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A piece of story! But not of 'Rosegarden.' This bit will come in the third part of book 1, 'Lady and Huntsman.' Currently, I plan to divide it into 3 parts, with 'City of Beasts' being third.

This scene should be one of the first introduction to the vayans (assuming the reader has not already read Rosegarden, which will be finished first) and almost certainly the first use of vayan perspective.

I apparently needed to write some average human/vayan interaction out there, to contrast with the less average situation I'm working on now in 'Rosegarden.'

City of Beasts: Valerai, waiting at the train shelter

Valerai stroked her hounds and bid them rest. They were happy enough to obey, and stretched long bodies contently along the station deck.

My beautiful ones, she thought in Ro, cherishing the memory of its sound with a deep ache as she smiled fondly upon the four hounds. My splendid ones. You have done so well.

Night stretched his entire length of spine, extending immoderate forelegs so that his paws rested at the top of her boot, just below her knee. He flexed his toes and pressed the pads against her, making a tiny, contented sound.

Valerai stroked his paw and looked again to her game bag as it leaned, full and heavy, on the other side of the bench. The end of her kill’s extraordinarily long tail stuck out no matter how she tried to arrange it, but other than necessary field dressing, she wished to return it unblemished. Again, she touched it wonderingly, stroking the odd, soft filaments, learning its new scent.

She was doing this. Valerai felt a tired exhilaration course through her, savored it as well. The experience was, disorientingly, both unimaginable and familiar: here she was, hunting as she always had, even now.

Night extended his head and caressed the back of her wrist with his ribbon of tongue. Valerai stroked his ears until he settled, staring again at the chekal’s tail, and then the seal blazoned in elegant detail on the train-shelter wall. The lower half was a coil of great, toothy sea beast she had never seen and yet was, by many credible assurances, very real, while the familiar stag poised above.

The heresy Jena had died for, Valerai thought for the thousandth time, was really true after all. This was no hell. This was just a different place, a distant city.

There were ways in which she’d found Keylenthesberg to be stranger.

Allow the sorrow and the fury to pass over her like a sea, breathe with it. There was nothing to be done but continue. Valerai allowed her eyes to take comfort resting on her beautiful hounds, stretched lithe and powerful, exhausted from a proper hunt, successful on game they had never been put to. Her huntsman’s heart swelled with pride, and she looked with pride again to the alien thing in her game bag.

It would be enough. They lived. The pack was greater than herself. Let this be a sign from the God in whom she no longer believed that she would succeed in this and preserve them here.

She let the thought ease her as prayer had once done. Sinking into quiet calm, Valerai and her pack waited for the train as the afternoon wore on.

Faster was the first to sense the vayans. The silvery hound raised her lean head and rose; Slice followed her lead and sat. The males still slept. Valerai raised a hand in their settling signal, but followed their bright attention with her own.

Three vayans loped down the hill, visible first on the crest above the tracks as the trail emerged from a tangled copse of oak and brush. Valerai felt her heart rate increase as she watched them approach, reminded herself that they could sense such things. Yet how was she to control it?

The three were roughly the same size and build: startlingly large for a creature so gracefully fast, bristling with power and unmistakable, predatory threat. Valerai felt the small hairs on the back of her neck rise even as Night and Chasing joined Slice and Faster in attentive concern.

The vayans’ odd loping gait took them closer much more quickly than it seemed it should. They moved nearly soundless on long, curving hands with supple knuckle-pads, each nearly the size of Valerai’s balled fist. Valerai, watching keenly, marveled at their motion, how fingertips fit against the palm so that their wicked claws pointed up and back, preserved against wear and dullness. So elegant and strange.

The sun glittered on sharpened steel tips, as though their natural weaponry was not enough.

And then they were in the shelter with her. Two had thick white fur, one shaded cream, while a frost of silvery tipping on crest, tail and haunches gave the other a pale blue cast. The third, standing slightly behind the others, was a darker silver-grey, and she wore a copper bracelet around the shaved dock of her tail. The profoundly saturated blue-black of muzzles and facial pads emphasized the uncanny brightness of their round and shining eyes.

Which fixed on her with hard intensity. The silent air became electric. The vayans were perfectly still, weight forward on their heavy, curving hands, long, razor-crested necks held tall and stiffly forward, bristling.

Slice barked. All four hounds were up and watching now, ears up and eyes alert.

Valerai’s response was automatic; a brief word of silence at her hound and a short glare. Slice lowered her haunches into sitting, but she was keenly interested in the enormous creatures, and Valerai could feel her tension through the leash. She extended her hand to soothe the hound.

When she looked back at the vayans, the largest, the cream, had moved closer. She was only a few feet away now, staring hard at them with bright, level coppery eyes. Valerai swallowed, locked in them.

Wait, she thought a little madly, her heart racing with the sudden, unreasoning upwelling of fear she thought she had mastered in the immigration classes. Faced with new vayans outside the context of the school, she realized how much she had not learned.

The cream-white vayan’s nostrils widened, and the dark, flexible skin to either side of her long, squared muzzle expanded as she filled her sinuses with air. The sides of her mouth moved away from sharp tusks.

Staring at them, Valerai remembered, was ill-advised unless you understood how, understood the nuance. But looking away at the wrong moment was also wrong.

Valerai swallowed, and carefully formed the greeting glyph. The cream-white dropped and extended her head, bringing it closer to Valerai without moving her body forward, and her heavy mane expanded.

The blue-white loped up beside the cream, fixing Valerai in eyes a blistering metallic green. She had rings in her ears, Valerai noticed, two wide bands in each, inset with a green stone that recalled but could never match the shade of her eyes. She too was sniffing, her shorter snout forward and slightly down in a posture that matched her companion’s.

She dropped her jaw and pulled the sides of her mouth up and away from her teeth in a sharp grimace. The patches of tough, elastic skin almost hidden in the thick mane that cascaded around her throat constricted and released in the sharp crack of plosion. Chasing stood up, startled by the sound, and Valerai stilled him.

“ / !!!!! / It seems you had a successful hunt,” said the blue-white vayan.

Valerai carefully made the gesture that asked her interlocutor for time to think about how to speak. “I am sorry, please repeat,” she said at last. “I am new Yls-vel. I am learner. Learning?” Valerai looked suddenly perplexed, absorbed.

“/ !!!!! / Your Yls-vel is fine,” said the blue-white, swinging her head to face the cream, her pale mane spiking suddenly, raising in the center and fanning impressively to the side.

The second made a sudden, frightening gesture. Her jaws went wide, flashing sharp, curved tusks longer than Valerai’s hand. The two vayans grabbed at each other, whirling, unfurling ruthlessly clawed fingers to grip each others’ withers as they sank onto their hindquarters, gaping muzzles held against each other and snarling.

Slice barked again, joined by Chasing’s deeper note of alarm. Valerai kept her grip tight on their leashes, but taking her attention from the sparring monsters seemed ill-advised.

The blue-white swung her head back to Valerai, mouth gaped in a sharp grin, eyes bright and decorated ears well forward. “ / !!!!! / I am the only one of us who can speak,” she said. “/ !!!!! / Can you understand?”

Valerai, pale, swallowed and nodded, and then, remembering herself, made the glyph for ‘assent - agreement’. Her hands felt clumsy and numb, the sign more awkward for holding the leashes she did not dare release.

“I am tryer. Trying? Learning.”

“/ !!!!! / It’s ‘trying,’” said the vayan.

“Thank you,” swallowed Valerai, staring.

Eye contact, they had taught her, could be a challenge or an invitation, but its lack could be an insult. What context was this?

“ / !!!!! / You hunt?” asked the vayan, swinging her muzzle to the chekal in her gamebag. “/ !!!!! / My nestmate asks, do you hunt with symbionts?”

“Yes,” said Valerai.

Again, that terrible, sharp grin. “ / !!!!! / better luck than we had,” she said, licking her jaws and making a glyph with her foot as she shifted weight into her hands.

They were enormous, glossy-coated and powerful, Valerai realized, but their bellies were high and tucked. There was no rounded curve; instead, nearly a concavity behind the ribs. Valerai suddenly recalled another of her naturalization lessons; a subtlety of vayan body condition.

These had not eaten. They were hungry, perhaps hungrier than a vayan usually was. Always, there existed the unavoidable truth that they would find her delicious.

Slice barked and backed away while bold Chasing sprang forward. Valerai snapped a sharp command to them that became an oath, and she jumped back inadvertently.

The silver-gray vayan moved with her. Valerai cursed herself for not having seen, in her focus on the whites, that the third had circled to the other side and was now closer than either. Too close, her body tense and crest low as her outstretched head, copper-gold eyes burning and jaws gaped as she stared up at Valerai.

Slice’s sudden, sharp bark did not help. She pulled back, taking Valerai and the rest of the pack with her. The silver vayan approached at the same speed and then just a little faster, licking her tusks slowly.

Valerai was suddenly terrified. Whatever else she did not understand, this was clearly a threat. How had she misstepped? It did not matter.

Do not run, she thought harshly, do not, that was the first thing they taught you here, but we knew it in Reval already. Master Orr taught you long ago when you were first prenticed. Do not run.

“Please, not approach dogs,” said Valerai sharply, and, gaze level, stood her ground. Her free hand had gone with unthinking ease to the huntsman’s dagger. Slice’s fear, Chasing’s unhealthy interest and the alert confusion of Night and Faster galvanized her.

Valerai held her pack behind her as she mapped targets, should it come to that. She would not run.

“Please,” she said again. “Not approach.”

The blue-white vayan watched her nestmates with rising alarm and twinned arousal. Poor as her Yls-vel also was, she could tell that the human’s tone-inflection did not imply apology. That was as much challenge as its low stance, the sudden sharp glitter in small, flat eyes, the way it centered in front of the symbionts, knife in a tiny, steady hand.

< RUDE : RUDE : OFF > the blue-white oscillated hot violet, swinging her head to either side, dropping her lower jaw in a hard gape as she moved quickly between her nestmates and the human. She fanned her mane around her continuing display of thick, curved tusks and fangs.

< Oh come on, > strobed her younger nestmate, the silver-grey. < That’s a wild ape, I’ll pay the fine if there is one. It won’t be more expensive than a good meal in town, and that smells so good. Fuck it, I’m hungry. >

Oblivious to higher conversation, the human settled into her knees, finding herself locked into the bright, round eyes of the cream-white vayan who had approached as the blue-white moved against the silver.

She fixed the human in a keen, harsh coppery gaze, mane easing slowly upward as she took a long, tasting drink of air into her nasal cavities. Her facial pattern was a simple repeating < Interesting >. Without gesture or context established between them, the blue-white couldn’t tell if her nestmate intended a hard introduction with the human or planned to kill her.

Unlike the silver, she had no power to stop the cream if she decided to act.

It had been such a disappointing hunt. They were all so hungry, it did smell so good, and her desire to share context with her nestmate was suddenly acute.

No, she thought a little desperately. I don’t want to do this. There’s something we don’t understand here. This isn’t right.

“Not approach!” The human made a coughing sound; its chemistry spiked, but there remained the cool focus of a sapient. “Threa…Threaten?” Its tonal resonance changed, resolving. “I feel threatened!”

< RUDE : Get BACK : Shame! > the blue-white oscillated hotly, wheeling on both of her nestmates and turning her back on Valerai as she drove them to the other side of the train shelter.

They both oscillated challenges, but they were civilized, even if they were tired and embarrassingly rude. < Fucking hungry, > the silver flashed a quick, dull blue, but turned her muzzle away, pulling her mouth sullenly away from one tusk.

< Oh, I’ll fuck you hungry, > flashed the blue-white, making the glyphs for ‘really angry!’ and ‘exasperation’ in close succession as she spiked her tail and gaped her jaws at the silver. < I know it’s tasty, don’t even flash that offside; I’m hungry too. You’re just surly it got a chekal and we didn’t. Don’t be less civilized than it is! >

< Fucking liberal > strobed the silver hotly, capitulating by dropping her gaze and curving her tail.

< Not a fucking criminal! > the blue-white gaped and snarled. < Steal its prey if you want to be a thief, but I won’t eat a civil ape or break the law. >

< Fuck you, > sighed the silver tiredly. < I’m hungry. >

< We’ll get a good meal as soon as we get back to the city, > strobed the blue-white on top of a gentle repeating appeasement-enticement pattern. < And then, I will. >

Standing apart from them and now nearest to Valerai, the cream-white vayan flattened her crest softly and strobed a bright, matching appeasement on the facial pad nearest her blue-white nestmate. She made the glyph for calm, but held her tail in a stiff arch, and the long hair of her spinal crest was fully erect. Her neck was high and straight, her long, squared muzzle pointed severely back at the human.

< Interesting, > she strobed. < So interesting. Look, it’s ready to defend itself. It’s upset but not panicked. >

< Please look away from it, > oscillated the blue-white, softening her head away from her cream nestmate while simultaneously baring her tusks and flashing green-gold eyes at the silver. < We’ve given it legal space, but your gaze is still threatening it. Think about its volatiles for a moment. Smell them? >

The cream-white shifted weight onto tall, well-padded knuckles and briefly shook herself to fore, loosening her mane as though by force. She dropped her head slightly and curved toward her blue-white nestmate, claiming right to set context by glyph while admitting appeasement facially.

< You are right > she flashed, leaning forward to gently take her silver-gray nestmate’s muzzle in her mouth. The silver acquiesced with a tired little sigh.

< That’s the problem,> the silver flashed ruefully down the part of her face not resting in her nestmate’s maw. < They’re so tasty. > An automatic < hunger : hunger : feed > was beginning to color her entire facial context.

< Thank you, > the cream strobed at last to the blue-white, sighing and holding the silver’s muzzle for a long moment before releasing it and licking her tusks. < This is why I was never able to pass level two civility. It —- no. She just smells so fucking delicious. >

< Yes, > strobed the blue-white, intensifying her own appeasement oscillation and signing relieved agreement. < She does. I want to get you both back to town and feed us. >

< It won’t be as good as that would be, > the silver strobed a sullen indigo.

< Next time we hunt we’ll get something, > flashed the blue-white in a series of hot violet cascades across her muzzle and lower facial pads. < Besides, you’d have to eat the stink-foxes too, and you hate to eat carnivore. >

The silver’s strobing pattern shifted as her hue intensified; she hadn’t thought of that. The blue-white pressed on.

< You know if we left a scrap of meat we’d get more than a fine, and I’m not going to eat any stink-foxes for you.” She made the glyph for sincerity, while dipping her crest. < Besides, I’d be ashamed. Look how beautiful. She was going to fight us; she’s still ready to do it. She’s a beautiful animal, let her be. >

< You’re so sexy, > strobed the cream, baring her fangs and making hard, almost hostile eye contact with her blue-white nestmate, < when you decide to be ridiculously progressive. > She signed sudden context at the silver and flashed, < That’s why she’s a two and we can’t test past one. > She reached forward and took the silver’s muzzle in her jaws again. < Although you wouldn’t pass a level one test right now, would you? >

The silver relaxed her mane and throat patches with resigned appeasement. < Ugh, I’m fucking tired, > she flickered, making no move to take her muzzle from her cream nestmate’s jaws. < You’re right, it isn’t wild, I don’t want to report eating it to the transport authority, I don’t want to eat dog. A decent meal in town is probably cheaper. What the fuck kind of ape is it, anyway? You’re right, you’re always right. >

< I’m going to bite both of you, really hard, > strobed the cream-white affectionately, shaking the silver’s muzzle gently.

The blue-white pulled her mouth up away from her fangs, laying back her small, pointed ears so that the rings disappeared into her thick mane, and arching her tail loosely. < Can you please bite me after we eat? >

The three pressed their snouts together for a moment of shared breath and intimate context. Tails curled and crests relaxed.

< Leave her this shelter? > strobed the blue-white.

< Until the train comes, > agreed the cream, claiming right to set context with a half-stiff mane and nibbling the silver’s shoulder to turn her.

To Valerai, the whole exchange had been a matter of moments. Had she possessed eyes that could detect their strobing, her human brain would still have lacked the speed of visual processing needed to understand their conversation. Crouched and timeless in the hunter’s waiting calm, she held her blade loosely and motioned her wolfhounds to wait behind her, watching the vayans keenly.

Their movements were harsh, emphatic and blisteringly fast. The three of them made of the space between them a vortex of challenge, gaping their jaws and scintillating their manes and crests.

But as they did it, they moved away from her. She had remembered the words, although they were still so awkward in her mouth. She’d said them. And the vayans had moved away.

They were so beautiful. Valerai watched them with something like longing pounding alongside the horror in her chest.

Slice made a tiny whining sound, pointing her long snout at the vayans, her eyes bright with interest and concern. Night, Faster and Chasing watched her, and watched the vayans.

“Down,” Valerai soothed in a tone that nonetheless brooked no argument, stroking them, keeping herself alert between the vayans and her pack.

The wolfhounds were well run and tired, and understood their person to be stressed and serious. Chasing yawned widely, his small ears touching behind his narrow backskull as he pressed his eyes closed, and flopped back down on the train-shelter decking. Night acted almost in time with him, and although Slice did not take her attention away, she did not move forward. Faster sat reluctantly and yawned.

Valerai returned her full attention to the vayans. She could see them gesture, but the movements were so fast, their hand and foot shapes so fundamentally different, that she found herself frustratingly unable to follow any of it.

The flashing of tusks seemed clear enough. The dispute, if it had been that, ended in stillness as far opposite they could get without leaving the train-shelter. Then, the three stopped and pressed their muzzles together.

Valerai stared with shocked fascination.

The cream and silver finally did turn to leave, but the blue-white with her piercingly metallic-green eyes was suddenly closer than she had been. Valerai’s heart pounded, and she felt the hounds rise to their feet again behind her.

“/ !!!!! / I apologize for threatening you,” said the vayan, making a context glyph with her foot that Valerai could not parse. The shiny patches on either side of her long throat constricted and then released into the startling, sharp clap of her plosion. “/ !!!!! / When the train comes, board first. We will choose another car. / !!!!! / Congratulations on your hunt.”

“Thank you,” said Valerai solemnly.

It did not take the train a great deal more time to arrive, though with the uneasy knowledge of the three vayans just out of sight on the other side of the wooden shelter and their occasional growling and other alarming, mysterious noises, the wait was much less relaxing.

Valerai remembered the motions of their coats, could still detect a hint of their spicy musk in the still, warm air. Their shining eyes, their long powerful necks, their sharp tusks.

How dangerous had that been? She did not know.

She had called threat using the prescribed words. They had moved away. Was this not how it was intended to work?

The distant cry of an incoming horn soothed her, and the beautiful silvery train filled her with relief as it pulled into the platform. Its smooth, pointed engine was decorated with the design of a leaping doe, and Valerai hurried to the door closest to that engine as it opened.

The trainguard, a small but immensely muscular vayan with thick black fur, stepped out of the first door. Valerai saw her nostrils widen, her greenish-yellow eyes harden as she approached, recognized that moment of predatory interest, felt the sudden pull to run. It was so hard to make herself close the distance instead.

The trainguard waited, patient and still, her eyes fierce and quiet. Hands shaking, Valerai offered her papers. The vayan checked them carefully, and stared at her for a long moment, sniffing.

Valerai did nothing. Finally, the trainguard nodded and clicked her tusks, motioning her wordlessly into the car.

There were only human passengers, and not many. Two Yrethtari men looked up as she entered, one dressed in a simple work tunic and trousers, the other almost entirely obscured by a robe and hood. They watched her curiously as she settled with her hounds and quarry at the other end of the car.

Valerai ignored them. The train smoothly began its motion, and they began to converse in a language that she could not even identify.

A deep wave of sorrow and exhaustion swept through Valerai. She found herself suddenly fighting tears, sick with longing for a woman who was dead and a home that no longer existed. It was suddenly harder to ignore the ever-present pain in her back.

Chasing climbed up onto the seats next to her, tucking his substantial body neatly into them and laying his narrow, soft head in her lap. Smiling a little, she began to stroke the big sable hound with cold, bloodless fingers that only trembled when they were hidden in his curling mane.

The train bore them from the hunting allotments back into the interior of the city. She might have dozed, but came awake instantly at every stop, at every significant motion or sound of the other passengers. She kept thinking of the three vayans. How quickly they had approached, how she had been unable to track the motions of all three.

Even your master’s master’s master, she reminded herself, could not take three at once. You did not challenge. You did not run. Be gentle.

Valerai stroked Chasing, reached down to find Night where he curled on top of her boots. We are all trying, she thought.

Finally, the train returned to their fourth-radial station. She stared at the colored sign keenly, almost certain she was reading it correctly, still filled with a sudden irrational anxiety that she was not. She disembarked, relieved to recognize the familiar landmarks confirming the writing that was still so difficult to parse.

Now, to obtain the correct trolley. Valerai slung the full bag over her shoulder with a little sigh. She supposed she should be happy that she didn’t have to carry it back to wherever she’d tied her horse, or worse yet all the way back to the keep. This city was trying its hardest to make things easier for her, really. She had never been anywhere so gloriously convenient.

Finally, as afternoon was easing into end of day, she returned. With a little sigh of relieved triumph, Valerai threw open the common room door, game bag heavy on her shoulders, the wolfhounds of Reval trailing lean and grinning at her heels.

Zela and Kaleb sat opposite each other on the most worn, comfortable couches, throwing dice, expressions deeply immersed. They both looked up suddenly as the door swung open.

Zela’s little black-and-white feist jumped to his feet, but her hand on his smooth, quivering back stopped him. Kaleb’s porcelain-pale greyhound raised her head more politely, but with no less interest.

“Well,” Zela drawled slowly. “Our Kaishi huntmaster returns. You get anything?”

If Valerai understood her faint note of scorn, she didn’t show it; hard to know what she understood half the time, Zela thought with a twinge of annoyed guilt.

But Valerai was moving forward, and came to stand before Zela with an odd formality. Kaishi-black eyes fixed and intense, ice-pale cheeks brightening at points nearly as red as her burgundy field clothes, she made the Kaishi blessing sign at her clavicle before offering a neat, tight bow. Her next motion brought the bag smoothly off of her shoulder to rest on the floor between them with unmistakable weight.

With a third smooth motion, she opened the bag and rolled the top back to show its contents, extending the heavy leg and stroking the stiff tail with something like wonder.

“What?” exclaimed Zela, jaw dropping a little. Shabo, the feist, made a little growling sound, his spine bristling excitedly as his tail began to vibrate. Zela picked him up and sat him on the other side of the couch, motioning him to sit. He growled, but complied.

“It is chekal,” Valerai said patiently. “You asked for chekal. I hunt.”

“I…wow,” said Zela, blinking. “That certainly is. Thought I asked you for a steak.”

Valerai’s expression went sardonic. “Long hunt. I am tired. I must butcher?” She made a gesture of open hands, and her eyebrows were evocative.

“Zela,” Kaleb said slowly, rolling the dice in his wide palms. “What about your manners. Thank the lady.”

Zela’s eyes widened a little, the conflict between her natural sharpness and stronger sense of justice evocative and obvious in her rapidly changing series of expressions. She hurriedly formed the glyphs for misspoken and apologies, glaring, even as she wondered again how much Valerai actually understood.

“I’m sorry,” said Zela. “That is a beautiful chekal. Thank you. I’ll butcher it.”

“I’ll help you,” added Kaleb, leaning back in the couch, still turning the dice thoughtfully in one hand.

Valerai nodded gravely and made the Kaishi blessing at her throat again before pressing her hands together and offering Zela another graceful, formal bow.

“I tend pack, sleep?”

“You don’t ask me, huntmaster.” Zela’s tongue stumbled on the Kaishi word, harder to say without sarcasm. She stared at Valerai and her bag. “Get some sleep.” A helpless pause. “Thank you.”

Valerai turned her back and left without another word, her hounds following silently at her heels.

“Kaleb,” said Zela plaintively when she had gone. “What the hell?”

Kaleb shrugged eloquently, his dark Yrethtari face unflappably calm as ever, his eyes thoughtful.

“What the hell?” she asked again, more emphatically.

“Seems as though you told her you wanted a steak,” he said slowly, “And she went out and got it for you. I think we make this into food, and we do a good job of it.”

“I get it, I get it,” Zela snapped.

Kaleb’s smooth brow rose. “Do you?”

“No,” she growled, petting her feist, “but this looks like a lot of work. Come on.”

“Right behind you,” he sighed. “Let me change into something that isn’t velvet.”


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July 2017


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