This takes place just after Tomás informed his wife of Uncle Eb’s retirement, and broke some less welcome news (the return of a blast from their past).
Rigi did not trust herself to speak further. Instead she returned to more pressing concerns. “What does Uncle Eb not have that would be suitable for his retirement and not lead to Aunt Kay sending him to our home in a crate with both ends labeled ‘this end up’?”
Tomás chuckled and his shoulders and jaw relaxed. “Something to use to clean those trophy heads of his, perhaps?”
Rigi covered her eyes with one hand. The last time she’d spoken to their uncle by vid-comm, the striped-lion head sported a feather-bedecked sunshade in addition to the colored scarves drooling from its lower jaw. She had not inquired. Some things were best left unknown. “I will keep that in mind. And no star-rind.”
“A share in that tam-patty stand might be welcome, at least by Aunt Kay.” Tomás wrinkled his nose as he spoke, a feeling Rigi heartily concurred with. The Staré in her household, and Uncle Eb, loved the bitter, slimy native root vegetable and ate it with delight, especially when lightly battered and deep fried. Rigi refused to permit it at her table in any form. The liver of an aged wombow that had eaten nothing but bitter wind-vine all his life tasted better than tam.
As she’d suspected, Makana insisted on coming with her to the market. “Mistress Rigi, Martinus cannot speak for you when needed,” the large male stated, exuding //firm declaration/concern//. If Staré pheromones had been visible, she’d have been surrounded by an impenetrable fog. As happened so often in her life, she yielded to his intransigence. He answered to the Staré Elders’ Council, not to her. He’d been ordered to protect and assist her over a decade before, for reasons she still did not entirely understand. She carried the rank of a low first Stamm female as healer and Wise Eye, and the Staré Elders believed that she needed protection beyond what her m-dog, her own skills, and her mate could provide. Some day, Rigi promised once more, she would brow-beat Tortuh or one of the others into explaining. And some day, wombows would grow wings and take to the skies, followed by domesticated leapers while holy-terror birds danced waltzes below.
The flitter driver adjusted the front seat and Makana draped it with a protective cover before getting in. As with many vehicles on Shikhari, the flitter could carry humans and Staré, although the controls had not been modified for Staré use. Col. Lamar felt that his majors should have only human drivers and staff. Kor’s description of what the colonel could do with that opinion had been pungent, even from upwind and several meters away. Fortunately, he had waited until returning to the house before voicing and venting his ire. An emphatic male Staré in a confined space… Rigi caressed the synth-fabric pad on top of Martinus’ head and turned her thoughts to the problem of a suitable gift for Crown Command Sergeant Major Ebenezer Solomon Trent.
“Absolutely not.” Makana acted as innocent as a newly hatched pouchling and pretended that he had not just pointed to her third-worst nightmare. “No. I do not care if they are the latest must-have domestic animal. No.” A declawed marmoline kit? She saluted the brilliance of whoever had come up with the idea, and winced at the damage she imagined ensuing as the claws re-grew and the teeth came in. Rigi strode on, looking left and right for ideas. Nothing edible, nothing fragile, and no antiques. She considered one of the vests for sale and studied the embroidery.
“Mistress Auriga,” Makana’s formal words set her on alert. “Perhaps a better selection may be found this direction,” he gestured with his right forefoot, ears and head turned to the left. Rigi glanced that way and nodded. The cluster of young fifth Stamm males did not look as if they were merely grocery shopping. In fact, the baskets two of them carried seemed too heavy for food.
“Martinus,” Rigi started to command, then caught herself. Instead she led the way that Makana had pointed. Martinus accelerated so that he walked ahead of her, and Makana guarded her from trouble that might follow. Rigi reached into the concealed slit in her skirt and unlatched the security strap on her personal beam-shooter.
//Irritation/dismay// blew to her nose from behind. Rigi heard the start of a commotion, human yelps and Staré complaints, and a whiff of something nasty rotten, like rotten eggs. Rotten eggs? She picked up the pace, lengthening her stride. Makana drew closer and she could smell his building anger. Then something to her left caught her eye, and she slowed, nodding to the shop. He scooted ahead of her and opened the door, bowing her into the Staré shop.
“Greetings to the shop,” Rigi called in Staré.
She heard scuffing, and a low second Stamm female bowed from behind the counter. “Greetings. How may this one serve?” the dark grey female asked in Common.
Rigi glanced around, then nodded to a cabinet close to the open end of the counter. “I seek a gift for a warrior and hunter,” she explained in Staré. “One who passes his blade to a younger hunter.” That might be the closest the Staré had to the idea of retirement.
“Male or female?”
“Male, human, with a hand,” Rigi held up one hand, palm in, and used the other to show where Uncle Eb’s finger tips would be.
//Curious//. The female went to the cabinet and opened the door, studied several shelves, and then removed a tray with knives on it. Two appeared to be for show, not use. The third… Rigi gestured, careful not to touch it. The hilt could be held by a human. Rippled metal patterns decorated the dull grey blade. Leather and wood diamonds alternated on the handle, black and light grey, not too shiny. Tiny studs made of the dull grey steel held the leather in place. The female put on forefoot covers and held the blade up for Rigi to inspect more closely. The blade’s curve appeared halfway between a utility knife and a dedicated skinner, with a blood channel.
“This, please. Does it have a sheath?”
The female set the blade back onto the tray and disappeared behind a curtain. She returned with a wood and leather sheath, and a sturdy wooden box made of much plainer wood. Rigi caught a whiff of //approval// from Makana. “Is gift?” the clerk asked.
“Use gift, not show gift,” Rigi assured her. As she spoke, she pulled on loose gloves and drew her money pouch from her larger bag.
“For hunter who is Wise.” Rigi added, “Such is known among humans,” when she caught the clerk’s //strong confusion.//
The clerk accepted her words, although the female’s ears tipped a little to the side, as if she were not completely convinced. She slid the blade into the sheath, drew rough leaf-paper from below the counter and wrapped the blade with swift, deft movements. Then she set the blade into the box and closed it. “Two hundred sixty credits.”
Rigi hid her dismay, glad for once that humans produced no scents. That would be all the funds Tomás had given her, plus most of the funds she’d saved for more art supplies, as well as for a new worship dress for Tamara. She swallowed hard and counted the money where the clerk could see, then set it down on a smaller tray. The clerk counted the tokens again before stowing them in a special, separate money-box. She’d have to have them purified before she could handle them. The female opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated. She leaned toward Rigi and sniffed, then sniffed once more.
“You smell of Staré, not of human.”
Makana spoke for the first time, stepping away from the door and taking the box. “Mistress Rigi is a Wise Eye. She honors us by learning the scent speech as well as spoken speech.”
//Dismay/awe/shame/fear// filled the shop and the female almost shed her fur from distress. “Please, take money back, please. This one did not know, Wise One! Forgive!” the female pleaded.
What on Shikhari? Oh no. The hungry lower Stamm people, now this— “There is nothing to forgive. And the maker of the blade must be rewarded, lest the blade turn on the owner. Is this not so?” According to Staré tradition, a stolen knife would cut the thief, no matter the Stamm of the owner or of the thief.
“This is so, but…” //fear/dread//
Makana loomed behind Rigi. “Mistress Rigi is not as other Wise, so says Korkuhkalya, full blood-half of Tortuhtalya. Hear her words and do not fear” //firm certainty//.
//Relief// “Thank you, Wise One, thank you, all honor to you.” If she could have wrung her forefeet, the female would have.
Rigi fled the shop before she demanded to know who was threatening lower Stamm people. The foul stench of rotten eggs and the sound of a fight redirected her anger. “We return home,” she stated in Staré.
“Yes” //determination//. Rigi took the box from Makana and carried it under one arm, leaving her right hand free to draw her beam-shooter pistol. Martinus scanned left and right, as alert as Rigi and Makana.
Rigi pondered the day’s events during the drive home. After she changed clothes, fed Tamara her noon meal and set her down for her nap, Rigi found her full-size string of prayer beads. She turned the green glass and silver beads over and over in her fingers as she recited three iterations of the prayers for patience and discernment, and the long form of the prayer for guidance. Creator and Creatrix, what transpired with the Elders that had the other Staré so upset? Why were people going hungry now, during the season when food was at its most plentiful? What were the Elders demanding of craftsmen—and doing to those who balked? Blessed Creator, wise Creatrix, guide me on your paths and help me to see your will.
She could not ask Makana. He knew, but to ask would place him in an impossible position, caught between her and the other Elders. Her husband would not. Kor might, if she approached him carefully.
The door to the shoe and jacket room burst open. Rigi heard thumps, a pause, more thumps that sounded suspiciously like someone kicking loose shoes against the wall, and the thud of a school bag being dropped. Rigel had arrived, albeit a quarter of an hour late. She put the beads out of harm’s way and followed the commotion into the dining room. Her son emerged from the pass-through with a loaded plate and a scowl.
“Good afternoon, Rigel,” Rigi said, looking at his plate. No sweets. He’d tried pestering Nahla into making treats for him, but Tomás and Rigi had told Nahla to ignore the requests. He did not need more sugar, or to make additional work for Nahla. She was learning to say no, but still defaulted to attempting to please anyone with a request. Rigel set his plate down and slammed the chair back from the table. “Is there a problem?”
He thumped into the chair before answering. “Grigori says that his aunt says that father’s not really a proper officer and that proper people don’t have Staré in their houses and that we’re all seventh Stamm but stupider.” The words came in one breath.
Rigi kept her voice calm and even. “And what did you say, dear?”
Sniff. “I said that he was dumber than a tree draper and his aunt couldn’t tell a seventh Stamm from a stick.”
Oh dear. “And?” She had a dreadful feeling that she knew what came next.
“And Mrs. Carlsen gave me a detention for being rude. And Grigori was waiting after school.” He prayed, then ate. Rigi let him. He was growing again and needed the calories and protein. After he’d finished the small sandwiches and vegetable patties, he added, “And Mrs. Carlsen wants to meet with you tomorrow morning. She said that she would comm you.”
“Thank you for telling me, Rigel. I assure you, proper people do have Staré in their homes. Who works for Governor Karlovi, managing his household?”
He chewed, blinking, then swallowed. “Um, isn’t it Cousin Landan?”
“Correct. Cousin Landan is mid-second Stamm, the son of Uncle Lexi. Are they Staré?”
“Is the governor a proper person?”
Chewing, a frown, then, “Ah, yes, ma’am?”
“That’s correct.” Rigi left matters there, at least for the moment. It was not the first time Grigori had stirred things up, and likely would not be the last. His parents, well, Rigi reminded herself, not everyone adapted well to colonial life, and the protocol officer had one of the most complicated positions on the general’s staff. She suspected that Grigori took after his father, and would probably go into diplomatic protocol or something similar when he finished school. That did not change the sting as she recalled her last encounter with Grigori’s mother. No, not encounter—collision.
Once she’d made certain that Rigel had no homework, she sent him out to play under Martinus’ supervision. Then she checked her personal comms. Indeed, a stern message from Mrs. Carlsen waited in her box, requesting a meeting at nine the next morning. Rigi glanced at her appointment file and found no conflicts. She could take the wombow cart and Tamara, then deliver the commission. The McIniches lived close to Rigel’s school. Rigi sent a polite reply confirming the date and time. Then she commed her aunt.
Lexi answered. “Good afternoon, Mistress Rigi.”
“Good afternoon, Lexi. Is Aunt Kay available to speak?”
Her uncle’s research assistant, scout partner, and adopted son twitched his ears, then looked off to the side. “I believe, perhaps… oh dear.”
“…No, I will not paint a moss-covered tree draper and entitle it ‘Lieutenant Colonel Obramovich at Rest.’ I do not do mammals, must I remind you, dear?” Lexi dove out of camera range as Aunt Kay sank into the chair. “Good afternoon, Rigi. I do hope your day is quieter than mine has been.”
“Aside from a juvenile wombeast and a striped lion in my back garden, a small riot at the market instigated by a group of fifth Stamm armed with rotten eggs, and a note from one of Rigel’s teachers, no, nothing of note has transpired, ma’am.” Rigi did allow herself to sigh.
Aunt Kay patted her upswept grey and white hair, then removed a paintbrush from behind one ear. “So that’s where I left it,” she murmured to herself. “Your uncle desires my services to paint a portrait of General Patel’s protocol officer. I have reminded him twice that I do not do mammals. At least not without a large down-payment.”
Uncle Eb appeared from the side of the screen. “Only a small riot?”
“I did not linger to observe, sir. Young males of any species, when armed with rotten eggs, are to be eschewed.” Rigi enunciated with great care. “I should note, however, that this is the first time I have seen anything like that at Blue Star Market.”
“I hope it is the last.” Uncle Eb did not sound optimistic, and he frowned a little under his white mustache. “Did you remonstrate with them?”
“Makana forbade it.” Not that she would have in the first place. It was one thing to chastise a hopling or one of her patients, and another to scold multiple young males bent on mischief.
“Makana is smarter than most and wiser than many,” Aunt Kay stated, giving Uncle Eb a look. “Have you heard any more about the university group that will be going to western Verdana?”
Rigi blinked. “Ah, I’d not heard about any group going anywhere, other than the proposal by the biologists to look at the Breakbone Desert.”
Lexi leaned into view and said in Staré, “They are not going there. The military has forbidden it for now, and for good reason.” He leaned back out.
Uncle Eb and Aunt Kay both shook their heads, and Rigi thought she heard something about “Vast plans and half-vast planning.” Aunt Kay wrinkled her nose. “There is a group that has applied for permission to go to the western coast of Verdana to look into some anomalies. What kind they are carefully not saying.”
“Smoking holes,” Lexi intoned, then disappeared once more.
Just how many cities and towns had been on Shikhari before the Turning of the First World? The more she considered it, the colder Rigi felt. She wanted to ask Uncle Eb about something, but did not know how to phrase her question, or if he could even answer it.
“On a more concrete note, and I am not referring to the retirement board, dear, so do not venture down that trail…” Uncle Eb tried to look innocent. “Are you and Tomás coming after the next Day of Rest?”
“We will try, ma’am. Leave has been rather awkward recently because of staff rotation.”
Identical sighs came from both sides of the screen. Aunt Kay tossed her hands. “Boys. Please let me know as soon as you can.”
Lexi reappeared behind Aunt Kay, ears crossed, tongue sticking out one side of his muzzle. Rigi struggled to pretend that she saw nothing. “Yes, ma’am.”
(C) 2019 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved