shaped a welcome, using the modifier for ‘nestmate of my beloved’ as he strobed < welcome : offering inspection : civility > and dropped his eyes.

The gesture brought his focus to the dogs. Perch, unleashed, floated comfortably just behind Zela, pausing here and there to touch her long pointed nose to the ground or sniff the air. Sun-tiger was leashed and calmly but alertly at heel.

For contrast, Blackberry beside her was a frenzy of play-bowing and wagging tail. Sun-tiger glared askance as the younger dog whipped her thoughtlessly with the lengthy appendage in question. The dark brindle shrank her offended flank away from him, leaning into Zela and raising one paw as her lip curled disdainfully away from her canine.

Zela inclined her jaw downwards, watching the hounds; her brows knit and then relaxed as she came to a decision. She reached to the end of one suede ribbon and pulled back on a small steel hasp. Blackberry broke free with thoughtless abandon, his amber eyes lightening with glee as he became airborne with a greyhound’s weightless joy.

The little black hound threw himself across the distance like he was racing, back curved and mouth ajar. Perch watched with interest but made no move to join; Sun-tiger bounced in a perfect vertical leap and returned to her starting place, but put no tension on her leash.

Orchid whuffed, spiking his crest and dropping lightly to fours as the greyhound tore circles around him. With a tightening and sudden, hard extension, the great bulk of him went briefly, stiffly airborne, curving his neck in the direction of the dog as he came airily to ground on well-curved knuckles. Orchid bounced lightly; impossibly lightly for so large a thing.

Blackberry jumped higher, wagging swiftly and flattening his paper-thin ears as he drew his lips back in the sighthound grin. Orchid snorted, stiff-legged, and the black hound tore circles, wagging madly. At last they approached, Blackberry licking Orchid’s face and chin frantically, pressing his fine head through the bars of the vayan’s muzzle. Orchid arched his long neck, and the muscles stood from jaw to wither as his crest rose agreeably.

Zela crossed her arms and leaned against the track railing. Perch drifted away. Sun-tiger looked up, then stretched and yawned. Sulking about being on leash, wise enough to notice that this wasn’t her opportunity to press it.

“Dog likes you,” said Zela, after a moment.

“/ +! +! / I like him as well,” said Orchid, stroking the sleek black back with a palm that engulfed it. Having satisfied his keen emotion with an exuberant burst of energy, Blackberry relaxed and arched into Orchid’s touch like a cat.

“You’ve done good work here,” said Zela, bluntly. “With the dogs. You know my bias; it hurts me a little bit to say that.” She let her mouth curve a fraction, bitterly. “Denying truth is the worst sin.”

Orchid dipped his head and held her with his unmoving gaze, ears backslanted, coat relaxed.

“/ +! +! / Thank you,” he said calmly. “/ +! +! / This is the greatest peace I have known since I bloomed. / +! +! / I wish I could show you the hue of my gratitude, written plainly on my face.”

They took the Yls-vel pause. Orchid noticed the increase in Zela’s breathing and how she looked away, arms tightening.

“Vayans can’t lie, is that it,” clipped Zela.

“/ +! +! / You know we can lie,” replied Orchid, gently rejecting context. “/ +! +! / But rarely about emotions, or with hue.” He rippled the sides of his mane, stroked his throat patches with his claws. “/ +! +! / You also know that I am happy here. That I am grateful for my life.”

Zela nodded, and uncurled the fingers of one hand so that they rested on Sun-tiger’s skull. She felt that her hands were shaking by the movement of her hound’s fine ears beneath her palm.

“I don’t want to make light of that.” Zela signed a hasty ‘learner, confused speech.’ Her hands were quick and tense.

Orchid raised his head and settled into a relaxed posture on fours, dipping his muzzle briefly and accepting context with gentle manners. Blackberry, unwilling to be left out of the conversation, leaned against Orchid to demand more petting.

Zela watched him touch the dog, run his big, strange fingers across the fine-boned animal she had bred, raised and worked. Orchid gently traced his line of neck and soothed the tender ears, and Blackberry radiated unquestioning, wiggling canine joy.

Sun-tiger moved her narrow face up into her person’s bloodless fingers, and then Perch leaned against her and quietly claimed the other hand. Always there when she needed her, Perch; wise beast. Zela watched Orchid absorbed in petting Blackberry, and wondered if he could smell the lump in her throat.

“I’m not good with vayans,” Zela said plainly, with a little shrug. “That, you can smell. But I wanted to tell you I appreciate your work.” She paused. “The dogs. The poachers.”

Orchid turned his face away and growled, a low, basso menace as his crest went stiff. Perch watched with calm interest; Blackberry just kept wagging.

“/ +! +! / The constable claimed reasonable challenge. No assault, no dead human, no crime.”

“You knew they would,” said Zela.

Orchid rearranged his coat and made a deep rattle in his throat patches. He signed bright anger into ambient, directed carefully away from Zela with formal respect-appeasement.

He used the modifier for ‘nestmate of beloved.’ Zela’s brows drew and she swallowed, hands paused. After a moment, she made the glyph that acknowledged context, returned the respect.

“/ +! +! / I should have caught the poacher, at least one.” Orchid raked the track deliberately, his claws leaving deep furrows in the soft earth, and beneath their steel shielding, his long tusks gleamed. “/ +! +! / If I had wounded only one, gotten hair or blood / +! +! / or something for the constable to test. If she’d wounded me. / +! +! / I failed and I am angry that I failed.”

Zela felt the old, helpless fury rise in her, sick and impotent. How many times, how many.

“You said yourself, anyone out hunting here is going to be professional. I saw it; you were good.” Her shoulders moved with a little jerk beneath the smooth black cloth. “That’s the problem with fighting, there’s always a better fighter.”

She paused, watched Blackberry capering beneath Orchid’s bound jaws, probing his nose between the bars when the vayan dipped his head obligingly. The sleek black greyhound twisted between Orchid’s upper arms until finally he sat up on his haunches between them, leaning backwards into the vayan’s deep mane and extending his snout up to lick under Orchid’s jaw.

Zela curved her fingers around Perch’s head, gathering the blue-brindle hound close to her, although her tone lightened. “Thing I learned from my males, an honor on their memory. There’s always someone better. If there isn’t now, there will be.”

Briefly, Zela showed her teeth. “Not too many better than we were, though.” She looked at Orchid defiantly, found the level intensity of his gold-flecked gaze, lamplight-hot with bloom. “Maybe we’ll take them the next time. The poachers, I mean.”

Orchid took the pause and savored it carefully, watching her, smelling her so hard he tasted her raw fluids in the roof of his mouth. She was a tiny vortex of anger and power all swirled together with sorrow, an ape’s natural and reasonable desire to run together with its defiance. He took a deep, savoring breath, bringing her into himself, feeling the righteous fury bloom in him.

“/ +! +! / Nestmate of my beloveds,” he said slowly, carefully, signing nothing. “/ +! +! / There may be nothing more precious I have been given / +! +! / than your willing presence.” Orchid raised his crest. “/ +! +! / We aspire to civilization. / +! +! / We have not attained it.”

“No,” said Zela tightly, stroking Perch. “We haven’t.”

“/ +! +! / The next time, we will take the poachers.”

Zela nodded stiffly. “We will.” She let the pause fall, also stiffly; felt her desire to flee come and ebb, knowing that he could smell it. Watched the great, terrifying thing draw her scent through his caged mouth, knew full well she was food to him, no matter what else they were; watched him savor and choose not to act.

“I’ve never believed in civilization,” Zela said at last. “Always saw it as a pretty story you guys told to soothe your conscience over dinner.”

“/ +! +! / That is a truth in the world,” said Orchid. “But civilization is the greater truth.”

“And vayans claim to have no irrational spiritual beliefs,” Zela said richly.

“/ +! +! / I embody civilization to the degree that I am able,” said Orchid, “and so bring it more perfectly into existence.”

Zela nodded slowly and let her eyes rest on Perch. The greyhound looked up and leaned against her with a sigh, wagging slowly. “We were good,” she said at last. “Hey, we fought you and succeeded for almost eight hundred years. We were almost better. It was close.”

She paused, her tone softening. “I always think of might-have-beens, you know, other histories. I lived the end of that one, pretty good I think.” Her shoulders were stiff. “If we’d had a vayan ally, a real vayan ally, even one, it might have gone differently. We might still be free.”

The pause between them was soft, and they both looked away to stroke greyhounds who were happy to soak up any touch or attention given them.

“/ +! +! / The lack of civilized behavior brings tragedy / +! +! / that will resonate in history,” said Orchid, his upslanted palm cupping Blackberry’s narrow head. “/ +! +! / I can only offer you the small thing that I am. / +! +! / The degree of civility I am able to manifest.”

Zela looked at him wryly and inclined her head. “Think you’re small, do you? Looks like about five hundred pounds of blooming male fuckin’ claws and teeth to me.”

Orchid rippled his mane, pleased. “/ +! +! / Five hundred forty, which is close to my ideal. And I seek to improve the work of my claws, for poachers, as / +! +! / I expect to be unable to use my teeth.”

“Didn’t think I was ever going to regret your muzzle,” said Zela, shaking her head. “I don’t.” She paused, and Orchid saw her try to shift physical focus in the way Lial did; understood what she was trying and failing to do.

These apes, he wondered. The bloom called him up in sorrow and passion, and his spinal crest moved fitfully from wither to a stiff, arched tail. How. I never understood.

“So, question for the hypothetical vayan ally,” Zela drawled. His ears went up. “Seems like you like her other vayan well enough.”

‘I do not understand your context,’ he signed carefully. Orchid keenly remembered the feel and scent of her, circling Lial with Valerai, and he suddenly needed to touch her, to taste her skin with strident anxiety.

No, he reminded himself; in this the bloom must be redirected, always. He drew breath through his throat patches, bringing the mantra through the conscious channels of his brain in the same rhythm. She smelled so good. He must not touch her.

“I’m asking what you think about Pattern,” said Zela. “I honestly don’t know what I feel about it and I’m out of my depth. And there’s always a better fighter. So I’m asking the only vayan I ever saw who liked dogs.”

“/ +! +! / You are living proof, “ said Orchid slowly, “/ +! +! / that civility licensure is an imperfect metric for predicting civilized behavior.”

Zela laughed. Orchid watched her with a level gaze, and slowly raised his head.

“/ +! +! / No vayan is perfectly safe for a human to be near,” he spoke into the silence between them, his words as always deep and nearly inflectionless. “/ +! +! / Not Pattern, and never me.”

Zela’s pulse increased; Orchid’s nostrils flared. Her attempt to mirror Lial’s posture was sending him signals she did not intend, but he was not certain if she was doing it intentionally, or in unconscious social mimicry. Either way, this was not the time to bring it up.

“Good to say it now and then,” said Zela, showing teeth, “but believe me, I’m aware.”

“/ +! +! / Pattern is the champion of her house,” said Orchid, “/ +! +! / and until she acknowledges that, / +! +! / there will be no peace in her house or in any nest she joins.”

“That sounds like a weekly drama feed.”

Orchid fluffled the longest parts of his mane and scintillated casual-ironic, starting with the dark ruff behind his eye-ridges, flowing past his cheekbones and framing his throat patches in dark, soft glory. “/ +! +! / Vayan home life is frequently dramatic.”

He paused, and signed alert irony into shared context, slowly, with the side of one foot. “/ +! +! / Look me in the eye and tell me yours is not, singing-ape. / +! +! / You don’t lie easily, either.”

Zela stiffened, and her chemistry intensified. “Isn’t this all confusing enough without the ability to lie? Another thing to like about dogs.”

Orchid affirmed, and asked for a longer pause.

Zela nodded and closed her eyes for a moment, stroking her tall blue-brindle hound. They listened to each other’s breathing, took the time the language gave them to collect themselves.

At length, they considered each other again.

“/ +! +! / In a generation,” said Orchid, stroking his throat patches with the claws of one hand, “human lives will be at stake / +! +! / over her home life drama. / +! +! / Maybe sooner. / +! +! / Possibly, now.”

“Fuck,” said Zela.

“/ +! +! / We manifest civilization by our actions,” said Orchid. “/ +! +! / There are many challenges in my life / +! +! / that I would have preferred not to encounter. / +! +! / This is one of them.”

“Fuck,” repeated Zela, laughing.

“/ +! +! / Each act of civility,” Orchid said, strobing the mantra as though she could perceive it, “/ +! +! / brings civilization more perfectly into being.”

Zela sighed and pet her dogs and shook her head. “May it be the will of God.”

She used her own Yllaii word, not the Yls-vel borrowing or the harsher, shorter syllable Valerai used; Orchid wondered if he’d learned it or only understood from context. It was not a sound he could have replicated, and its wavelengths were interesting, an almost pleasurable buzzing in his ears.

“Anyway,” she was saying, “I have things to do, should let you get back to digging the track.” She paused, tracing a line through the soil with the edge of her dark slipper. Her foot, he noticed, was lovely; more dextrous than any other human he had seen, perhaps even Lial. He wondered if she might even be capable of speech, if she tried.

“Nice work on the track,” said Zela, not noticing his consideration. “Harrowed by claw. None of the other radial tracks have footing this even, or pictures I’ve seen of tracks in other places. Even feels nice to me.” The sound she made was almost a laugh. “No one can say I’m not an honest free lunch.”

‘I am filled with pride and joy and gratitude,’ Orchid signed into context, strobing brilliant violet that she might have seen as increased vividness beneath his eyes. Blackberry pranced, responding to the motion in Orchid’s mane with a graceful hop.

“Little dog loves you,” said Zela. “These hounds, they’re pack dogs, they’ll make friends with anyone that gives them affection and some time. But that one likes you for his own. Anyone who knows dogs will see that.”

Orchid watched her and stroked the greyhound. “/ +! +! / I am trying to learn. They delight me.”

“Have that one,” said Zela shortly, “if you want him. I came here to give him to you.”

Orchid went still, the sides of his eyes tightening to perfect roundness as his pupils expanded. His foot raised half way to forming a context glyph, but did not complete the motion.

“I assume that what your mane is doing right now means you’re surprised or happy,” Zela said evenly, “and not that I’m about to die.”

Orchid breathed a mantra and dropped his eyes and jaws, curving his long neck around Blackberry. The greyhound leaned into him, wagging most of his body.

He gestured ‘< formal calm : apology : deep gratitude : profound gratitude >’ as he felt the pattern repeating hotly across his cheeks and beneath his eyes. “/ +! +! / Yes,” he said simply, breathing. “/ +! +! / Thank you.”

Zela watched him closely. “Good. The formalities are, he’s a municipal dog, but the papers I’ll sign over give you the right to end his career at will. Or race him, if you like; since you’re an employee, there’s no conflict. He’s plenty competitive, and it’s kinder to let him run as long as he can.” She paused with a look of sudden consternation. “Although that means you’ll be running on my team, not Valerai’s. Hadn’t thought of that.”

“/ +! +! / The sportscast,” said Orchid, slowly raising his spinal crest, down to the spiked end of his tail. He drew Blackberry closer.

“Yeah,” said Zela, “I’m too busy to deal with that shit. I will always be too busy, and I’m the only one around here who’s worse with the press than Valerai.”

“/ +! +! / Valerai is not good with the press,” said Orchid.

Zela’s lips curved, and her eyes narrowed. “No, she is not. Anyway. Enjoy Blackberry. He should be yours. Dog loves a vayan, he shouldn’t be mine. Race him, don’t race him, eat him if you like.”

She stopped, her expression suddenly angry, introspective and troubled. She signed a clumsy formal context, leaning her weight forward into it shockingly well.

“I am sorry,” she said in more formal Yls-vel than he had ever heard her use. “That was uncivil of me to say.”

It was sudden, even for him. Orchid was moving, and then had moved. Somewhere, there was shrieking panic, but he quelled it.

Where was he? Had he killed her?

“I said I was sorry,” Zela rasped, breathing hard.

Orchid found himself poised with weight on hind but balanced fore, with hands held claws-spread to either side of her. His neck curved hard, the glory of his great dark mane huge and stiff, the steel-girded edge of his muzzle held just below her jaw a claw’s breadth from her fragile skin. His eyes burned molten copper, level with hers and closer than he had ever been to her. Far too close. His skin burned tight and violet.

He hadn’t touched her. Her breathing was harsh, olive eyes wide and red-rimmed, her chemistry all flight and fury even as she held herself still and collected. The chemical sophistication she was learning from Lial either deliberately or from context was enough to amplify it but did nothing to de-escalate either of them.

“Do not touch me,” she grated, fists balled on the necks of her tense hounds.

He moved back, just as quickly, but did not leave formal context. They were still so close. Her scent and the hammering of her heartbeat roared in his brain.

Blackberry jumped up and put his forepaws on the vayan’s wither. Orchid dropped his head, and his hound jumped lightly to perch at the highest point of his shoulder, wagging joyfully, oblivious to the fraught context all around.

Orchid bowed his head, and ceded the right to determine ambient context to his dog.

Zela stood poised and relaxed, weight in her knees and shoulders loose. A cold wind rippled the soft fabric of her tunic and the longer ends of her scarf. She was otherwise motionless.

Evening made the trees around them a wash of purple shadow, and the sky was white and cold. At length, Zela formed the glyph for sorrow.

“Don’t apologize,” she swallowed, trembling. Perch whined. Zela dropped her hands, changed stance and caressed the blue-brindle’s jaw, found Sun-tiger, drew them both closer. The hounds leaned into her from either side, half-hidden in the fabric, seeking her with mouths and the ends of their noses. “Don’t explain. You’re trying. I know. I know.”

“/ +! +! / So are you,” said Orchid.

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