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summer_jackel ([personal profile] summer_jackel) wrote2017-06-02 12:51 pm
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24. Blue-brindle

Chapter 24, from earlier in the book than the bit I'm otherwise working on.

24. Blue-brindle

In the clear, sweet light of Urkatriabek in early summer, the sun did not rest long below the horizon. Middays were not yet hot, but midnight had lost the drowning darkness of winter, and the horizon bloomed tender as the city’s many flowers.

Thus, it was early, but the sky was already bright when Zela and Kaleb arrived. They stepped down from the streetcar together when it stopped before the twinned poured-stone hounds that guarded the closed racetrack gates, and a brace of hounds accompanied each of them.

“How should I know?” Zela was saying with affected, nonchalant insolence. “Why would you think I’d know what it was supposed to mean? I certainly never met any. What about you?”

As she spoke, Zela drew a set of keys from her tunic. They reached one of the small, wrought-iron side gates and worked the lock. She wore simple hempen work clothes and a dark purple scarf, but the greyhounds floating softly at her heels wore collars of the softest suede, decorated with intricate beading. Perch’s was a deep sea-blue that contrasted nicely with the hue of her short, blue-grey coat, and Sun-tiger, a strikingly dark brindle who gave the appearance of a black hound with bright orange stripes, wore red.

Kaleb dressed to fashion. He wore a dark purple suit, nearly black, and a chartreuse waistcoat which were beautifully tailored to flatter his solid frame, though the fabric was a readily cleaned fine-woven hemp reasonable for a houndsman. A brooch of banded green agate pinned his collar, and his hat was tall enough to be stylish without being overly flashy.

“I’ve met a few of them,” he said, “but it was a long time ago, and I never knew them well.”

Zela signed casual-ironic and held the gate for him. Kaleb’s full lips curved minutely as he touched the brim of his hat with a wide, dark finger, dipping his shoulder to her before he corrected his posture and strode through with his eager brace of coursers.

The hounds that trotted at his side with an attitude of relaxed interest were white, and wore matching collars of purple silk. Equal in beauty if mismatched in breed, Sugar was a wavy-coated Kaishi wolfhound, and Moonstone a tall white greyhound with skin as fine as porcelain. His nose and the plates that marked his ears and the dock of his tail were dark, slaty blue, and his eyes were mismatched. One was pale amber, and the other a striking bright ice-blue.

“More than I know, anyway,” said Zela as they walked through the empty gates and past quiescent windows, concessions and bleachers.

Kaleb shrugged. “Too in-city for my tastes. My mother went for patronage and ziggurat social but never, as they say, to the elevation she was looking for.” He adjusted the brim of his hat and readjusted the handful of neat, greyed cords gathered in a black ribbon at his nape; his hair was otherwise clipped close. “I met a few, mostly didn’t like them. There isn’t much to say. I married Sentha and haven’t seen any reason to spend much time in town since.”

“Honest and admirably human,” nodded Zela, exaggerating a posture of aloof approval.

“You’re funny this morning.” Kaleb adjusted his leashes and followed the attention of his hounds, who had gone poised and tight in his hand.

“I’m tense,” she said shortly, checking Sun-tiger. “Hey look, there’s Valerai. Speaking of.”

In the lefthand outfield of the oval track, a simple lure pattern had been devised on the flat, clipped lawn. Two young wolfhounds, red and gold, pursued a bit of cloth tied to a line with rapturous abandon, a display of glorious speed and parity of motion two beats airborne and nearly flight.

Zela and Kaleb paused to watch with appreciation, holds casual but iron-tight on the four hounds that stood poised against their leashes, focus bright on the movement of the lure. Moonstone, the youngest, leapt vertically; Kaleb caught his collar and held him smoothly when he came to ground, bidding him wait in a low voice without taking his eyes from Valerai’s dogs.

Fox-red Firebrand ran beside the singleton puppy who alone was Valerai’s gain from an important litter she had planned with great care. Watching him run, despite ten months of awkward that he was, Kaleb opined to Zela,

“You’d almost think he might be what she says of him.”

Zela’s brows slanted a dark angle towards the upper drape of her scarf. “Something ridiculous about sunlight shimmering on falling raindrops? Come on, it’s hard not to love a puppy after spending that much trouble getting him this far. Or see his qualities objectively.”

“Is that a bet?”

“Nah, if I make a bet this soon, Valerai’s bound to win it.”

Kaleb allowed himself a tiny smile and a tilt of his own brow. “If that’s so, perhaps Valerai is right.”

“Well, she does know her dogs,” Zela had to admit. “That is such an awkward puppy, though. Look, he’s nearly tripping over his own hindquarters. And could he have more extra skin on his neck?”

“He has pretty markings.”

Zela grinned. “You’d think so.”

On the far side of the field, Valerai stood beside a boxy, thrumming electric engine, controlling the lure with a toggle box in her hands, dark gaze fixed avidly upon the running dogs. Pale Sundrop was young, which was obvious in every mismatched, gawky angle of him. It would not do to overwork him, but a wolfhound puppy thrives on high-speed play, and it was clear to any watcher that his life’s obsession was in catching his adored playmate, who was faster.

Valerai let them have a moment of glory down the straightway, then gradually slowed the line and let them take the lure. The two young hounds pounced and savaged it, grabbing a mouthful of cloth each and jumping backwards, worrying it with apparent ferocity. The huntmaster of lost Reval trained her pack unmuzzled, but then the curls on their long necks were dense and slippery, and could bear a packmate’s nip better than the fine-skinned greyhounds.

Still, Valerai’s tall, curly wolfhounds had always been kind-tempered and handled with great tenderness, for all she hunted them practically, and on large game. That had impressed Kaleb as soon as he met her, incongruous and horrifyingly genuine as she had been. Her hounds had spoken well enough.

This white-and-golden pup was no different. Bored with savaging the lure, Sundrop jumped joyfully airborne and sighted on Kaleb, Zela and their pack, tongue lolling, tail high and grinning like a fool.

Valerai hurriedly signed the question ‘let them meet or bring them back?’ across the distance of the field. Zela looked at Kaleb and shrugged. The big man nodded and signed an assent to Valerai, and they both unclipped their leashes.

“You’re free,” said Zela with a little flash of pleasure. The four, who had been sitting quietly, took instant flight.

Six fleet coursing-hounds ran headlong towards each other. Sundrop, cowed by being suddenly outnumbered by his seniors, curved to turn tail at the last minute and ran back toward Valerai. Moonstone, a yearling, pursued him while the rest met in a merry swapping of snouts and tails, and for a sweet, long moment the two young dogs ran beautifully across the broad green lawn. Sun and moon, golden ticking and tender blue mottling on bright, soft white, the pups streaked across the verdant morning green towards Valerai.

She ran lightly to embrace them, and the white-and-golden puppy all but jumped into her arms. Laughing, she petted him while diverting the over-enthusiastic Moonstone past with her hip. He slowed, turned and loped back to her, and she reached to pet him on his fine, blue pigmented nose.

Moonstone pranced joyfully and rose into the air. Valerai laughed with delight and ran away from him, moving easily in her split-skirt, cloth hose and calfskin boots. The puppies chased her, grinning.

After a moment of mutual chasing, Sundrop dared a sniff at Moonstone. The greyhound bowed, whipping his narrow tail, and the larger wolfhound puppy returned his invitation a little shyly. Sundrop waved his long, wispy plume, the expansive silky furnishing it would some day boast still mostly on back-order, and Moonstone pounced. Comfortable with each other now enough to play, the two dog puppies tore fast circles around Valerai.

Moonstone was one to quickly ramp up intensity. He nipped at Sundrop’s flanks too closely for the sensitive pup, who became frightened again and pressed himself behind Valerai’s skirts. Laughing, she sheltered him, and turned her attention to Moonstone, pulling a length of braided rags from her skirt-pocket and waving them temptingly. The greyhound grabbed the toy, snarling fiercely, and Valerai began to sing.

“Fairy dog, fairy dog, does your off-eye see;
Fairy dog, fairy dog, can you see another country?”

Valerai, playing with the hounds, lightly offered them a rhyme she had learned long ago from a circle of peasant children at Reval. The simple tune came with a memory, not a bad one, and it pleased her as it pleased the pups to hear her voice.

The children had been playing at the rhyme one morning after harvest, and a merled shepherd’s collie pranced delightedly inside their circle. First trotting to one child and then another, the dog was clearly in his element, lightly knocking a roughspun cap off one forehead or kissing another dirty cheek, speaking “woo, woo woo!” as he spun on his hind with happy, flattened ears.

It was the collie that drew Valerai, who might otherwise have skirted around them and gone ignored. Haying finished, it was now her duty to return to Reval’s keep and the hounds she tended and sorely missed. She was sore, chafed and happy to be done, never more appreciative of her station than when enjoying the privilege of coming away from the fields.

She would avoid any human contact that could be helped, but the animated, roughspun children and soft collie prancing gaily among them paused her and brought her closer instead. It was also true that she was a youth in livery, though it was the worn, patched version suitable for haying. She had a year or so beyond the oldest of the children in the circle, and so perhaps she was less afraid of them.

The collie, taking note of a new companion, pranced up to Valerai, making happy noises and waving his white paws and white-tipped brush. She offered him a hand to sniff, and he wagged his whole body up to her, touching her several times on the face and arms with his snout before waving off to another child. Now Valerai was part of the circle, without having to speak, and the peasant children began singing again:

“Fairy dog, fairy dog, does your strange-eye see;
Fairy dog, fairy dog, can you see another country?”

In the next round of the chorus, another voice joined. At first barely above a whisper, Valerai adjusted pitch and key and allowed herself to sing a little louder, and when the rhyme came next around, the note she added was soft but definite.

The peasant children did not know that she was Reval’s mute kennel-prentice; or if some might have guessed, they assumed otherwise from the fact of her singing. None of them understood that this was the first time Valerai had tried her voice in human company, and so she was not so self-conscious as to render the attempt impossible; but it was to the collie’s friendly, merled gaze that she searched for comfort while she tried.

Valerai did not know the rhyme could be taken to have other meanings, that it was sometimes sung unkindly to the occasional blue-eyed child born into Reval’s peasantry. She might have known, hazily, that far to west and south of the plateau, blue eyes and even green were common; that these were Kaishi people, but beyond them ruled infidel kingdoms said to practice witchcraft, and the nursery-rhyme explored those tensions.

In that moment, Valerai and the children sang the rhyme for its simpler, better meaning, a song merely in praise of the pretty, friendly shepherd’s collie who played among them, morning sun gleaming in his wide white ruff and the tip of his wagging tail.

They sang another round, and then an adult voice called to one of the boys. He answered and trotted away in obedience, the tall dog keeping amiably to his heel. Valerai eased out of the company, making a short, graceful bow to a girl who looked to her inquiringly and might have asked her to stay.

Valerai had gone back to Reval with the song echoing strangely in her mind. She had sung it later to her pack, in privacy, though the wolfhounds of Reval were dark of eye, and she had never forgotten it. Now, capering lightly among agreeable hounds in a distant city, Valerai ran her hands lightly across Moonstone’s paper-fine ears and her golden puppy’s questing muzzle and sang,

“Fairy dog, Moonstone, does your pretty, blue eye see;
Sundrop, fairy dog, can you see
are you dancing in another country?”

Having followed the trajectory of their hounds, if more sedately, the track’s three senior handlers came together. Zela crossed her arms, but her lips curved in an indulgent smile she couldn’t help. When Firebrand came wiggling up to her, she scratched the offered ears and made tender sounds to the dog that weren’t quite singing, but somewhat matched Valerai’s cadence.

Valerai herself approached, not quite as swiftly nor directly as her swirling hounds, but with the same bounding eagerness. She came close to Zela but stopped herself before touching, searching her face carefully. Zela smiled and leaned forward, holding her lips against Valerai’s for a moment with comfortable pressure before moving away.

Moonstone jumped up and pressed his paws against Valerai’s fitted bodice, wagging. The low note of her laughter joined context, and she petted him.

Kaleb did not come away from his dignity— Zela had never known him to sing for any reason— but gave his big hands easily to the hounds when they came to him for touch. Sugar, Moonstone and the rest of his pack were sweet-tempered and friendly in a way that spoke of his temper and handling, while leaving his polite and gentlemanly distance in place.

Zela and Kaleb had not between them more than a few words of Kaishi, and so understood only what the hounds did: Valerai’s playful tone and their names. Still, they enjoyed her, and the privilege they had earned in witnessing her complete and unselfconscious joy in hounds. The three handlers and six coursing dogs spent a moment enjoying one another in the clear, pale summer’s morning.

“New liaison comes in today, doesn’t she?” Zela finally asked to neither of them in particular, knowing full well they all knew the answer. Even ever-moderate Kaleb looked more than usually keen. The disparate pair, Yllaii and Yrethtari, slouchily workmanlike and made carefully to fashion, looked to their companion of one expression: a skeptical, avid interest.

If anything, Valerai might be faulted for cursory treatment of those aspects of her job not directly tied to the care or training of dogs, with which she was meticulous. In this situation, there might be more subtle social niceties in play, and Zela had not failed to tell Kaleb that their new hire was her patron’s castoff.

“How am I supposed to know what it means,” she’d asked him as they walked past the empty bleachers. “I’ve told her I don’t want details about her patronage. Don’t you know?”

“I believe that she is already here,” said Valerai, turning to the solid brickwork tower that housed their offices, commons, storage and observation deck. “I slept in the kennel last night and was up not long past sunlight. I saw a light in the Liaison’s office.”

“Hard worker,” Zela said drily.

“On the other side’s timeframe,” Kaleb observed.

“Well,” asked Valerai, “Do we meet her?”

“Seems like the thing we do today,” said Zela, watching Valerai closely. A beat longer and she relented, stepping forward to wrap one arm around rather bony shoulders, lifting the straw brim of Valerai’s hat and kissing her on the temple.

Valerai smiled, and some of the anxiety that glittered in the depths of her black-brown eyes uncoiled, leaving a houndlike, alert excitement. Leaning over and going up on the balls of her feet—-both were slight, but Zela was somewhat taller—Valerai rested her lips on Zela’s cheek and then her temple, just behind the scarf, and let her weight rest on her for just a moment.

Kaleb looked politely away, and offered his hands to the many slender noses that now applied to him for petting.

“I’m not mad at you,” said Zela, petting Valerai’s shoulder carefully. “Somebody’s got to be the liaison, and it ain’t gonna be me. Don’t think Kaleb has the clearance, either.”

“I have no need for it,” the Yrethtari gentleman said shortly.

Zela shrugged. “There you have it. Might as well be by personal recommendation.”

“You are trying very hard,” said Valerai, pulling away a bit as she looked to Zela searchingly, with a little quirk of smile.

“Well, she isn’t wrong,” Kaleb said slowly, returning to the conversation, though his visual attention remained on the dogs. “The job must be done. And a recommendation from your patron is incity proper enough. You’re coming up in the world.”

Zela snorted, but her posture grew a little tenser.

Valerai shrugged, a little helplessly. “I have never met her, I do not know. But, she is qualified, and the city hired her directly. Other than Pattern asking me to help if she needed, I do not see how I have anything to do with it.”

Kaleb smiled and looked up at the rising sun.

Firebrand, done greeting humans, had returned her attention to the other hounds and had taken over with thoughtless, flashy leadership. Sundrop was forgotten, and Moonstone bowed in ostentatious worship before tearing off across the field with the pack in hot pursuit. The golden-speckled puppy trailed forlornly, left in the grass clippings.

“Well, Danol sure ran out on it,” Zela said, a little coldly, watching the dogs as the leader curved in a long arc that cupped the field. “Might as well have somebody in the office that wants the job.”

“I suppose that never hurt,” shrugged Kaleb.

“We’ll be fine,” Zela said shortly, glancing at Valerai. “And hey, she’s another human who knows your patron.” She grimaced a little as she said the word. “Might be interesting, don’t you think? Get another angle on her. Or is that why you’re nervous.”

Kaleb gave Zela a slow look. The Yllaii turned her shrug into squeezing Valerai’s shoulders. She paused, and kissed her on the cheek. By unspoken agreement, the three of them turned their full attention to the dogs.

Moonstone and Sun-tiger were the fastest, but Firebrand was hotly engaged in chasing the blue puppy and resented the greyhound bitch’s proximity. She got almost close enough to shoulder her aside, but the black-brindle put on another burst of haughty speed as Moonstone turned in an attempt to evade them.

Sugar was taller, slower and no longer a puppy, but having been left well behind, the white wolfhound predicted their movements and cut the course, coming up with a burst of supreme speed at a sharp right angle to nip Moonstone lightly on the flank. Perch had been honoring her lines and came from Sun-tiger on the other side, startling her. Zela smiled and shook her head as her black-brindle jumped and wheeled while Perch seemed to grin with doggy smugness.

The pack was slowing, and emotions seemed to still be rising between Firebrand and Sun-tiger over Moonstone, despite Perch’s intervention. The three handlers all saw it and whistled their hounds who, their urge to sprint satisfied, began to return.

Sundrop the puppy came back first, and Valerai praised and pet him as she slipped a cloth collar over his ears. The others returned amiably to their handlers, Sun-tiger and Firebrand politely ignoring one another. Rested for a time, the hounds variously sat or sprawled at their person’s feet.

“Well,” asked Kaleb, “shall we?”

“Yes,” said Valerai, with a little note of challenge in her tone.

They unclipped leashes in the track-side snow-room, though only Zela removed her shoes. When Kaleb opened the common-room door, their hounds flowed in ahead of them, scattering to various corners of the expansive, high-vaulted central area to investigate bones and pillows.

None of the electrics were switched on, and the room was lit or shadowed through the track-facing bay windows and leaded-glass triskelions in the high eastern and western corners. A long shaft of lightly tinted eastern sun fell upon the office-level balcony, catching shine in the wooden railing and the brass levers of three scalloped wooden doors.

There was movement from the second door, Danol’s old office. Kaleb, Zela and Valerai stood together, looking up, in the middle of the room, and it was quiet enough that the click of the heavy brass door-handle sounded clear in empty air.

The door came open, and Lial swept onto the balcony with rapid grace. She paused on the landing, staring hard at each of them, and did not miss the small, distinct reactions.

She flowed down the stairs and stopped distinctly a measured distance from them. Professional band, Zela realized; they weren’t usually tidy about Yls-vel speaking distance in the common, other than during formal meetings or interviews, but the tall woman dressed in a white…something…set an exact distance. Maybe a perfect distance.

It was pretty, anyway. Zela knew well enough to see it but saw no reason to know or obey incity manners. Her eyes slid to Kaleb as he formalized his posture and moved more precisely into context with the new liaison, and Zela adjusted to match him.

Valerai didn’t notice at all. Like an animal wary but curious, and not entirely tame, she hung back a bit and stared intensely.

Kaleb performed a graceful bow and opened his hands in a gesture he did not use typically. Zela was not certain if she’d seen the glyph before, for all she had worked with him over a decade; but then she had no love for Yls-vel, and there were parts of the language she deliberately shied from.

“Good morning, Paragon,” said Kaleb. “You must be our new municipal liaison. In civilization, may we be glorified and refreshed.”

Such pretty manners, Zela thought bitterly, so Yrethtari as fuck; and on the heels of it she thought, bitch, none of this is his fault. Better manners than yours.

“May we be glorified and refreshed,” agreed the new liaison, and now Zela had to look at her again. She was tall and striking. Zela berated herself for a sudden spike of alarm that was almost revulsion, did her best not to show it in her face or posture. Not her fault any more than it was Kaleb’s, but the piercing directness of the kept one’s wide-eyed yellow stare alarmed her, and Zela was suddenly ashamed of herself.

The differences were individually subtle but collectively impossible to ignore; the shape of eye and skull, her length of neck and fingers, the slightly different proportions of her hands. And of course she was blue, her skin a strange, vividly saturated slaty lavender slashed with lines and whorls of pale cream. Her markings matched the shade of her long, loose hair and her…was that an Aelri nightgown?

It was easier for Zela to blink confusedly at her robes, but that brought her gaze to what they weren’t obscuring. Zela blushed hotly.

Every moral fiber of her being blazed in outrage. Perhaps not an ideal beginning with her new coworker, but she would cope. Zela reminded herself that the horrors of the world were not to be blamed upon this individual horror.

“I am Lial,” said the tall, blue woman. Her voice was deep and resonant, still with cultured calm. “I assume from context that you are this facility’s senior trainers, Kaleb, Zela,” she paused, already looking past them, “and Valerai.”

Do I thank her now, Lial wondered distantly. Do I ever?

The slight Kaishi woman who might have saved her life stood a bit behind the others, but clearly did so without setting context. She seemed startled but not upset, staring at her closely with strange, dark eyes. Wild as a marsh deer, her expression almost wonder.

How had Pattern failed to see it? Lial stared back, fascinated and a little appalled. Well, Pattern.

“Yes,” said Valerai, watching her keenly. “Well met. May we be glorified and refreshed.”

Or at least, Lial thought she did. Valerai made a gesture just below her clavicle that Lial did not understand at all. Her words were Yls-vel, but harder to parse than any tutorial Lial had tried, for all that she had taken feeds on comprehending Kaishi accents in preparation.

“I am staring,” Valerai said after a moment, dipping her head and briefly closing her eyes. Her lashes were long, dark against the pale, fragile skin of her face. Lial was never more aware that she had never been this close to one.

“I am sorry,” continued Valerai, “and apologize for being rude.” She started staring again. “There are moments when I am reminded still what a stranger I am to your city, and I am startled by its wonders.”

Valerai signed a very fine and nuanced glyph for ‘new learner, asking for conditional forgiveness’ and took control of her posture, and now Lial understood how Pattern had been confused. She watched Lial searchingly and signed a polite hope that she had given no offense. “I did not know that humans ever were blue-brindle.”

Zela leaned back a little, casually signing herself out of context and crossing her arms with a small, sardonic grin. Kaleb, unflappable, remained in place, but watched Valerai with a certain carefully measured amused interest.

There was an expression on the kept one’s face that seemed almost actual surprise…but surely not, not on a creature like her. Kaleb had understood immediately that he was out of any experience tier on the matter, but was calm enough about it; the Paragon was in his domain, after all. This was no ziggurat and there was no requirement on him to show her incity niceties he’d never learned. It would be her rudeness to expect such treatment. Valerai’s patron, he decided a little smugly, Valerai’s paragon, Valerai’s problem.

Still, Valerai didn’t even know? Well, he thought, why would she? He supposed that they had to have mentioned it at some point in her naturalization classes, but then she’d barely understood the language —- even defined as the local form of Kaishi, much less Yls-vel. He supposed there was a lot she must have missed. And they wouldn’t exactly have prioritized showing her the finer points of incity manners.

She’d missed every media reference? Well, Valerai. This was, he supposed, going to have at least the entertainment value of a greyhound race.

The tall blue woman signed that she had taken no offense, and made the glyph for welcoming communication and curiosity—-simply and with great care. She seemed to watch Valerai with returning fascination, and the slight Kaishi woman, signing careful appreciation and gratitude, allowed herself to return to study again with a kind of naked wonder.

“Pattern did…mention that I was kept…didn’t she?” Lial’s expression was one appalled by a sudden thought, and her silvery brows wrinkled slightly together as she considered.

“Oh yes,” said Valerai, or again, Lial thought that was what she said. “She did mention. You are emancipated now, congratulations are in order, yes?” Valerai smiled with bright, guileless sincerity, watching her avidly. “It is very good to meet you.” She paused. “Are all of the kept blue-brindle?”

“It is a dominant mutation,” said Lial, “that arose in old-world populations. Other variants exist, but only the blue phenotype was imported to this continent.” She paused. “All humans are striped. The markings are merely an artifact of skin, as it develops before birth. It is only in conjunction with certain other phenotypes or medical conditions that they are visible to humans.”

Kaleb’s brow rose. “Fascinating. I didn’t know.”

Lial’s uncanny yellow eyes slid down to Perch who, content with exploring the common, had returned to her customary place at Zela’s side. The tall blue-brindle greyhound looked up at her with curious, interested grayish eyes and wagged her thin tail briefly. Her coat was a lighter hue than Lial’s skin, but the comparison Valerai had made was undeniable.

“I assume your symbionts are marked through a similar mechanism,” said Lial. “Although I have not made a study, so I cannot say with certainty.”

At the sound of voices and the direction of Perch, a bitch well respected among her peers, the other hounds came floating curiously up to the people. Where Perch was an introvert who rarely approached a human she had not spent some time considering, gentle-natured Sugar loved new people and assumed the world shared her enthusiasm. The tall white wolfhound swirled past the handlers and up to Lial, pressing her long snout against the kept’s arms and hands, small ears raised inquiringly.

The blue woman’s body stiffened, neither moving, touching or looking away from the dog, and now Sun-tiger, Moonstone, Firebrand and Sundrop approached with the infectious skirling excitement of sighthound puppies. They reached out with their noses and wagged their whole bodies, Moonstone daring to lean his shoulder on Lial’s thighs like a large cat.

Valerai made a low, sharp sound in the back of her throat and caught Sundrop in a hard eye when the puppy readied himself to jump, but otherwise the three handlers were content to witness. And they did watch, carefully. Polite or not, for whatever reason she was here, the job had some practical elements, and all three handlers were curious to see how she was with dogs.

“How do you greet the symbionts?” Lial asked calmly, not taking her attention from the happy, confused young hounds. Moonstone licked her long hand hopefully. Lial did not recoil, but Zela, watching keenly, didn’t miss her flash of discomfort.

“You don’t like dogs?” she asked.

“I have never met one,” said Lial remotely. “Please instruct.”

“Dogs,” said Zela, moving close enough to lay a soft hand on Sun-tiger’s collar. “Sit.” Her hand was already moving to guide Moonstone, who wasn’t; the others settled. Handling the pack had brought her close enough to the…person, the new liaison…to smell her faintly: no perfumes, which was nice, just an unfamiliar faint presence. Her arm brushed against the gossamer robe when she reached out to collect Sundrop, and Lial moved away from her more rapidly than she had the dogs.

Zela firmly made the hand motion that bade the hounds remain sitting, which, carefully trained, they did; having done so, she dropped her eyes politely, made the glyph for apology, and stepped back. The kept one responded immediately with a graceful acceptance of context and attractive nuance modifier Zela did not understand.

“They won’t bite you,” the Yllaii said gently, “but they are going to want to put their noses on you and touch you, and there are a lot of them around here. Put your hands forward and down, under their jaw, and let them come up and sniff. Then you can pet the neck or the face, if you want.”

Lial watched her with a level gaze and eyes transparent as yellow glass. Slowly, she extended her hand to Moonstone, who jumped up again and wiggled with delight. The three handlers watched Lial and their pack with close interest in something more relevant to them than anything Lial’s hue and bearing might imply.

“Good,” said Zela, her tone still soft. “I had to learn dogs, too. It’s ok.”

“Thank you,” breathed Lial, reaching for Firebrand’s dark head and exploring the soft ears.

“I’ll get us some tea,” said Kaleb.

“Tea would be excellent,” said Valerai, and began to make sounds that Lial, after a momentary jolt of something not enough unlike panic, realized were communication sounds with the symbionts. They released context and returned their attention to her, and she moved with them to settle into one of the worn but pleasantly overstuffed couches arranged in the middle of the room.

Zela used a different noise and another hand signal she could not translate, and moved the rest of the animals onto another.

Move your body toward the couch, Lial thought coldly. She felt herself move. And she was still moving well, good. Lial attempted to administer an internal reward, but she was too unsettled, noticed that she was unsettled, smoothed it.

Lial found a chair away from the nearest dogs and sat down. Its texture was pleasant, but her covering was beginning to gall her. She swallowed and adjusted the collar, letting it fall open a little wider.

Of course she had known that the job served a symbiont facility, but it had never occurred to her that this would bring her in contact with the animals themselves. She was too startled by this omission in her thinking to determine what, if anything, she felt about the symbionts; but how much else had simply never occurred to her?

Valerai settled with the big dogs more or less in her lap, taking portions of the couch to either side of her as the three fit around each other. Wild humans often keep personal symbionts, Lial reminded herself. She had been aware that the symbionts were crucial to the woman’s behavior and identity, but had not prepared herself for experiencing them.

She had been startled. Frightened, but also attracted: they were curious and forward like the lovely fluffy children of Rosegarden who were far too dangerous for her to ever touch. The lack of communicative intent was upsetting, but perhaps less so if she learned to understand their signals. These did not eat humans, she reminded herself.

Valerai had not only never seen a kept, she truly did not know. Fleetingly, Lial thought of fantasies from years ago: Awake in the middle of the day, on her lapscreen poring over scenter-pages, she’d found the piling of a communal farm in Sixth-radial, almost as many tiers out as you could get without finding yourself in wilderness. Secular Aelri, claiming to welcome all who were harmed by the city and hoped for a simpler life, it was a day’s journey from the train, electrics were limited and vayan presence bounded to carefully circumscribed yearly inspection.

It had not taken her long to understand the major reasons it would not work for her, but the moment had been years from emancipation, and she had allowed herself the daydream. Somehow, even that remove seemed less remote than Valerai now, curled comfortably among her dogs.

And now an enormous, fluffy white cat with orangey paws moved ponderously across the top of the couch to join them. He rubbed his pink nose briefly against Valerai’s neck before dropping slowly on top of the white-and-gold dog, ignoring the sudden movement of neck and snout to settle on a piece of couch between them.

Valerai genuinely had not known about the phenotypic markers of her skin. It wasn’t as though it was a problem; Lial experienced a sensation which at some point she might even process into pleasure, like the unfamiliar ‘Paragon’ which still rattled amusingly in the back of her mind. Nobody had ever called her thus, but Kaleb’s mistake had been expected; he had only the distinction of being her first. Valerai’s unexpected reaction had been clear enough, even if her words weren’t, and the fact that such a thing was even possible augmented the world in bewildering ways.

She was, as Pattern had found, the strangest combination of clarity, physical eloquence and oblivious wildness. The Kaishi human settled easily into her nest of animals — wild Kaishi, Pattern’s claiming, and the thought eased Lial’s speeding heart-rate even as it jolted her into attention. Ah, she thought, I am afraid of the symbionts, but they do not mean to say they wish to chase me.

Lial dipped her eye and dropped her shoulder to the dogs, asking them politely to avert their hunter’s gaze. They did not. Yet, they did not appear to be dangerous, and theirs was a very unsubtle form. Lial settled herself, dismissed the terror of incipient pursuit with a little sigh, and reminded herself that her robe was soft, quite unlined with tiny razors.

“Here’s your tea,” said Kaleb, appearing with a large pitcher and a stack of cups on a metal platter. Several hounds look curious but stepped respectfully away as he poured.

“Thank you,” said Lial, her voice low and hushed in the high-ceilinged room.

“You got here early,” said Zela. “Hope you like the office? I’m sure the books are a mess.” She did not sit down or quite enter a posture of true relaxation, but perched on the wide, soft arm of Valerai’s couch. Her symbionts took the other cushion space.

Not relaxed at all but feigning it well enough that Lial had to wonder; that belied a depth of control that was almost civilized discourse. Another surprise to study.

“Your inbox is a huge backlog of new paperwork,” she was saying, making an effort to be friendly, but ready to run or, if she had to, hold still. In a world where Lial’s ability to communicate with humans was already beginning to disintegrate alarmingly, Zela’s innate listening poise soothed her.

“I tried to organize it a little bit,” Zela was saying, “but I don’t have the clearance. I’ll show you through it later, if you want.”

Lial nodded and sniffed the tea carefully before lifting the saucer in both hands, bending her neck such that she indrew the tiniest amount from the surface.

“I found the office in good order,” she said, “and the relevant data sensibly arranged. Thank you.”

“You can have a different chair if you want.” Zela relaxed enough to actually drink some tea, which Kaleb had sugared without asking. “And I guess I’ll do something with Danol’s bronze mammoths. He left in kind of a hurry.”

Lial tilted her chin in a careful nod and sipped again from the surface of her tea. They all settled into the Yls-vel ritual pause rather gratefully.

Lial consumed exactly half, and set the teacup on its saucer on the table in front of her. “I have reviewed your quarterly and annual municipal accountings, and discovered that my predecessor’s embezzlement was more extensive than we suspected. It’s actually good news.”

She spoke with the same mild distance one might expect from a distracted stranger who had been asked the time.

“Embezzlement?” asked Zela, leaning forward and uncrossing her arms but not quite sitting up, expressing ‘what you said has startled me’ in an eloquent glyph with beautiful shoulder extension.

“Yes,” said Lial, “That’s why the position was vacant. He might have been less greedy and gotten away with more over time; as it was, the apparent disconnect between earnings, sportscast data and neighborhood appearance became too obvious to city planning.”

“Really,” said Kaleb, sipping his tea and looking serious.

“Under my preliminary accounting, it appears that this track improves its ratings by two circles, either third or fourth…you’re actually very close in ranking to Second-radial track, and I need to run the numbers more carefully to know for certain. This will also improve your ranking in like recreational allotments, in-radial, and potentially raise staff and facilities funding. The three of you will likely have a raise next quarter.”

“Well, that’s good enough news,” said Kaleb thoughtfully. “I am not questioning your assessment, Paragon, but how certain are you about those numbers?”

“Please,” she said, “call me Lial. As I said, my review is a rough within a frame of broad percentages. I will rework it with a great deal more specificity, as I have been instructed by Central Facilities. But I am generally conservative with numbers.”

“That’s a pretty big jump,” said Zela. “Kinda big news for us.”

“This means that Danol stole money, and that it had an effect on our rankings?” asked Valerai.

“Seems like what she’s saying,” replied Zela, watching Lial.

“I have reason to believe that the numbers are more significant than this, but as I said, I am conservative. This will take me time.”

Zela scowled. “Danol. Was embezzling that much it effected rankings…for how long, though?”

“That I can’t tell you,” Lial responded smoothly. “Yet.”

“It has another nuance,” said Kaleb carefully. “Our approach in animal care differs from the other radial tracks in several ways. If we haven’t had an accurate accounting, we may be missing crucial data on a long term project. One that is very important to us.”

“Ah,” said Lial, “Interesting. I will ask for more details and study it.”

“Thank you.” Kaleb sipped his tea and looked thoughtful.

“Danol,” snapped Zela in growing outrage, “That thrice-damnend dock rat’s festering anus! Had better not show his face around here, he can just get bitten!”

Lial blinked at her slowly. “He won’t,” she said at last, “and he already has been.”

Valerai cocked her head to one side and formed a questioning glyph.

“You needn’t be concerned about revenge,” Lial said evenly. “He’s already been eaten. Not as punishment for the embezzling, mind you; he went afoul of a guard in custody.”

“Wait,” said Zela slowly. “Danol’s been eaten?”

“You’re certain?” asked Kaleb with unaccustomed surprise.

“Quite certain,” said Lial. “I have seen him served at table.”

Valerai signed the pause into context, missing little from her comfortable arrangement of dogs and cat. She regarded Lial with a close, intent calm.

The room had gone tense. Zela poised, hard and ready on the couch-arm as if prepared for flight, and sleek, blue-brindle Perch reached out to rest her nose on her hand to calm her. Zela bowed her head and breathed softly into the pause, stroking her hound.

“You have personally seen a vayan eat Danol?” Valerai asked, her expression intense and troubled, but pragmatic. “Please, I do not speak this language as expert. Am I understanding?”

“Yes,” said Lial. “The guard killed him wrongfully, so the meat was sold on open market. My house purchased it for a feast, in the hopes of provoking an involuntary stress reaction in me.” Lial’s tone was distant and calm. “The gesture did not entirely succeed.”

She paused, and found Valerai’s dark, searching stare. “If it matters to you, Pattern had no part in the planning of that, and she abstained from the meat.”

“I feel so much better,” Zela said scratchily, standing up.

“It does matter,” said Valerai. “Thank you for telling me.”

“I have a bunch of dogs that need to come out and exercise,” said Zela, looking up to the eastern window and closing her furious olive-brown eyes, allowing light to stream a moment upon cheeks paler than their usual warm gold and eyelids that seemed suddenly bruised. “So I am just going to go and do that, right now.” She clipped Sun-tiger’s leash and gathered the dark brindle greyhound closer to her; Perch needed no cue to keep close at hand.

“Thanks for looking into our books, Lial.” Zela didn’t quite look at her as she did not quite run for the door. “Appreciate the information. Good to meet you.”

“Yes,” said Kaleb, slowly finishing his tea. “That is very unfortunate, for many reasons. But I do appreciate your work. Please let me know when you’d like to have a conversation about our policies and how they might relate to those numbers.”

“Of course,” said Lial. “This is excellent tea.”

“Thank you,” said Kaleb, rising. He tipped his hat, first to Lial, and then to Valerai. “I also have hounds to attend. Ladies.”

Valerai seemed comfortable enough in her nest of resting symbionts. The cat stretched, extending his cobby reddish forepaws a surprising distance and opening his sharp pink mouth in a wide yawn.

How do I thank you for my life, wondered Lial, watching her.

“I fear that I have transgressed a social cue already,” she said at last. “I was asked a direct question. Should I have refused to answer?”

“No,” said Valerai. “It is an upsetting answer, but true, and yes, asked. It is better to say.” She stroked the cat, who arched and stretched magnificently before jumping to the ground with a soft thud. He stretched his fluffy mass and then slowly sauntered around the center table to regard Lial.

He regarded her for a moment with pale blue eyes before jumping into her lap and making himself into a heavy curl. She stroked him with the grain of his coat, and he begin a low, contented buzzing.

“Have you met cats?” asked Valerai.

“There used to be some cats at Rosegarden,” she said, “before the senator removed them. One was tame for me.” Lial stroked the long, soft fur of the animal, noticed him shedding on her robe. Somehow, that made the phantom sensations she was trying to ignore less awful. “I think that I like cats.”

“Cats are good,” nodded Valerai. “His Majesty says that you are good.” She watched the blue woman’s long-fingered hands moving across the cat’s white fur. The right was solid blue, with a little cream banding only on her index finger, while the left was heavily whorled in cream.

“Anger with words is not the same as anger with the speaker,” she said slowly, after a moment. “Or at least, Zela will be less angry with you when she has had time to think.”

“You aren’t as upset.”

“I am also still thinking about it.” Valerai stroked Firebrand’s dark head, and the wolfhound snuggled more closely into her. “As you say, he is eaten following his own stealing, it is done. It is upsetting to remember that the working of justice here is biased towards predation, but this is not a secret.”

“That’s true,” said Lial, stroking the cat, enjoying his texture and warmth beneath her hand and willing the banishment of memories. There were cats here. She might be able to safely enjoy a cat. Was in fact so doing now. “You are pragmatic.”

“Yes,” said Valerai. “This is an unpleasant injustice. It does not seem to be your fault.”

“No,” swallowed Lial. “My presence is resulting and not causal, in this case.” She watched Valerai intently, and the Kaishi returned, level black stare just as alive with somber curiosity.

These had been more humans than she had ever seen at once, alive; more than she had ever spoken in a day. Lial felt suddenly as though she was drowning.

“Thank you,” the kept one said at last. “You have done me a great favor.”

Valerai’s expression softened. “You have come here on a great journey. I do not fully understand, but it seems difficult. Be welcome.”

“Thank you,” said Lial, her throat tight.

“I also need to continue with my dogs,” said Valerai. “Do you have everything that you need?”

“I will need to rest for a moment,” Lial said distantly, willing her hands not to shake. “In my office, before I return to the work.” There was a couch in her office, and a blanket; she wanted—-no, needed, desperately—-to take off the robe that constricted her, and climb under it.

“Then you should rest.” Valerai stood and at least might have watched her kindly. “It is good to meet you, Lial. I hope that you enjoy the work.”

“Thank you,” said Lial again. “With great sincerity.”

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