This is the first chapter of the first book in the new series. It’s not really YA, although the protagonists are children at the moment. No, I don’t have a title yet. The one I was kicking around 1) gives too much away and 2) could be mistaken for a reference to a David Drake series.
Looking back, Rigi and Tomás tried to decide if they’d have done anything differently. “Maybe we shouldn’t have told even Uncle Eb,” she sighed, listening to the heated argument going on in the next room. Even over the wet-season rain, the governor’s voice could be heard as he tried to drown out Uncle Eb and Mr. Petrason.
Tomás, two years older and wiser to the ways of adults, ran a hand through his short-trimmed brown hair and sighed as well. “I don’t think so. We did everything we were supposed to, everything the school taught us, and Uncle Eb and his associates followed procedures. The Staré have not protested, not even First and Second Stamm elders. I think Mr. Petrason and his friends are jealous. Benin certainly is.”
Rigi had an unladylike thought about where Benin could go, starting with the northern icecap. Now that she’d seen his father having a temper fit, Rigi understood where Benin got his temper from.
“I’ve just never heard grownups acting so childish.”
Tomás shrugged. “Neither have I. I can see why Uncle Eb likes being around us more than being around them.”
Rigi nodded so hard that her black curls bounced. “I agree entirely, Master Tomás” she said, mimicking Uncle Eb.
Rigi bounced a little on her toes as she waited for Uncle Eb to catch up. Tomás had already trotted up the trail the they’d made through the cool, quiet woods, but she didn’t think Uncle Eb’s m-mule would find the way without her. Her m-mule certainly couldn’t. “This way, Uncle Eb,” she called. “We’re almost there.”
The tall, stooped old man appeared around the bend. “Sorry, Miss Rigi, I saw a new plant and wanted a sample so Lexi could give me the name, if he knows it.” Uncle Eb never talked down to Rigi and Tomás. “It may be a higher stamm name than the ones he knows.” The old model m-mule creaked a little in one joint as it walked behind him.
“That’s OK, Uncle Eb.” Together they passed the big hollowed tree, edged around a striped slick-leaf bush and passed through the piles of stone that Rigi and Tomás called the gate. “This is what we found last year.” She smiled up at him a she pointed to the shiny black stone wall.
Ebenezer Solomon Trent opened his mouth, closed it again, and blinked hard. He walked up to the wall and touched it. Rigi wondered why his hand seemed to be shaking. Was he tired? He looked up and watched Tomás balancing on top of the meter-high wall. “Is it solid, Tomás?”
“Not really, sir, at least not all of it. This section is, to that curve over there,” he pointed to the left, where the black disappeared into tree shadows and a pile of racer vines. “Then it looks more crumbly, disappears for a bit, and comes back. It curves around in a great big circle and comes back here. My mule’s measurement gauge says three kilometers, but part of it is buried or goes underground or something, I think, Uncle.” The boy shrugged. “We found a lot more things inside the ring wall and I like those more.”
Uncle Eb made a choking noise and Rigi and Tomás smiled and pumped their fists. He had “that look,” the kind he got when he found something new and interesting and wouldn’t come out until Aunt Kay turned off the power circuit to his office. “See, we said we’d found something new.”
He blinked and looked up from peering at and petting the wall. “What? Oh, yes, Tomás, you are quite right. You and Rigi did find something new. Very new.” He fussed with some of the sensors on the m-mule and picked up its tether, leading it along the inside face of the wall as it filmed and measured the rough, pitted black surface. That was one thing Rigi wanted him to tell them—why the outside was smooth mostly but the inside had rough patches and cracks and dents in it. “You said there were things inside the wall?”
Tomás nodded. “Yes, sir. Rigi, the residence, the temple, or the name stone?”
She liked the building they called the temple better because of the colors, but the name stone had marks on it that looked like writing and Uncle Eb was a word person, after all. “The name stone. Then maybe the temple.”
Tomás scrambled down from the pile of broken wall he’d been standing on. “This way, Uncle Eb.” Their uncle led the grey-brown, waist-tall m-mule through the thick brush. They had been lucky that nothing really nasty grew in the ring, Rigi knew, not like that striped slick-leaf bush. The worst bushes here had long, bright red curved thorns that you could see long before you ran into them. They’d also found a lot of cream berries growing near the residence, and she and Tomás didn’t bother eating their lunches when the berries were ripe. No animals bothered them, at least not after the auto-beam on Tomás’s m-mule blasted the big ring-tail lizard they’d met in the temple. They’d agreed not to tell their parents about seeing it, and Tomás had tinkered with the m-mule and blanked the record of the energy discharge.
Ahead of her, Rigi heard Uncle Eb talking to his m-mule, reciting what he saw as they walked along. I wonder what he’s going to say when we get to the name stone? It wasn’t too far, not really. The far end of the wall from their “gate” didn’t have much to look at and Tomás said it was probably a garden or a park. Except nothing taller than knee-high smoke grass grew there, which Rigi thought was kind of strange for a garden. The area with the ruins had more bushes and other things. She wanted Uncle Eb to explain that, too.
“Great Caesar’s ghost!” Uncle Eb shouted. “I— You— What— By the Magellanic Clouds this is magnificent!”
He rushed up to the tall block of cream and brown stone and Rigi thought he might be about to hug it. Instead he stopped and stared, head tipped all the way back until his hat fell off. Well, it was tall, probably four meters, but not as tall as the trees in the forest around them. Here and there patches of glossy black splashed the stone like someone had tossed wet paint or cermacoating onto it. At least five rows of rounded shapes had been carved into the stone on the big flat front, with more down, or maybe up, both sides. The back had a picture, or so Tomás thought. Rigi thought it was just random carvings, like someone wanted to decorate the back side without putting too much work into it. It rear of the stone curved out a little, but the front and sides were flat.
Uncle Eb made a few strange noises that were not words and opened the m-mule’s top hatch, pulling out a holo recorder and a few other tools. Rigi and Tomás smiled and slapped hands. Now Uncle Eb wouldn’t be bored anymore. “How long before he notices anything else?” Rigi asked.
Tomás shrugged. “Hour? His m-mule can’t climb, can it?”
She shook her head and the tassels on her headband flopped back and forth, releasing a little scent. “No. That’s a standard m-mule Version Twelve – Semi-urban but with more sensors and carry cubbies. I heard Aunt Kay saying that he wanted an upgrade but the repair costs are too much on the true all-terrain m-mules.”
He nodded. “Uncle Aye said the last time he had to replace the climbing pads on one, it cost eight hundred interstellar.” Rigi’s eyes bulged and her mouth hung open. He raised his right hand. “Warrior’s honor. Eight hundred interstellar. Uncle Aye wanted the money before he ordered the parts.”
Since Uncle Eb seemed happy talking to himself and the name stone, Rigi and Tomás wandered off. Rigi went to the building she called the temple and sat on a flat stone bench in the shade. She drank some of the water she’d brought in her bag and listened to the singing bugs as they hummed back and forth. The temple had colored walls, all sorts of colors, that showed through the racer vines and other plants. She and Tomás had gone inside twice, but after reading about the collapse of the Great Cave on Deben, they decided maybe that wasn’t a good thing to do unless they had a m-mule with them they could send for help, and Tomás’s parents refused to let him have an m-mule with “send away” programs in it. Rigi wondered why adults thought Tomás was old enough for an armed mule but not for a send-away remote, then shrugged. She’d ask Mar.
Rigi and Tomás had seen pictures carved on the walls, and the walls looked pale but with more black drippy stuff on it. The outside also had black splatters and red and yellow and blue, at least the parts Rigi could see under the racer vines did. The walls stood about three meters tall, or so the gauge on Tomás’s m-mule said. They looked higher inside, but neither Rigi nor Tomás had light-throwers strong enough to see that far.
She heard running feet, and jumped up as Tomás raced around the corner. “Striped lion,” he panted. “Outside wall.” He grabbed her hand. “Saw a horned digger too but we need to warn Uncle Eb.” Together they ran back to the name stone, making as much noise as they could. Striped lions usually didn’t attack anything bigger than they were or that sounded bigger. That was one thing everyone on Shikhari knew: the native fauna would kill you if you didn’t pay attention.
“Uncle Eb.” Rigi called. “Striped lion outside the wall, that way.” She pointed back toward the temple.
“I could just see it from where I was standing on top of the residence, so pretty well away. Saw a horned digger too, but didn’t want to stay and watch,” Tomás admitted.
Uncle Eb looked grave. He turned around and stared back toward the gate, his lips moving, then nodded once. “Mule, guard mode. Striped lion.”
The clunky quad-leg whirred and a beam-shooter rose from its upper surface. It didn’t look anything like the beam-shooter on Tomás’s m-mule, and he blinked as it locked into position. “Uncle Eb, is that military grade?”
“Yes. I’ve had it for—” The old man caught himself and looked at Rigi and Tomás. “For a long time. I’ll explain when you finish this school term.” He took a few more holo shots of the name stone and said, “Now you said there was a temple?”
Rigi’s time keeper chimed and all three looked at it. “Oh dear. Mrs. Debenedetto leaves in an hour and Mother will expect me back by sixteen hundred.” That left only two hours to explore, go home, and get cleaned up for visitors.
“I think, sir, the residence would be better. We can show you the temple, and you need a powerful light to really see inside.” Tomás sounded eager. Rigi was disappointed but shrugged. The buildings were not going to disappear overnight. And Uncle Eb could be trusted to come back on his own, unlike some adults she and Tomás knew.
Tomás led the way, followed by Uncle Eb, Rigi, and the m-mule. Rigi glanced back once or twice to check on the machine and noticed what looked like a little sensor of some kind on a stick had appeared above the beam-shooter. The sensor spun around, and she wondered what it was doing. Maybe it was a holo camera of some kind? Or was it looking for the striped lion? That was probably it, since Uncle Eb had specifically told the m-mule that the danger was a striped lion. Rigi returned her attention to what was in front of her. They passed several piles of crumbling rock and skirted what looked like the start of a pit opening up in the ground. She and Tomás had never tried to see if it was just a low place in the dirt or if it were really something underground giving way. Trap-lizards didn’t exist on this continent, but better safe than eaten. No bushes grew around the low spot, only dark green and yellow ground cover and a few tufts of smoke-grass.
“I see why you call this the residence,” Uncle Eb said when they stopped. “You two have a good eye for architecture.”
“Thank you, sir,” Tomás said.
“Thank you,” Rigi echoed. It had a certain look and weight that reminded both of them of the Colonial Governor’s Residence, a heavy white and pale green building made of native stone and wood that sat on top of the hill in Novmerv.
“We can go inside, Uncle Eb. The walls are solid and there’s no roof to fall in on us. It already fell in.” Tomás hesitated, frowning, fists on hips. “That is, I think it fell. It’s not there, but it should be. There are stairs that led up to where the top of the wall is now, and other things.”
“Hmm. Show me, please.” They stopped so Uncle Eb could take holos of the door frame, or what was left of it. Chunks of stone had fallen off the frame on the inside, but pretty carvings like flowers and fancy birds, maybe the rainbow birds from the Bataria Archipelago, still flowed around the stones on the outside.
“Up there.” The boy pointed and Eb peered up at the top of the wall, then looked again through his holo-maker.
“I see what you mean. You do have a good eye. If there were roof beams, they could well have been mounted there.”
SquEEEEEElll! The humans froze as they heard the death cry of a horned digger, and something making a long roar-like sound. Tomás shook all over and said, “Um, maybe we don’t have to worry about the striped lion?”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Uncle Eb did not tell the m-mule to stand down, Rigi noticed.
She walked into the center of the first room and twirled around, arms spread. “If there was a roof here, where did it go, Uncle Eb? And what is the black on the walls?” She slide-danced back and froth across the smooth floor. “If the roof fell in, it should be here, and I don’t think I’m standing on it.”
The adult crouched down and tapped the floor, then drew an old-fashioned metal knife out of the holster on his belt and poked at it, then tried to pry up a bit of the splashed black. “Fused to the surface? Yes, that’s what happened, its fused for some reason, but why? Not a protective treatment I don’t think. Hmm.” He muttered a little more but Rigi couldn’t understand what he was saying. After a few more pokes he stood and put the knife back in its holder. “I don’t know, Rigi. And I don’t know enough to guess well, so I won’t guess.”
Tomás drooped. “That’s no fun.”
Uncle Eb smiled, revealing slightly crooked small yellow teeth under his white mustache. “No, it’s not. But I’d hate to guess that a round backed, round legged animal with a round head is something harmless and then have to explain why my leg is missing. Same problem.”
It made sense to Rigi when he put it that way. Tomás had gone into the next room and returned with a handful of the artifacts they’d found. OK, maybe not artifacts like the ones in her edu-vids, but Rigi thought they looked like the bits of pots and broken tools people kept hunting for. She especially liked the shimmery rainbow disks that changed color almost like liquid when you tilted them back and forth.
“Uncle Eb, we think these are metal, and these are a glass or polymer of some kind, but I can’t find anything like them in my materials edu-files.” Tomás showed Uncle Eb one of the color-flowy ones. “We picked them up off the floor along the walls. There’s lots more, but these are the interesting ones.”
Rigi kicked the floor a little. “Um, I know we’re supposed to leave things in see-too, but like he says, there’s lots more all over.”
Uncle Eb smiled so widely that all his teeth showed, or so it seemed. “No, this is fine. Sometimes it’s more important to take a little bit of evidence back to prove something than to be absolutely pure.” He looked around and sighed. “And it’s possible, probable, that animals and insects have been moving things around, or wind and rain moving them. And the Staré may have touched things too.”
Both Tomás and Rigi shook their heads. “No sir. They won’t come here. They don’t even know about it, at least not anyone we’ve talked to or listened to. We’ve gone up to third-line Stamm members and they all said they had never heard about anything in the woods. We didn’t show them pictures, though.” Rigi nodded her agreement with his words.
Uncle Eb bent his head down and stared at them, blinking, eyes wide open. “Even third Stamm knew nothing?”
Tomás raised his right hand. “Warrior’s Oath, sir. I asked several people as high as I dared and third Stamm knew nothing.”
“We didn’t try to ask any higher, since second Stamm members are always busy and don’t like to talk to humans.” Rigi shrugged. She’d been surprised that third Stamm would talk to her, but she looked younger than her ten years. Most people assumed she was still outside Staré and human dividing points.
Uncle Eb straightened up again, all the way up. When he didn’t stoop, he stood a lot taller than Rigi had thought, and he looked different, more like a governor or senior soldier. “Master Tomás, Miss Rigi, thank you for taking me into your confidence. You have done very good work exploring and preserving this site. I think we have seen enough for today.”
Uncle Eb sent the m-mule first down the trail, then Tomás and Rigi, and followed along behind, looking and listening. He didn’t stop the m-mule until they reached the edge of the not-so-wild part of the forest. “Mule, at ease. Threat past.” The weapon disappeared back into the dark grey rectangular body section and the m-mule once more looked as if it was a simple, old, light-duty m-mule. Uncle Eb motioned for Rigi and Tomás to come close and he knelt. “I will not ask you to promise not to tell anyone about my m-mule’s little trick, but I would prefer that you did not mention it unless you think it is an emergency.”
Rigi and Tomás looked at each other. It was not a promise, and Rigi could see why he wouldn’t want everyone to know about the weapon. Aunt Lee, for instance, would wail about having an armed m-mule around “civilized people.” “That’s fair. I won’t mention it, sir,” Rigi said.
“I won’t either,” Tomás agreed.
“Thank you. Tómas, you said you saw the striped lion outside the wall, and the horned digger. How far away is that from the residence?”
Tomás looked up at the leaf canopy and his lips moved. “Straight line just under a kilometer? No, ah, eight hundred meters, sir.”
“You have good eyes.”
He looked down and kicked at a rock-nut. “No, sir. But Kor taught me how to see like he does. He says I have a hunter’s mind and sense, and he lets me come with him sometimes. Please don’t tell my mother. She’d worry.”
Uncle Eb took a deep breath and breathed out through pursed lips as he stared up at the leaves. “Does your father know?”
“No, but Master Sergeant does.”
“Then I won’t say anything unless I need to.”
“Thank you, sir.”
They returned to the cluster of small dwellings outside the main district of Keralita. Large flower and food gardens surrounded each house. They all had deep verandahs and two floors, but each bore a different shade of paint, except the Fancy House—it wore horizontal stripes of pink and green. Flowering plants that matched the walls lined the paths from the main road to the houses. Rigi knew that each flower also had a specific scent that matched the “sense” of the houses as well, but her human nose wasn’t sensitive enough to smell it. Tomás waved and hurried on up the road. His parents had a house closer to the main district because his father was one of the military commanders. Rigi’s parents just listened to people, filed documents, and made certain that what was supposed to be in the boxes coming and going through the spaceport were really in there.
As Rigi and Uncle Eb crossed the entry sensor, Mar walked around the path beside the house, folded her forefeet together and bowed at the waist to Uncle Eb. He touched one hand to his forehead and inclined his body forward. Rigi inhaled and caught a faint hint of Mar’s calm scent. Rigi had told her governess that she was going with Uncle Eb, and Mar had not worried. When she worried, her scent had a sharp undertone, but different from her angry scent. Rigi noticed that Mar wore a clean, freshly starched apron. She’d supervised the laundry while Rigi was gone. That meant Mama wanted Rigi very clean and tidy. Oh dear.
“As promised, Miss Rigi is home on time, Mar.” Uncle Eb patted Rigi on the head. “I’ll be back later to discuss your observations, if I might.”
“Please do, sir.” Because if he were there, she would not have to sit and listen to Mrs. Debenedetto talking about all the people Rigi know nothing about.
After he left, Mar made a little pushing motion with the backs of her forefeet. “Yes, Mar.” Rigi led the way around the pale blue house to the back door, went in, and climbed up to the second floor where she and Lyria shared a room. Lyria sat in front of a teaching unit, watching a vid on the history of fashion. Rigi took off her play tunic and leggings and boots, and darted into the rinse room. She bathed quickly and dried. When she emerged, Mar had fresh under things for her, and a fancier long tunic and looser leggings, more like a divided skirt but not quite. Rigi sat and Mar puffed the lightest bit of scent into Rigi’s hair, then began combing it with the claw-like nails of her forefeet. “Did you have a good walk?” the governess asked, enunciating carefully. Her flat, bill-like outer lips made human speech difficult and the inner lips sat farther back in the mouth, muting sounds like “b” and “p”. The Staré, like the human colonists, belonged to the mammal group, Rigi had learned in school. But where humans were placental mammals, the Staré were monotremes. They laid eggs but nursed their babies, had fur, and had short, thick tails. Their hind feet only had two toes but those had large, thick, flat claws that could kill in a fight. Mar’s fur was a soft warm medium brown almost the same color as Lyria’s hair.
“Yes, Mar, we did. Uncle Eb found two plants that he needs names for, that are new to him.”
Mar made the rolling sound that, with a hint of dusty smell, meant a soft chuckle. “Ah, Mister Eb is a great word hunter indeed. What will he do if he ever runs out of new words?”
“Move to a new place and start over? I don’t know.”
“Words make him wise.” A whiff of sharpness, of certainty and finality. Mar’s statement was fact, one Rigi should not argue with. And for the Staré it was the pure truth. The more one remembered, and the older the knowledge, the higher one’s Stamm and the greater rank and status one held. All the colonists learned that early on, and Rigi and Lyria had grown up navigating the Stammen and human hierarchies without thought, guided by humans and Staré alike.
Should she tell Mar about the striped lion? No. “Uncle Eb’s m-mule caught a trace of horned digger, but it was a kilometer, two walks, away and departed.”
Mar tied the end of the braid with a piece of green ribbon. “They move with the coolness. Only one, Miss Rigi?”
A puff of powdery thinking scent. “Might be too old to keep up with group or a young one looking for new group. I will tell Eenjan. Herds in the hills are rare. Can mean things to the wise.”
Rigi tried to remember who Eenjan was. Oh, that’s right, he guarded the gardens and orchards. He was second Stamm, and he also acted as farm manager. He was a friend of the First Sergeant, too.
“Stand please.” Rigi stood and turned around so Mar could inspect her. “Good. Your mother’s guest will be here soon.”
Rigi found her sketch pad and a pencil, sat on the padded seat molded into the frame of the window, and began drawing the ring-wall. Her art teacher preferred for his students to use electronic media, but Rigi couldn’t get the stylus to make the lines she saw in her mind. The graphite stick behaved far better, and she could shade without having to switch tabs and tools. Her father said that older students had access to electronic pads that acted just like her paper and pencils, but she didn’t quite believe him. If they did, then why was all the senior art at the central educational building plain-line and simple color? So she drew on paper and sent images to her teacher. She glanced up to see if Mar was watching this time, but she’d gotten busy cleaning Rigi’s play shoes. Mar sometimes made odd scents when Rigi drew things, like portraits of Staré.
“Don’t you make pictures?” Rigi had asked once.
Mar had made a complicated gesture with her forefeet and had shaken her shoulders. “First Stamm, second Stamm, powder pictures of colors for the Great Days. Then wind and water take to the next world.” She’d given off a very firm “ask no more” scent and Rigi had contented herself with that. Mar did not look closely at Rigi’s work, unlike some other people.
“Are you making things up again? You know you’re not supposed to do that until third year art.” Rigi looked up as Lyria wagged one finger at her. Her older sister stood with one hand on her hip and reminded Rigi of a catch-um tree, the ones that used hook-like seeds and sticky resin to attach seeds to passing animals and spread them for kilometers. “Your study plan is to learn the mechanics and laws of art and drawing from life, and then move to imaginary.”
“Uncle Eb showed me a holo of a rock formation someone found, and I’m trying to match the light fall and shading.” It was mostly true. Saying mostly-true things to avoid trouble worked better than saying not true things. Rigi’s memory wasn’t good enough to keep track of too many not true things.
“Oh.” Lyria sniffed. At fourteen she knew everything her younger sister was supposed to do, or so she acted like. “And Mrs. Debenadetto has arrived.”
“Thank you.” No matter how irritating Lyria was, Mar would swat them both if they squabbled in their room. And her big flat forefeet stung when they hit Rigi’s rump. Rigi put away her sketchbook and pencils, made certain her tunic hung straight, and followed Lyria down the front stairs to the receiving room. Every house on Shikari had one, or at least every house and dwelling that Rigi had visited or peered into had one. Neither humans nor Staré liked having others wandering through their living places. Because it was a cool season house, this had small windows set high in the wall to let in light and also keep in heat. Lyria stood in the doorway until their mother called, “Come in.”
“Mrs. Debenadetto, my daughters Lyria and Auriga.” Lyria bowed and Rigi made a half-curtsey. “Lyria, Auriga, Mrs. Debenadetto is a friend of Colonel Australi’s wife and assists with a number of charitable works on Home, including schools.”
That made sense, Rigi decided, looking at the older woman’s close-cut clothes and closed-in posture. People from Home sat and dressed closed until they learned that Shikari had more than enough room to move around. Benin Petrason still sat closed, shoulders and arms pulled in tight, but he always said he was going back to Home as soon as his parents could find a way. Rigi’s mother wore a loose dress with long, loose sleeves that only tightened at the wrist, and an underskirt to give her dress even more fullness. On Shikari no one gave her a second look, but Rigi remembered the hard stares and cold words she’d heard on Home. The visitor also wore perfume, far too much by Shikhari standards, in a scent that broadcast “helpless-confusion-confidence” and something else Rigi didn’t quite understand. The blend confused her nose.
Mrs. Debenadetto studied the sisters. Then she smiled with her mouth. Her eyes stayed a little suspicious and chilly. “Good afternoon Lyria, Auriga. How old are you?”
“I’m fourteen, ma’am, and my sister is ten.” Rigi nodded, keeping her hands clasped in front of her. People fresh from Home thought that was better than letting your arms hang at your sides, and Rigi wanted to make their guest welcome.
Rigi’s mother smiled and tipped her head a little to the side, pointing to the smaller couch. That was the cue for her daughters to sit. Their mother and Mrs. Debenadetto sat in comfortable chairs facing each other, with the refreshment platform hovering between them where it could easily rotate to serve either adult. As Lyria and Rigi took their places, two smaller refreshment platforms floated into the room and took positions at each end of the couch. Mrs. Debenadetto touched the large pendant on her necklace with one hand and looked surprised. “You still use dienst-servos?”
“Yes, Mrs. Debenadetto. My husband prefers to keep most of the staff with him, so only the girls’ governess and a few other vital servants travel with us.”
“My. Archer said that you were a traditionalist, but I had not realized he meant your husband as well.”
Rigi’s mother took it with good grace, as always, at least in public. “You will find far more neo-traditionalists on the out worlds than within the Home systems. We are second-wave diaspora.”
Their guest’s light orange eyes lit up with understanding. “Ah! Thank you, that explains a great deal.” She helped herself to more tea, and Rigi’s mother gave a little nod, allowing her daughters to serve themselves and drink as well. The delicate, faint scent of ginter and lemon-heart told Rigi that their cook, Shao, was making fruited cakes and fruited wombow for supper. “So. Acherna, my brother says that you are the head of the parents’ association within the educational center?”
Rigi’s mother smiled a little as she sipped her own tea. “I am flattered but I fear his excellency exaggerates. I assist with parent-instructor communications but I am not the leader. That is, hmm, I believe Mister Tekesti is president this term.”
“You rotate leadership? How unusual.”
“It seems the best way to keep as many parents as possible involved and prevents the association from growing stale.” Mrs. Debenadetto’s perfectly curved eyebrows pinched together and she frowned. “New leadership helps encourage new ideas and growth.”
“Now I understand. The word ‘stale’ is not usually used in the context of people.”
Rigi wanted to ask why not, but noticed her sister glaring at her and kept her question inside. The adults talked school things and parental involvement and Rigi wanted to move or to ask to be excused. She needed to finish drawing the wall while the memory was fresh.
Perhaps the Most High had heard her thoughts, or the Luck God did, because the visitor chime pinged quietly. After a moment Mar tapped on the doorframe. Mrs. Debenadetto’s face changed to an interesting pink as Mrs. deStella-Bernardi asked, “Yes, Mar? Who comes?”
“Mister Ebenezer Trent, ma’am.”
Rigi’s mother smiled. “Please let him in.” She turned to Mrs. Debenadetto. “Mister Trent is one of the colony’s great scholars. He is most generous with his time when his duties permit.” She stood. Rigi and Lyria did as well, and Mar bowed when Uncle Eb walked in. He now wore very proper trousers, shirt, waistcoat and jacket, and carried a leather satchel. Rigi guessed it was snap-back leather and wondered if he’d killed the big hunter reptile himself. “Good afternoon, Mr. Trent.”
“Good afternoon Mrs. deStella-Bernardi, Ma’am,” he inclined a little toward the guest.
“Mr. Trent, Mrs. Elaine Debenadetto is a guest of Governor Archer visiting for the season from Home. Mrs. Debenadatto, Mr. Ebenezer Trent is linguist and xenologist, formerly with the Constella’s Own Regiment.” Mrs. Debenadetto seemed uncertain what to do when Uncle Eb extended his right hand, then she shook it.
“It is always a pleasure to welcome new visitors to Shikali,” Uncle Eb said. “Mrs. deStella-Bernardi, I apologize for intruding, but I would like to borrow Miss Auriga for a few minutes, if she can be excused.”
The visitor’s eyes went wide and she leaned back in her chair. “What for?” she whispered.
“Miss Auriga has an excellent memory for plants and the settings in which they grow. I have a new type that I need identified, and I’d like her to sketch where it was found, so I can have a better start to learning the name.” He sounded calm and unconcerned, but the hand holding onto the satchel handle had tightened its grip until Rigi thought she saw bone through his tanned and age-spotted skin.
Lyria pouted as her mother smiled. “Certainly, Mr. Trent! You may use the rear verandah, where the light is better. Auriga, you are excused to assist Mr. Trent.”
Rigi stood, half-curtsied to their guest, and bowed to her mother. “Thank you ma’am.” As soon as she and Uncle Eb left the room, she scampered up to her room to get her sketchpad and pencils, then met him on the deep rear porch. Mar and Shao had turned on small warmer boxes beside two of the seats in a sunny area, and Uncle Eb gestured for Rigi to be seated. As she found a clean page in her sketchpad, he removed the plant specimen that he’d collected earlier from his satchel, along with some hard copies of something.
“Stop,” he said as she flipped past the wall drawing. “Finish that, first, please Miss Rigi.” Having him nearby seemed to make things easier and her fingers danced and the graphite seemed to flow onto the page, making the wall and its shadows appear by magic. He sipped tea and watched carefully. After a few minor erasings and additions, she decided that she’d captured the wall and she initialed it, showing that she’d completed the work. Then she turned to a fresh page and looked up, pencil in hand, ready.
“This is an Infrared image of where I found the plant,” he said, handing her the printed picture. Rigi looked at it. A thin finger pointed to something. “That’s where the plant came from, per the m-mule’s recording locator. What do you see here?” The finger moved a bit east.
Rigi looked at the picture, frowned, blinked and looked more closely. If the plant was from there, then the ruins should have been . . . but they weren’t. Infrared should have shown the name stone because nothing grew on it, and should have shown the lack of trees in the “garden” area. Instead it seemed to be a forested blur. She met Uncle Eb’s ice-blue eyes. “I don’t see anything unusual, Uncle Eb.”
He smiled and nodded. “A bit of a mystery, yes?” He winked and took the picture back, then presented her with the plant, and an additional leaf that had not been sealed into a preserving envelope. Rigi studied the narrow, dark green leaves, felt their sharp rib and noticed how they fit into the bright red central stem. It smelled sharp and a little fresh, an affirmation of a correct answer. She added it to her mental list as “red-stemmed yes-plant.” Rigi nodded once, closed her eyes to pull up the memory of where she’d seen the entire plant, and then began to sketch. Since she wasn’t interested in making it holo-realistic, she worked quickly, drawing first the original that had been beside the trail, a chest-high bush with long, graceful mainstems, and then adding in the shaggy-bark tree and some ground-cover that she’d seen from the trail. The shaggy-bark’s dense leaves kept too many other bushes from growing in that area, and Rigi could see why the thing had caught Uncle Eb’s eyes.
“Excellent work, Miss Rigi,” he said when she’d finished. He’d been looking at holos as he waited, and drinking tea. “Thank you. I have a holo but your eyes are better than my equipment for seeing the vital details.” She felt her face warming at his praise. And he meant it, unlike some adults.
“You are welcome, Uncle Eb. Um, why doesn’t the infrared show that unusual thing you noticed?” Mrs. Debenadetto’s presence made Rigi careful.
“That is another mystery I wish to solve, Miss Rigi, but not this afternoon. With your permission, may I have both drawings? They, along with the sample, will help Lexi find the name, if he knows it.”
“Yes, sir, you may have them both.” Rigi used her pocket knife to deepen the fold on the side of the page and with Uncle Eb’s help cut-tore the pages free.
The verandah door opened and they looked up to see the visitor from Home walking toward them. She took small steps and looked left and right, as if trying to avoid touching something. Uncle Eb made the wall picture disappear as Rigi got to her feet. “Auriga, your mother says you are an artist?”
Rigi froze, not certain what to say. She didn’t want to contradict her mother but she wasn’t really an artist, not yet. Artists drew from imagination.
“Miss Auriga is a botanical illustrator of some skill already, ma’am,” Uncle Eb said, showing the woman the plant sample and Rigi’s drawing. “Even relatively untrained as she is, her eye for important details and for setting are excellent.”
The woman looked from plant leaf to drawing and back. “My, that is interesting. Pity you do not have access to a full suite of artists’ tools or you could do even better, Miss Auriga, make it more lifelike and useful.”
Rigi stared at the toes of her shoes, hiding her disappointment and hurt. “Yes, ma’am,” was all she managed to say.
“Are you familiar with botanical illustration, Ma’am?” Uncle Eb asked.
“No, but fine art is one of my interests.”
“Ah.” His little noise somehow made Rigi feel much better. She didn’t look up, though. “Miss Auriga, thank you for your time and work. I will show these to the proper individual and see if we can add a new name to the list. Please give my compliments and thanks to your honored mother.”
“You are welcome, sir, and I will do so.” Rigi looked up and bowed to him Shikhari fashion. He returned the gesture, tucked her work and the plant in his satchel and nodded to the visitor.
“If you will excuse me.” He left by the back path from the verandah, humming a little as he walked, head high, back straight.
The next days passed as they usually did, and Rigi did not think much about the trip to the ruins. But a week after the visit, Uncle Eb, Rigi’s father, and a stranger with a lot of things in a large bag appeared. “Rigi,” her father said. “Come to the back verandah, please.” Uncle Eb smiled at her so she wasn’t too worried.
“I’m coming too,” Lyria announced.
Their father shook his head. “No, thank you. Your presence is not needed.” The formality took Rigi aback, her sister as well if Lyria’s growing pout was a sign. Rigi’s father put his hand on her back and encouraged her to follow Uncle Eb and the stranger onto the porch. A light rain was falling and it masked any sounds from elsewhere. The birds seemed to be asleep, and the feather-tailed tree creepers had hidden away in their nests. The quiet felt calm. None of the adults appeared worried, although the stranger growled under his breath as he set up some things and checked their beam connections.
“Miss Rigi,” Uncle Eb said, gesturing to one of the four chairs around the little table with the equipment on it. “It seems that the ruins you and Master Tomás found are quite a mystery indeed.”
“Oh yes, Miss, very much and we need to learn all we can about what they looked like when you found them and what made you think they were important and if you noticed anything unusual and how long you have been visiting, and—” The stranger’s words tripped over themselves, he talked so fast. Now that she could look at him closely, Rigi saw that he wore the loose clothes of a colonist but tailored and trim-fitting through the chest and the ends of his sleeves. His hair was not so thick on top and when he bent over to adjust something, she saw a little shine. He wasn’t as tall as Uncle Eb but was taller than her father.
Her father stopped the flow of words. “Micah, my daughter won’t be able to do anything if you make her nervous.” He smiled at an increasingly worried Rigi. “Rigi, these gentlemen want you to go back as far as you can recall and say what you found and how, beginning at the beginning. They’re going to interview Tomás as well, because he’ll recall different details than you do. You are not in trouble and you will not be in trouble, no matter what you say. I know you’re a careful young lady and I trust your judgment.”
“And this is strictly voice recording, not image,” Uncle Eb added. He sat down on one side of Rigi, her father sat on her other side, and Mister De Groet sat facing her where he could adjust his machine.
“Thank you. This is recording one, 1500 local cool-season time, Miss Auriga Bernardi with Mr. Timothy Bernardi, father, Ebenezer Trent, patron, and Micah DeGroet, observer.” He waved at the machine and it beeped. He smiled. “Are you ready, Miss Auriga?”
“Um, yes, sir.”
The machine beeped again. “Please describe how you first learned of the ruins.”
She took a very deep breath. “I have to go back farther, sir, to the middle of the school term before the cool season. I am in the advanced class in my age-level, and we were studying the history of Shikhari . . .”
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.