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"Out of the black and shining vault,--The black void, the shining night,--To the golden mother, painted with light,--We were born out of the belly of our father--To the grace of two mothers,--Bright beads on the Strings.--We are like none other: the people.--We are Wacaan."
THE RISING sun licked Wanbli's bare back. He faced not the sun itself but west, where it was opening and revealing the estate to him. Tawlin's flat-topped buildings went from mud color--they were mud--to white, glistening with the mica in the plaster. The stripe of cloud at the horizon, beyond Hovart and the single mountain in the plain, lit up in pink and purple as it prepared to dissolve.
Though not a single alio stalk had exploded open for the day, there were already four black motes in the sky, leaving steam trails. One was close enough so that Wanbli could make it out as a private two-seater.
Now, as he opened his mouth to continue, he heard the first alio pop.
"Other men are the birds of the air.--Other men are the hogs at the trough.--We are those who live.--We are those who die.--We are those who remain people.--We are Wacaan."
He spoke perfectly audibly, but not as one speaks to be heard. He took another breath, which wanted to become a yawn. He had to urinate very badly. Every morning when he recited the invocation and came to the word "void," he was reminded of his full bladder. Nonetheless, Wanbli did not wiggle or grimace, and his hands on the hilt of the stone knife were steady.
"I invoke the six directions upon this morning.--I invoke the sun.--I invoke the moons and their little sister that is coming,--Who is my little sister.--I am of the people of thesky.--I am Wacaan."
He lifted the knife above his head so that the sun struck it and lifted from its obsidian blade a different glitter than it gave to the buildings. The light it reflected was green and red, like the growth on the golden soil of T'chishett.
Wanbli lowered the knife in a more casual manner and laid it on his little altar cloth, which was spread out in front of his knees on the roof of his house. Flip, flip, left and right, top and bottom, he slapped the corners of the cloth over the blade and tied all ends in a knot that spanned the middle. He was protecting himself in all directions; enclosing himself in the earth as the knife was enclosed in the napkin. He did not feel particularly protected, however: only badly folded. Tawlin T'chishetti had been at it all hours of the day and night, and of course his Wacaan shared that burden with him. Now the Wacaan came to his feet with a groan and cracked his back with one brick-brown hand at his hip. He walked to the edge of the roof, snapped the toggle of the insect screen and urinated over the side.
One very bad morning, after Tawlin T'chishetti had been especially troublesome, Wanbli had forgotten the toggle and had had to hose down the entire roof. Why he had to finish the invocation before voiding he did not understand. Usually it meant he woke himself up in the middle of the night so it would be easier to wait in the morning. Maybe that was the reason for the custom--to make him a light sleeper.
Now he could yawn without offense to the earth or the sky. Or the sun or the moon or the six directions, separately or together. He yawned six times, once for each direction and then once more for good measure. Down below, one of the alios in the herbal border popped, shooting out the ratchett that had sheltered in its armored petals all night. The little creature landed rolling and then running. The darter that nested in the eaves missed it, but not by much. Wanbli watched without taking sides, and then turned away from the edge. Replacing the insect screen, which was invisible except for a slight shimmer and which also kept out dust, he stepped to the hatch and went down.
The first place he went was to the kitchen, for a cup of tea. He made it strong and added a childish amount of milk and sugar. Sugar was more or less taboo for the Wacaan, and for that reason, he enjoyed it immensely. Long after the dextrose had let him down, the knowledge of his sin would keep Wanbli bright-eyed and smug. (He knew this about himself. He knew how and when to sin. He had learned it in school.)
The next place he went, cup in hand, was to the full-length mirror in the dormitory. There he examined his image critically but with some enjoyment.
His skeletal proportions were very balanced. Of course. He was a Wacaan. His muscular development left little to be desired also, and that was more his own doing. His coloring, which might have been cafè au lait on another, colder world, was bright russet, and the black hair shone with red highlights, even under the cool artificial light of the room. The eyes with which he regarded himself were dark, and of a garnet shade.
This much was a given. So was his perfectly nice Wacaan face (to outsiders they were peas in a pod). It was not his face or head or even his general physique that held Wanbli's attention, but his tattoos.
Starting at the dimple at the base of the throat and running under the length of each clavicle were tattoos of feathers--long feathers, black with gold edging, which ended only at the top of the arms.
Below, drawn from the solar plexus along the bottom of the rib cage and drooping gracefully down almost to the navel, was another pair, this time of blue just touched by green, like the dusty sky of T'chishett. It was also edged in gold.
Lower, where they would be covered by any shorts or breechclout, were a still more graceful and drooping pair of feather tattoos, and this pair was entirely gold. Wanbli glanced down at this tattoo and had to grin, even though he had won it almost a year since. He had been known to suffer quite a bit of pain to pluck out pubic hairs that threatened to obscure the gold feathers.
The training of a Paint was a very challenging thing. Many young Wacaan found themselves turning to other occupations: crafts, farming, even digging into the crumbly yellow sandstone of Southbay for its sparse minerals, rather than completing the ten years of study, workout, privation and ordeal that led to the Journeyman Eagle. Wanbli, who had earned all three Eagles in that same length of time, thought he was rather special among Paints.
His education had been rewarding. He could wish the working life of a Paint to be half as much fun. Ten years climbing a ladder to find nothing on top. Nothing but day after day.
His reflection was looking sour. He changed its expression.
"You'll do for one more day," he said very severely to his image, and went to his shelf to decide how to cover his golden pride this day.
For the different weathers of Neunacht he had three sorts of outfits: G-strings, breechclouts and thigh-length shorts. Nights were colder; at night he might wear a blanket affair with a hole in it for his head. It was not comfortable, but it was custom.
As it seemed a temperate sort of day, he chose a woven breechclout. First he spread it down on his bed, along the striped blanket, made a small bunch in the middle of it and raised his fist. He hit the bed a blow that shivered the batting from one end to another, but the little hollow he had created in the fabric of the breechclout remained rigid. Then he poked it gently with a finger and it collapsed, as fabric should.
It was a bother to perform this test every day, but once, as a stripling, Wanbli had found himself neglecting it and had gone out into practice with a broken seat belt. The first solid blow to the crotch had put him out of training for a week and made him the butt of jokes through his whole clan sept. He hated to be made fun of, so now he was careful.
On the waistband of the breechclout he snapped his holster, which contained a stocky little gun with a funnel-shaped barrel: his blunderbuzz. On the other side went his wallet, a small leatherette bag containing his personal logic pad, his case knife, a pack of chewing gum and various items of magical import. Off the estate, he might also carry money. Most of the citizens of T'chishett wore their wallets around their necks, but the painted Wacaan made a taboo of that. One might be strangled by the cord, was the official explanation, but in fact the cord need not be heavy enough to be dangerous; the truth was that a wallet so hung obscured the wearer's Eagles.
Mimi's bed was next to his, partitioned only by a half-wall. It was an unmade nest, as usual. Wanbli could close his eyes and see Mimi as he would be in another ten minutes, toppling into it; no doubt he was thinking of his bed even now. Had the T'chishetti continued acting up all night and into the rising sun? It was drugs again. Drugs and perhaps Ake Tawlin T'chishetti's pride in his own bad reputation.
A more substantial wall separated Mimi's place of mess from Vynur's cubby. Vynur had given notice over a month ago, but Tawlin T'chishetti had made no move to replace her. No doubt it would have to be taken up in Clan Council. Vynur had been out interviewing for two days now, which made it difficult for the other Wacaan. Perhaps she would not come back, and that was a scandal against all the Paints. But Wanbli was her first cousin and school-fellow and Mimi was at least an old lover. They had not said a word of protest (except between themselves). What else could the woman do, after all, when her employer refused to look for a replacement? Once she had found another berth, they could howl in unison, and Tawlin would run the danger of losing his Wacaan entirely.
Sentence of death.
Wanbli gazed lazily through the deep-set window, finishing the last of his tea and watching a pink sky. Had he not been so tired, Wanbli would have wakened before dawn and seen the stars out. As much as the day sky, he liked the sight of the stars.
Out of the wind now, his ears could pick up snatches of orchestral music: not freestanding music, but the uneven sort that accompanies theatricals. The old man wasn't asleep yet. Poor Mimi.
Of course, the old man behaved that way because he was bored. Wanbli could understand that. He himself was bored. He behaved better about it, being Wacaan, but he was bored.
He went out.
The new sun was soft on muscles that were growing very stiff. This would make the third day he had had no time for training, and on the third day a painted Wacaan began to feel insecure. On the third day he started to lose ground. Wanbli rubbed his hand over his Journeyman's tattoo--the green one--and he scratched surreptitiously over his gold. His fingers did not move quickly enough to engage the seat belt.
T'chishett is in the equatorial regions of Neunacht, and except for one short season, there is no rain. The sunlight lifted Wanbli's under-eyelids, making his eyes into garnet-brown crescents and in later years it was sure to give him the fan pattern of wrinkles the Wacaan called "wisdom."
Wanbli called it "headache" instead, but his ancestors had seen to it that he was built for the sun and it did him no real harm.
From the outside the main buildings of Tawlin were very white and simple. They seemed to be floating on a shimmer of the air. If one took the main, sculptured, alio-lined path to the door (as Wanbli never did, on principle), one had the impression that Mount Hov rose out of the roof of the reception hall.
Wanbli thought it a very silly effect.
He came to the pale building through the loose sand, indirectly as a cat. He touched the blank wall and followed it to the door, which knew him and opened. Before entering, Wanbli took his blunderbuzz out of the holster and thrust it before him into the doorway. The air erupted in racket; he drew the gun back again and snapped out the battery, which he shoved under a rock among those in the border design. He could as well have hidden the logic module, since it was the combination of armory logic and power source that triggered the house alarm, but it suffered more from dust than did the battery. Wanbli's only purpose in bringing the gun into the house was to test the alarm. He placed the inactive weapon into a box fitted into the inner wall which opened to the hands of the Tawlin Wacaans only. The shell of Mimi's gun was still lying there.
Inside, the desert lightness and the airy sense of infinity was squashed by Tawlin's collected clutter. Ake Tawlin greeted the visitor with a two-meter-high blue statue of an ugly dog with bulbous eyes, ears, nose and teeth, which was pawing a flattened sort of ball which looked much like a second nose, equally bulbous. This dog, in fact, had bulbous everything except its hind end, which was completely inadequate to its size. It was this hind end which the Wacaan first saw, coming into the hall at change of shift. The creature was a reproduction of a relic of Tawlin's Earth heritage, Wanbli had been told.
Some relics deserved to be lost.
The walls were lined with edged weapons, some of which were from Earth also, but none of which had any identifiable connection with the line of Tawlin. Wanbli disapproved of these displays more than he did of the blue dog. There was no place for random weapons in the household of one of the T'chishetti merchant princes, and especially one as unpopular as Tawlin. They were all in a shocking state of decay, but they could still cut his pouchy throat.
He felt his second stab of disappointment that morning: that life should lead to nothing more than this. If it were not for the fact that Wanbli's mother had worked here, and that he had been as good as raised on these grounds and apprenticed at Tawlin, he would have left with Vynur. For a moment he wished he had.
Wanbli glanced around the room smoothly as the fiber mat sucked the dust from his feet. Panels with rotten scrolls. Perhaps reproduction rotten. Maces, morning stars, a labrys that could never have been used as a weapon (it was so big), a row of ash urns--they would have put his mother in one of those, thinking it a privilege--one lamp in the ceiling out, a tapestry of Mount Hov in raintime over two lost-looking rattan chairs, a recliner in cracked leather, two standing suits of radiation armor around a stone fireplace and a much-larger-than-life-size bronze of a sort of prehistoric darter which was called a dragon. Under all was a very busy multicolored carpet depicting the settlement of Neunacht (to be read from the left right and the top down), which had been imported at expense from the planet Selim FC, where they make such things.
Other visitors took their shoes off at the door, but the Wacaan were by practice barefoot, hence the mat. Having one's bare feet matted was unbearable to some people, but Wanbli was not in the least ticklish; he rather liked it. He stepped off onto the aniline red of the carpet, which felt slippery in contrast, and he padded toe-heel down the long room.
No one ever came in this way except during formal receptions. Formal receptions had stopped entirely as Ake Tawlin aged and lost interest. This was exactly the reason Wanbli entered via the memorial hall so often. He was methodically unpredictable.
The long passage running along the library had two more lights out. One of the Wacaan would have to talk to the housekeeper. "One of them" meant Wanbli, of course. The poor housekeeper was too frightened of the Other Paints to be reasonable in their presence. Wanbli himself was very approachable; that was one of his vanities.
At the end of the passage began the personal living space of Tawlin himself. The moisture screen nipped at Wanbli's lips and eyes as he passed in and his nose felt a moment of oddness, as though he'd been crying.
Ake Tawlin T'chishetti had gone in for ferns a few years ago, and the huge things squatted spiderish against the wall or stood like open parasols on stands. To Wanbli these looked predatory. They offered concealment of which a Wacaan could not approve.
They were concealing Mimi right now, though not from the eyes of Wanbli. The night guard was a very tired rufous arc squatting against the white wall, under an opulent Nephrolepis. He looked up at his mate as one might look up at a savior on whom one had quite given up.
"Long night, Aymimishett?" asked Wanbli. He poked the man lightly with his knee. "He never made it no easier?"
Bad grammar was a Wacaan tradition.
Mimi pulled his lips back: a gesture that would have to do in place of a grin. "The last guest left a dec or two after midnight..."
"I know, I heard the cars."
"But he been waltzin' out on his own since." With Mimi, the erratic grammar was not merely tradition, it was all that he knew.
He was a sad man, much older than Wanbli. Standard two Eagle Wacaan. He'd been tagged once, at Mondoc T'chishetti. There he had been happy for fifteen years and now he could not go back.
Ake Tawlin did not appreciate him. He could not converse.
"He was out there a couple decs ago, catching moons in his nightie. Peein' the posies."
Urinating on the alios was a boy's game. It made them pop open, even in the middle of the night. It wasn't good for the flowers, however, and sometimes a boy would get hit in the member by a urine-stained ratchett. Sometimes the ratchetts bit.
Wanbli sighed in sympathy. "What's he been doing? Taking, I mean. Povlen? Pipe?"
An odd sort of dignity settled on Mimi's features. Superimposed on his tiredness, it made him appear drunk or very foolish. "What does a Wacaan know about trash like that?"
Wanbli smirked his smirk. "This Wacaan knows quite a lot. Tawlin household is an education."
"You can have it," said Mimi, rising. His back crackled. "This ignorant clanner is going to bed."
"Great. Go wrap yourself in that izzard's nest of yours. Put a gel blindfold over your weary eyes. Commune with the Nine Protectors and return to us with new vitality."
Mimi gave his fellow a suspicious glance. He never knew when Wanbli was serious and when he was making fun. "You shouldn't joke about the Protectors, Wanbli. It's very bad luck."
"Oh, I wouldn't." Wanbli was trotting across the room. He stuck his head in the bath. The private chamber was closed. "He's finally curled his knees up?"
"Half dec ago," answered Mimi as he turned to go. "He tottered away and left the screen on. It's still that way."
Mimi didn't know how to operate the arena projector. He had never tried. "Okay," said Wanbli. "Have good dreams."
This batch of cheapies involved feet. Sex and feet, of course. Wanbli caught the gist of the entertainment as it flashed on the wall in a hurricane of fast forward. The others had feet in their titles: Pretty Pink Peds, Between Your Toes ... Had he not just woken up, Wanbli might have been tempted to browse through; after all, what else had he to do but prowl the house and watch his employer sleep? But he had just woken up, and though it was not too early for sex, it was far too early for feet. Besides, he did not share Tawlin T'chishetti's fondness for the peculiarities of flat-image projection. The man said it gave him remove and a godlike superiority to the action. Godlike superiority. Wanbli snorted indulgently, feeling a little Godlike superiority himself.
Wanbli himself preferred a good Arena Theatrical, even if it meant clearing a room of furniture. He had spent whole days watching AT behind Tawlin's chair or, more likely, couch. It was all in the call of duty. He was interested in all types of AT, because they gave him new insights into people, and even better, into the places they came from. (Wanbli had never been off Neunacht; only a handful of Wacaan had been out for one hundred and fifty years.) Most of the ATs contained some episodes of fighting, which was Wanbli's clan destiny and his occupation. From what he gathered, the standards of personal combat on New Benares, where most of the entertainments originated, were either much lower or much higher than those on Neunacht: lower because the actors moved so slowly and with so much useless flailing. Higher because the moves were so complex, and because it seemed to take so very much punishment to drop them. Considering the matter reasonably, Wanbli thought that probably the local standards were high, but that the actors were not sufficiently trained to carry out the technique.
He preferred the sex-oriented shimmers anyway. Wanbli prided himself as much upon his bedroom games as he did upon the gold tattoo under his breechclout--and wasn't that often called the seducer's eagle? Not that a Wacaan had to try very hard to seduce anyone; all the world knew they were good.
Romantic ATs were a puzzle to him, and perhaps his favorite for that reason. He liked to try to imagine himself in the grip of an unbreakable passion, living or dying for the touch of some woman's hand, like Paovo in The Garden of Grief It was a very foreign and exotic mental exercise to Wanbli: strange as floating off into the air. Someday, perhaps, he would find within himself the roots of a deep passion for some uncaring female who would be cruel to him, and then his understanding of life would reach new levels. (He would also be sent back to the clan hospital in Hovart for ritual cleansing and reeducation, which would look very bad on his record, but what was life for?)
The humidi-field, the deep windows and the white walls turned the bright morning sunlight into a cooler, more crystalline illumination. Wanbli put the wound cords of the cheapies into their thumb-size plastic sleeves and wondered what there was about feet to attract Tawlin. The T'chishetti's own tended toward bunions.
A darter whirred against the window screen. Perhaps the frustrated individual that had missed the ratchett a few minutes ago. Wanbli yawned again, irritated that he had let Tawlin's party disturb his sleep. He disconnected the machine; it was very simple.
Late alios were still popping and the daygrass cut into the breeze. The ferns whispered together as though they were dry, which (the Nine Protectors knew) they were not. A barefoot scuff, sounding lazy on the stone floor among them. Repeated.
Mimi coming back. He would strap him to the chair and force him to learn the controls of the cheapie projector.
No. Mimi would not come padding on his toes like a dog: not after all night standing and watching other people debauch. No energy for it.
No one but the Wacaan walked barefoot at Tawlin Estate.
A car, gliding nearer out of the west. Two-seater, he remembered.
A barefoot scuff, sounding lazy on the stone floor. Repeated. Wanbli was in the air and flying. He was down again on bent knees, silently, pressed against the doorjamb to the long fern hall.
As he was aware of the intruder, the intruder was aware of Wanbli. They faced each other through the doorway of white mud and shining mica. They were three meters apart and so neither put his guard up. The other Wacaan had his hands in fists at his sides.
"Heydoc. Welcome to Tawlin. You should have let me know. I could have saved you the trip. The T'chishetti is in his sealed bedroom and will probably stay there half the day."
Heydoc grinned, not as smugly as Wanbli but with a lot of teeth. His eyes did not exactly wander from Wanbli's face but they were very aware of the right side of the room around him. "Not so, cousin. In his room, yes, but not sealed. I've already counted coup on your degenerate employer and now I'm on my way out. You can either let me go or get hurt for nothing." Heydoc shuffled smoothly back into the ferny chamber. He glanced right and behind him.
Wanbli stood unmoving, slack-shouldered. He scratched his hip under the waistband. His smile was not fierce at all. "'Docs, you'll only get in trouble using your mouth; it's a weapon you haven't studied."
"And you have? You do tongue-training exercises maybe? You can touch your nose maybe?" Heydoc had taken one more step back, and now he slowly raised his guard.
"I know very well you haven't counted coup on my old man. He's such an accident of birth no one would stoop to giving him a warning, and he wouldn't take it anyway. And I know the door is sealed." Wanbli moved toward Heydoc. The round-arched doorway was in front of him now.
"And I know, by the way you refuse to look left," he continued, still scratching an old bite under the waistband, "that you're..."
"...not alone!" The hidden woman beside the doorway snapped a chained stick down at Wanbli's head. He did not bother trying to block it; any way it hit it would hurt badly. He shot out of the way, toward Heydoc and around him.
He was between Heydoc and the sealed bedroom door. Heydoc was between Wanbli and the woman with the sticks. "Punch him out, Hey," she called out. She was angry. She had let the flail snap her on the knuckles.
Heydoc moved in with a left guard forward. This was fine--better than tea with sugar for waking one up. Wanbli wasn't afraid of a little fist and kicking work with Heydoc. The Wacaan of T'chishett knew each other, and Heydoc was fast but not deadly.
He was also left-handed, though, which Wanbli remembered well. Left-handed fighters were boxes of surprises and he had memorized the left-handed Wacaan as part of his Second Eagle. Why would Heydoc come on with his left first? Most fighters kept their strong hand behind. And that rear hand of his was cramped in against his chest: not even a proper fist. Wanbli let the left come, and true to prediction, it was only a feint. Here came that odd right, with Heydoc's hip and foot moving forward with it, in a punch to the chin that would just barely miss.
Wanbli did not have to see that little flash of metal to know that there was an inch of blade trailing behind Heydoc's little finger, but see it he did. The unfocused punch to the chin was actually a very accurate knife stroke across the throat. But halfway along its trajectory that punch developed a rider, as Wanbli put one soft hand over the front of it and guided it out. As this was happening, the throat in question was very busy going elsewhere. Wanbli ducked and went left, still with his hand glued to the hand with the knife. That right arm of Heydoc's would not get in the way of his good hand. There would be a kick coming soon, but for now, here was Wanbli staring in at Heydoc's crotch, and such a gift of the Protectors could not be rejected. He reached in, not too fast--not fast enough to engage the seat belt--and squeezed. Not waiting to see the effect of that strike, Wanbli straightened up and his soft grip persuaded the knife hand backward. His flattened right hand struck into the elbow joint, collapsing the last resistance, and Wanbli had Heydoc's arm locked beside his head.
Of course, there was another opponent, and this second and a half had given her time to get around her partner. She held the chained sticks in her hand but did not use them again. Instead she lifted her knee up so sharply it clapped against her chest and brought the weight of her leg and the weight of her whole body down in a bone-crushing kick at Wanbli's knee.
Sensible move. No dramatics. There was no room to get out of the way of this, either, while holding the knife man. Need brought Wanbli's right leg up in a deflecting strike that sent her thrust kick shooting out into the air beside him. His own foot came down on the inside rear of her supporting knee and the woman went down flat. He kicked the sticks out of her hands.
Not quite three seconds had passed since Heydoc had thrown his first punch.
"I want you to think, before you move again," said Wanbli to the woman, whose name he seemed to remember was Susan, "...where the knife is at the moment, and how much this flyer means to you. Maybe nothing, but think about it."
Where the knife was, was under Heydoc's chin, over the carotid artery, where it bounced and glimmered with every pulse. Heydoc, whose own helpless hand was holding it there, was staring blankly at the sealed door to Tawlin's room.
The woman lay on the floor and looked and looked at the tiny knife.
"Now, you can both take Tag and get out of here, or Susie can try me again, and maybe I'll be slowed down enough killing Docs here that she can dust me. I don't think it's likely but it is a possibility. The alternative is that you walk back to Hovart and start looking for another job: both of you."
Heydoc said nothing. "I'll take Tag," said Susan on the floor. Her partner slowly let his breath out. "Tag," he said. "Of course."
"And the keys?" Wanbli held his hand out. "Remember--you walk out?"
Susie opened her mouth as though to make some objection, but at last she pulled from her waist pouch a star of turquoise-colored plastic on a flimsy chain. He snagged it from her.
The attackers left as quietly as they had come, Heydoc still with the little bright knife in his hand.
For a few minutes Wanbli stood where he was, his gaze fixed on the floor, fingering the car key in his hand.
He was twenty-four, and despite a lifetime of training for battle, nobody had ever really tried to kill him before. His own people too. Well, who else but a Wacaan would dare attack a Wacaan?
He felt a bit of shock, and waited for that to fade. It was vanity that cheered him up in the end; the Third Eagle--not universally well regarded among conservative Paints--had proven its usefulness. Tongue exercises, indeed.
And how many young Wacaan, not even sire-promoted, had estate cars of their very own? How many Wacaan ever got so much wealth together? He slipped the pretty key into his wallet.
It was very difficult to wake up Tawlin, and not even his Wacaan could break the seal on a night-sealed, windowless bedroom. He pounded with his flat hand. He used a great deal of cursing.
"If you don't want to know, then..." he shouted (the Wacaan were very good shouters), "then gut you. Then to sizzle with you, Ake Tawlin! You might have been crawling with hungry, happy bugs by now. You might have been spindleworm food. Darters in your eyes ... Maggots. Mealworms..."
The slate-heavy door slid open. "Progenitors, how you talk to me!" said Ake Tawlin, who was a head shorter than Wanbli. "Are you on drugs, redman?"
As Wanbli was red, Tawlin was yellow, but nowhere near as decisively colored. "Who would believe it's I who pay your salary?" He was blinking fast. He used the door to lean on.
"There were two Wacaan here just now to kill you, Tawlin."
Now the little man's attention was locked.
"To kill me too, by the bye, but you were the target. Of course."
Tawlin's eyes, already dilated by stimulant, widened further. His hand shot to the switch and the door began to close again. Wanbli jumped through, knocking the T'chishetti into the wall in the process. Both were sealed into a small room of which the walls were red-and-blue paisley," like a rather florid sort of shawl.
Tawlin sat down on the bed. "But ... but they couldn't. I was sealed in."
Wanbli admitted the force of that. "Lucky for you. But how could those poor flyers know, when they planned it, that you had chosen today to exchange day for night?"
Ake Tawlin leaned against his headboard, which, misinterpreting the gesture, glowed for reading. He wrapped himself up in his own thin arms. "I must say, 'Bli, you show an unexpected sympathy with my attempted assassins."
Wanbli sank down on his heels, using the door for support. "Sure. One of them is my cousin. I very much doubt that this assault was their idea. And after all, they lost a lot."
Tawlin cleared his sleepy throat. "You ... uh ... took care of them?" Wanbli nodded, with a rakish grin, but his employer's response was to push deeper into the padded headboard. He ran his hand through his unnaturally thick black hair. "Oh, why did we ever let you people in?" His sigh was deep and rattling.
"It has to remind me of the evolution of the combative male."
Now it was Wanbli's turn to blink.
"Yes, the combative male," continued Tawlin, and he glared. "Some time or other, some wee little vertebrate--a fish or like that--was born with the male of the species outsized and outstrength to all the others. I'm sure it didn't take long before that fish learned to bully all the rest. Miserable for the whole lot of them, except the outsized male. But he managed to reproduce his mutated genes, didn't he? Didn't he, hey?"
"I guess." Wanbli was wondering whether the little man was even capable of reason at the moment. Perhaps he should have let him sleep.
"Soon the only way a female fish could reproduce at all was to find a big bully male..."
"I don't think fish really think like that," said Wanbli, knowing he was wasting his breath.
"...And all the ordinary, decent, forward-thinking male fish were dead! Dead!" He sat up for emphasis.
"You're not dead," Wanbli reminded him.
"...Never much good for the species, except for muskoxen and the rare thing like that. But it outcompeted within the species and that was what evolution was all about, eh?
"Almost destroyed the human race a number of times. You think we'd have learned. We do not have to give way to that particular evolutionary twitch. And poor as we are on Neunacht too."
Wanbli took a lungful of very close air. "Then who was it talking about sending Vy and me out against Rall Estate last spring? A very bad idea too."
Tawlin seemed not to have heard. "This wasn't in the Founder's Plan, my bully. Whatever your synthetic legends say. We were sixty happy years on Neunacht with you primitives to yourselves in Southbay..."
"To ourselves, all right." Wanbli broke in, but calmly. "Starving by ourselves. No money."
"Whose fault was that? All societies are mercantile, given the latitude to be so. And believe me, with cartage fees for everything imported increasing by mile all the way from Hovart to the string intersection, we have little enough to spare for people playing unrealistic games."
Now it was Wanbli's attention that began to fade. He had been hearing about cartage fees all his life.
"It is ever to be regretted that Siering Mo opened the door to you. It was mere ambition on his part."
Wanbli listened to him denigrate the First Protector tolerantly, but added, "It's true, you flyers did pretty well butchering each other without us. In fact, the assassinations of the early years cut the number of incorporated houses in half. I think you're safer now."
Tawlin's small, bunioned feet sought concealment under the covers. "Safer, yes, as long as we subscribe to your damn protection racket. Keep a dog to protect myself against the other man's dogs."
Wanbli laughed. "Do you prefer your blue dog with all the curlicues?" Abruptly, his face sobered. "Tawlin, my mother died defending your life."
The feet went still. "I know," said Ake Tawlin. There was a short, complete silence in the room. "And now these two red friends of yours are dead attacking it. I don't like the whole thing."
"They're not dead."
Under the silk sheets, one could see Tawlin's toes curl. "They're not? They're still out there ... bleeding?"
Wanbli laughed with real humor this time. "No, no. I said I took care of them. They're Tagged. They won't come back."
"Tagged? Tagged?" As Tawlin leaned forward, the unintelligent bedstead put out its light. He squeaked at the sudden dark and slammed back against the. headboard. "Dongs, man! They came to kill me and you just let them go?"
"They came a lot closer to killing me than you, Ake," answered Wanbli. His employer's rising hysteria inspired in him a contrasting mood of self-confidence. "And Tagging is the same as dusting a person, at least where you're concerned. They can never, never, as long as they live, lift a hand to do you harm. Nor can they return to their old employers. They might as well be dead."
"I know the theory!" Tawlin's emotions would not let him remain still any longer. He rose from the bed, waved the ceiling light alive and began to pace. Sealed chambers were by their nature small, and so his pacing involved stepping over Wanbli's knees.
"It's not theory," the Wacaan countered. "It's our way of life."
"Hah! Way of life. Then who killed Felix Mo but a Wacaan who had already been spanked and sent away once?"
Wanbli lifted a stiff set of shoulder blades and let them drop again. He stood up to allow the T'chishetti more room to pace. "That man was mad. Besides, when he broke Tag, he was no longer a Wacaan."
"I am not reassured by that." Tawlin was working himself into a good rage now. His emotions seemed to be dredging up the last of the Povlen, for his eyes were wonderfully black.
"We destroyed him, you remember."
"I am not reassured by that either." Tawlin stopped and faced his tall bodyguard. "I tell you I am not coming out of this room until you follow those two thugs down and get rid of them for real."
"Then you will have a restricted life, Tawlin. You cannot send a Wacaan after Wacaan, you know." He put a reassuring hand down on Tawlin's shoulder. It was brushed off.
"...what I can do and what I can't do! Who thumbs the check around here? Then go after Rall herself. She s the bitch who sent them."
Wanbli sighed. He gazed up at the aimless, buoyant ceiling globes. Without warning he grabbed Tawlin's delicate hand and slapped it against the wall plate. White daylight filled the room, with moisture and the smell of ferns. Tawlin cursed energetically and pressed the panel again, but Wanbli was standing in the doorway, and the door was inhibited from cutting people in two. "Look, Tawlin. It's empty. Bare. Okay. Safe."
"Rall has used both her Wacaan up against you. She will have to apply to Clan Council to be assigned more and until then she'll be in strict hiding. I won't be able to find her.
"And what about you? Without Vynur you have only the two of us, and Mimi is on the edge of exhaustion. Don't you have any more enemies to watch out for? Enemies that might hear about this little tiff today?"
Tawlin glared as though Wanbli was the enemy in question. His expression changed, softened and became desperate and the T'chishetti stumbled off toward the rear wall of the sealed chamber, which slid open and showed him the toilet.
Wanbli sat outside the lavatory door and listened to his employer's empty retching. He had tried the friendly firm hand at the base of Tawlin's neck and had been rudely rejected. He sat and he fingered his new car key and he thought. When the distressing noises eased, he called out, "Tell me, Ake, old flyer: does this male mutation you were going on about have anything to do with feet?"
Tawlin T'chishetti was in no hurry to show his face. He dabbed with perfumed water before expanding the door into the bedroom. "Feet? I didn't mention ... oh. Right. I can't trust that cousin of yours to do anything for me."
Aymimishett was a clan brother but not a cousin. Wanbli had said as much to Tawlin times without count. He didn't repeat himself now.
Ake Tawlin felt much better. Much better. The Povlen was kept in the lavatory cabinet. "You, redman, are a different tale altogether. To make that connection--even if it was a silly one. No, 'Bli, the history of vertebrate evolution has a great deal to do with feet, but not with foot fetishism. I got that stack of cheapies on special deal--almost for nothing. I'm good at that. Have to be, poor as I am."
Wanbli nodded in good-natured agreement. "You are, goldman, you are." When the Wacaan called the T'chishetti "goldman," the T'chishetti believed they were referring to skin color. Or they pretended to.
"Most Paints wouldn't bother trying to make sense out of the two things--my waking up and talking about mutation and the strange flicks I was watching last night." He gave his Wacaan a very proprietary glance.
"I really should have had you educated. But the noise that would have made..."
Wanbli's garnet eyes revealed one moment of real anger. "Had me educated? I am educated, Tawlin. There are very few of the Wacaan to have passed the Third Eagle on their first try and almost all of those were women. There are no Third Eagles at all my age."
Tawlin strode out of the sealed room into the light, looking neither left nor right. He stroked a fern tenderly. "I know, 'Bli. I've watched your progress all your life. Only to be expected. But I meant real education. In business. Politics."
Wanbli's anger melted into condescension. "You don't know much about Third Eagle training if you think I've missed that."
Tawlin stretched and cracked his shoulder blades in a very athletic manner (Povlen was like that). "I don't know much? You don't know much, my boy. Not about me. Not about yourself, either."
Tawlin had the attitude of a man about to offer revelations. Wanbli had heard Povlen revelations before. He broke in. "I think it's time to take you to Hovart Clan House, Tawlin. Remember--you're short a guardian. Since you repelled an attack today, you have the right to stay there until your house is full again." The key in his wallet felt delicious against his fingers.
Tawlin yawned, growing more alert by the moment. "The Clan House? Oddly enough, that's where you just sent the two assassins who were going to kill us, didn't you? What if I ran into them in the front hallway, heh?"
That Tawlin should run into the pair was unlikely, since they were walking the distance, but perhaps the goldman hadn't made this particular "connection." Wanbli's right to the property brought in the attack was undeniable, but he didn't want to embark on a discussion of it with a Povlen-laced T'chishetti. "Then you could hire them. Perfect solution to the problem." Wanbli only half thought of it as a joke, but Tawlin was full of himself enough to take it that way.
"No, thanks. I don't want losers in my stable," he said. "Besides--I'm only permitted three guardians by law. Remember?"
"Right said. But I'm leaving," said Wanbli, and it became true as he said it. He repeated, "I'm leaving."
Tawlin's glance became even more tender. He turned to the nearest window, plucked a fern frond and played with the shimmer of the field. "Just like that? What a very unWacaan thing to do. But then you're not really a Wacaan, are you?"
"It's not so sudden. You've made it sizzling flames to work for you these past ... What on the Ninety-eight do you mean by that--not really a Wacaan?"
Ake Tawlin sat down on a white wicker chair under the light of the window. He seemed to have forgotten all danger from outside. His ivory pajamas, however, were slightly soiled with vomit. "I mean that the Wacaan are very predictable. They glory in it."
"Not in fighting, we're not."
"Since you fight with each other, the question is academic. But you, Wanbli, son of Damasc, are very different. Bright, questioning, unconventional. You are like me. As is inevitable."
"You know that I am on the T'chishett National Baby Board. And, of course, that I spent years in close contact with your mother."
Wanbli came up behind Tawlin, making the T'chishetti flinch. He leaned past him to inspect the scene out the window, both the desert and the garden. "Are you telling me you decided who my father was to be? I doubt that. It takes a vote of thirty percent in total, as well as a majority of the clan involved, to get the valves opened."
Tawlin giggled, but he also stepped back. "But I myself, redman, have the key to my own balls. One of the privileges of plutocracy: even such a poor plutocracy as ours."
Wanbli said nothing at all.
"Your mother was granted one child and by her choice of three fathers. That was all very conventional. But I was there first. I was there first."
"She must have felt sorry for you," said Wanbli defensively.
Tawlin grinned reminiscently. "What can you know about that? You were the one who said she died for my life."
"That was duty! She died maintaining her own honor, moneybags, and I doubt if she thought of you in the process at all!"
"I've made the Wacaan angry. How odd. The half-Wacaan, perhaps."
Wanbli slapped his hand against the wall, so that the pain would bring him back to himself.
"When you were a baby, you looked much more like me."
"That's because you look like a baby, goldman. Any baby." He had himself under control again. "Watch yourself, Ake. You're bragging yourself into a super-national crime, here."
"Only among family." Ake Tawlin was very happy with this riposte. He let the tall Wacaan loom over his chair and waited for the response. It came in the form of soft foot-steps, receding down the hall.
"Wanbli, what are you doing?" Tawlin called. Povlen and lack of sleep made him hoarse.
"I'm being unpredictable again. Go to Hovart or stay here and watch Mimi sleep. I'm gone."
Tawlin sat down again. He decided that perhaps he would take the drive.
The dry morning was glorious now. The air felt bright in and out of his lungs and the sky had just enough pink and green to be comfortable. All the day plants were open, both the armored and the feathery and the darters made small creaking noises under the eaves. Wanbli slouched to the Wacaan compound with his gun in his hand; exhilaration made him cautious. He stood by the window, filtering sand between his toes for a moment.
Home seemed killing beautiful, now that he would leave it. He rolled into the guardhouse through a window, crackling the field.
"Mimi, old flyer, wake up," he said. Wanbli called out from beside the doorway. Not too close: Mimi was overtired and a tired Wacaan could wake up fighting.
He woke up quickly enough, but with no more violence than a protesting bleat. "Pro-tectors, Wanbli, what is it?"
Wanbli came in and sat on the bed. Aymimishett took one look at his face and repeated more querulously, "What is it?"
Mimi did not believe in good news.
"Many things, all pushed into a little half dec," said Wanbli. His smile was so sly that Mimi found it obnoxious. "We have had an assault." Mimi made another little noise. "No harm done, and it's over," continued Wanbli. His fingers drummed on his bare knee. He was so jazzed, he felt he might as well have taken Povlen himself. "Remember Susie, from Rall's?"
Mimi began to grin and then remembered the situation. "And Heydoc? They were just here to kill Tawlin. Heydoc claimed to be counting coup, but that was so much gas."
Mimi was out of bed now and standing at ready, as though there was need for action. "And you took them on together?"
Wanbli chuckled. He did not rise from the pallet. "Oh, I wanted to wake you, but they were pressed for time. I took care of it, though."
Mimi took a slow, calming breath and began to prowl. As Wanbli didn't move and it was Wanbli's story, he had to prowl in small circles. "You're all right?"
"Far as I know. I haven't felt any air holes yet. They're all right too, Mimi, except for some minor bumps. Just out of work."
Mimi hadn't wanted to ask. Now he could allow himself to smile at the thought of Susie again.
"And I've got the key to a great big Rall aircar in my bag," concluded Wanbli. There was so much wonderment in his expression that his complacent words were robbed of all insult, even to the unlucky Mimi.
"A very nice car," answered Wanbli, though he had not yet seen it, except out of the corner of his eye.
"What will you do with it?"
When a Paint came into big money like this (and they came into big money in no other way) it was always a question of what to do with it. He could not possibly keep the car, because it would cost too much to feed, and if a Paint needed transportation, he would see that his employer furnished it.
He could buy food, but he couldn't eat that much. He could buy clothing, but he couldn't wear that much. He would not be permitted to buy a house, and if he had been, when would he stay in it, living on the T'chishetti estates as the Paints did? If he were old or merely despondent he might retire to Southbay.
Money would not influence the Council's decision on genetic suitability, which was the true success of a Wacaan. Usually a rich Wacaan gave the money away on his next birthday, eliminating the worry and earning points as a great good flyer.
"What I'm going to do with it," Wanbli began very hesitantly, gathering speed in his words, "is travel."
"Where?" asked Mimi in slightly envious appreciation. More nervously he added, "When? You can't leave until we get both a replacement for Vynur and a temp for..."
Wanbli looked at the pallet, not at Aymimishett. This was not easy. "No problem there. Tawlin will have to stop gassing and go to Hovart Clan House now. Today. There it can all be handled quickly. You go with him and pick out two new partners, and get a good rest for once.
"I'm not coming back here."
Mimi stared and made fish mouths. He sank down beside Wanbli with one hand on his friend's shoulder. He looked old.
No, this was not easy.
"Wanbli. You were born here," he said, and there was actually pity in the man's words.
"Not actually. I was born at Hovart House. I spent most of my first twenty years, off and on, in Southbay."
"Of course. We all did. But Tawlin is home for you."
Wanbli gave a little sniff, which sounded odd to himself. "No more. I'm leaving today."
"Because of the attack?" Mimi was floundering for meaning, and Wanbli couldn't help, for he didn't understand himself. Not on a level to be explained.
"No. Because I now have the feathers to fly."
"But today? That's not planning. That's not discipline." Mimi's large, fleshless features worked with his thinking. "That's not Wacaan."
"I don't need to hear that!" Wanbli was surprised at his own irritation. It was that accident of birth's damn Povlen-warped suggestion. "It's perfectly disciplined. When would be better, with Tawlin already having to go to Hovart House? Should I wait for him to replace Vynur and for us all to settle into a routine? It'll take a bomb to move him again after all this. Strike while the enemy is hot!"
There were flaws in Wanbli's logic that even Mimi could see. But Mimi had the Wacaan sensibility to know that logic was not at issue here. "So where will you go?"
Wanbli waited in his answer. "New Benares."
Mimi's face wrinkled and then he relaxed all over. "Man, I thought you were serious. Don't wind that around me again!"
This wasn't easy at all. Not at all. "I am serious, Aymimishett, Clan Brother. I'm leaving as soon as I can get a boat out." Wanbli stood and faced Mimi, leaning over him, trying to express his earnest in every inch of his body. "I'm going to make shimmers."
"They won't let you. The Clan Council won't give you conge for that. They wouldn't okay your going off-planet even if they did."
Mimi wouldn't look at him. Wanbli straightened.
The air was still very sweet. Outside Mimi's dark cubby the sun was rising toward a brilliant noon. "So who is going to tell them about it, Mimi?"
Mimi groaned. "So now I'm a party to all this? On top of overwork and ... and abandonment? Both you and Vynur. Now I'm to lie to the Council at Hovart and say I don't know where you've gone?"
Tears stung Wanbli's eyes for an instant. "Not abandonment, Mimi. I don't want to leave you behind at all. You could come with me and avoid the whole mess. Let Tawlin interview a whole new trio of Paints. A new 'stable,' as he calls us. You can walk out. Why not? We'll see how far the money from the car will take us, and talk our way the rest of the trip."
Still Mimi didn't look up. "I have no interest in being an actor, Wanbli, Clan Brother. Nor a thief nor a tramp." His voice was very sad. Wanbli turned to go.
He was in the doorway when Mimi added, "You are close to guaranteed sire-promotion, you know. As close as any Wacaan ever was."
Wanbli stopped and sagged against the doorjamb. There was so much feeling behind Mimi's words. He had never fathered a child.
What he had said was enormous praise: unlike Aymimishett. It was also true.
Wanbli had always depended upon sire-promotion. He would be a better father than Flammulus had been to him. He would never take employment at the other end of the country from his own son or daughter. He closed his eyes and tried to erase the events of the morning. He tried to forget the key in his pouch.
He found he was out the door and walking.
Posted May 9, 2013