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A young Cirilman brought Absolom his fish on the terrace.  The human nodded to show his thanks, taking the bowl.  He smiled, and the Cirilman imitated him, opening his broad lipless mouth slightly to show a hundred needle-like teeth.  Absolom could not read its monochrome eyes.  “Thank you”, he added.  “Cjir-jhai yimmikor.”

The Cirilman backed away slowly as he spoke, its mouth now closed, its head rocking from side to side with amusement.  It bowed rapidly from the waist.  “Dai yim’.”

Absolom sat cross legged near the edge of the terrace, his back to the other diners.  Balancing the bowl between his ankles, he began breaking the fish into pieces and discarding the bones.  The black skin of the fish was sticky, and his fingers were soon smeared with it , but the flesh beneath was white and firm.  Before eating any, he smelt it with care, alert for the bitter tang of ehorot or hjan.  He had told the victualler to cook his food, instead of adding the alkaloid spices customary among the Cirilmen, but did not trust his command of their language.  It was better to be cautious this far from home.

The fish was fine, only a little undercooked.  He ate it mechanically, looking out over the rooftops of Nesjhaim at the green-gray ocean.  Below the terrace of  the hostel, the city sloped steeply to the sea, sweeping rows of tall wooden structures fitted together without nail or mortar.  From here individual figures could easily be seen on the ships in the harbor – a T’sai Lho youth making its way through the thicket of masts and lines, Cirilmen in a cluster hauling in the anchor of their top-heavy fishing vessel.  A line of white foam lay beyond, where the might of the northern ocean was broken by a submerged mole, and just before the horizon a strip of pale sky where the clouds ended.  A carpet of gray cloud hung over the Ka Z’usar always at this season, and the air was damp and warm.  Closer to the strip of sky than the strip of sea-foam, a tiny ship could just be seen on the water.  Absolom watched it carefully, trying to identify the vessel, but during his meal it did not approach perceptibly closer.

Irpizar, Mosho Khnum, Mirruk, Mouth-of-Yann, K’hellik, Jhotikhai – Absolom hardly bothered to look at the ports any more, there had been so many.  All full of marvels, all alien, all ancient and all steaming under the tropical sun – they blurred into one another, a single mass of masonry and greenery periodically interrupting the comprehensible world of the “Breath of Plenty”.  There was never time to adjust to the smells of inhuman crowds.

Absolom rose and swept the bowl casually outwards with his whole arm, showering Nesjhaim with fish bones.  He turned to face the covered part of the terrace, and only then noticed he was being watched.  For how long, he wondered? He did not suppose it was rude to stare at foreigners in this land, but it made him feel disturbingly defenseless, knowing that he would have felt the pressure of a human gaze long before turning around.  He stared back at the figure, perceiving that none of the Cirilmen diners paid attention to either of them.  It (she?) was delicate, but not unusually so for a T’sai Lho.  Her costume was daring by the standards of the age, a gauzy bit of stuff around her hindquarters that barely covered her leg-joints and clearly exposed an apex painted or gilt in saucy gold.  Her chest was inlaid with swirling arabesques in metallic blue and green, recent work, and silvery wire was wound around each arm.  She continued to watch Absolom, yellow eyes giving no hint of emotion, but there was a bluey-green tinge to her integument that was familiar to Absolom by now.

After ten seconds of silent watching, Absolom began stepping towards the ramp, ignoring the T’sai Lho.  It (she?) moved sideways to intercept him, blocking his path with one spindly arm.

“I don’t speak your language,” said Absolom.  He did not smile. “I am finished eating.  I am leaving.  Ronikor.  Nashsh khmin”.  He gestured vaguely in the direction of the ramp down, the harbor, the rest of the universe.  “Dead gods, sister, nobody my shape speaks your language.”

The T’sai Lho made no reply, but removed the offending arm.  It followed Absolom tentatively reaching out to tug at the fabric of his blouse.  He did his best to ignore it, handing his bowl to the small Cirilman who slithered up to him at the head of the ramp.

Vam-jhu lummikor…lummikorim?”  Absolom asked the attendant.

Lummikorim Z’sai s’son pil’?”  It replied.  Lashing its tail impatiently, it turned to the T’sai Lho and let forth a torrent of speech in the language of the Cirilmen.  The T’sai Lho replied weakly in its own tongue, failing to complete a single utterance.  The green hue of its integument brightened.  Absolom took a  few steps down the ramp, stopped as the T’sai Lho hung desperately to his sleeve.

Pim-jhu s’hillin bol Z’sai soson Min s’kamin lummikorim, pim-jhai pil pjonim lummikorim.”

The Cirilman spoke rapidly, and Absolom had difficulty understanding it. Several repetitions later, he believed he had grasped the main point.  It was a strange claim, if the T’sai Lho had been translated correctly.  After thanking the Cirilman, Absolom allowed the T’sai Lho to follow him down to the street, intentionally walking rather too quickly for its short legs.  They emerged from a vine draped wall onto a narrow lane surfaced with crushed coral, and turned right – away from the harbor.  “And you are?” Absolom asked.  “Vam-jhai cjiskorim?”  His companion respectfully inclined its head towards him as he spoke, then replied with an utterance in its own language in which a rasping whistle like “D’zhas” was repeated several times.

And I am Absolom,” he said, in the Cirilman tongue.  “Absolom. Lead us, Jass.”  They went on silently for a long while.  Absolom’s sleeping curiosity had been roused, and his hard-won caution stilled.  He disliked the advantage the T’sai Lho had over him, understanding but unable to speak the only language of this land he knew.  If he could question it properly, he might already have discovered its tale to be nonsense, and would not be following it on this fool’s errand.

They were walking along a narrow covered path that paralleled a gently rising street, and it seemed half of Nesjhaim was doing the same.  The clouds that had loomed all day were beginning to disgorge their contents, in an exuberant, tropical manner, and a shimmering waterfall now poured down on one side of the pedestrians.  Absolom kept civility to a minimum; he stepped through into the rain only twice: once to make way for one of the wingless Elders of the T’sai Lho, and once for someone obviously important being carried in a screened litter.  That was not really politeness, for the notable’s four enormous Kalamen bearers would otherwise have trampled him.  The scanty costume of “D’zhas” was soon soaked and plastered to its body, and Absolom saw several other adult T’sai Lho cast glances in its direction.  He found himself wondering if they were scandalized or appreciative, and if his guide was considered a desirable of its sex.

He followed.  “D’zhas” led him deep into the city, for a long while uphill, then down.  The only street without shelter from the rain was the last one, a steep descent  lined with faceless structures of uncertain purpose.  It ended in  a mass of senile buildings huddled at the head of a small valley.  The street was unsurfaced, and crossed and recrossed a swollen stream on its way down.  Near the bottom, one aged Cirilman could be seen toiling its way up, oblivious of the downpour.  Absolom eyed their destination dubiously – the rain blackened buildings seemed to crawl over one another like the vermin in the hold of the “Breath of Plenty”.  It was as if a giant had scraped up a slum from some other part of Nesjhaim and jammed it here to keep it out of the way.

Forcefully, the notion that he was being led into a trap returned to Absolom – lure the funny looking biped into this dark hole, take its few coins, eat its liver cut into greasy red cubes.

He stopped halfway down, and ducked into a sheltered alcove.  “Jass! Before we go more far, you  must answer my questions.”  The T’sai Lho followed, its mandibles distended in a way that made Absolom uneasy.  It began to darken from yellow to a rich blue-green.

Do you have showings to mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’?  Yes?  Do ‘yes’.  Now ‘no’”.  Jass complied.  Absolom studied her face, unable to recognize any emotion.  Was she laughing at his guilelessness?  Was she sorrowing?  Was she merely embarrassed of her strange companion, or irritated at his interruption of their walk?  There was nothing in that alien face to give any hint – perhaps none of these possibilities had any meaning.  The rain did not abate.  It pounded down behind them, hair and clothes drenched, integument beaded with glistening droplets.

You are saying one of my kind is broken…ill?

The T’sai Lho’s mandibles quivered slightly, and it emitted a low whistle – an involuntary noise more mechanical than animal.

Show yes or no.


Down there?”  He indicated with his chin, then with an expansive motion of his arm.


Since long?  Since days?”


And worse this day?


Was it brought by one of my kind?

Confusion, then no.  Absolom noticed for the first time the traces of a scar on the T’sai Lho’s chest, obscured by the recent inlays.  It smelt – a sour, unpleasant odor.  Did it understand him at all, he wondered.  He could think of no way to test its story, no yes/no questions that  might fluster it or lead it into a contradiction.  Though he was the one asking questions, the only important question was the one Jass mutely asked him.  Will you trust me?  Yes (a distortion of the mouthparts to reveal dark inner surfaces) or no (a rapid circle traced with the apex of the head).

“There is no majesty, there is no might, save in the One God alone,” muttered Absolom in his own language, abandoning responsibility for his fate.  He did not see how anyone, no matter how foreign, could take him for a man worth robbing, and for this as much as any other reason he gave up and chose trust.

Jass evidently guessed its interrogation was over; for it moved rapidly away down the street, and now Absolom’s long legs were a disadvantage on the slippery slope.  Jass did not look behind – perhaps no longer caring whether it was followed or not.

Seen from a distance, the slum had seemed malign.  Now, in its midst, all traces of personality evaporated.  It was only buildings – old, mostly hideous, with splashes of beauty.  They looked as though they had not been cleaned or lacquered for many years, and in places they had begun to rot – holes as large as Absolom’s head gaped in crumbling black timbers, some sprouting diaphanous moss silvered with raindrops.  Exquisite strands of vihara vine grew from cracks in the walls.  An indescribable odor filled the air – nhej and alien excrement, decaying fruit, decaying fish, the earthy smell exuded by the buildings themselves as they turned back into soil.

Once the first few structures were past, it became apparent that the slum had clustered here around a pool, formed by damming the little valley.  There had once been benefits in living close to it, it seemed, for on every side the rotting black towers climbed, blank windows shuttered against the rain, reaching out over the pool to lay claim to it.  In places, they extended far out above it.  Every lane abutting the pool had become a stream, each with its own cargo of refuse, and a raft of filth obscured most of its surface.

A group of young Cirilmen wrestled and dove together at one end of the pool, shouting whenever two of them happened to break the surface at once.  A trapdoor opened above the pool, disgorging a clot of kitchen waste.

Silent T’sai Lho, Elders in wine-red robes, stood chewing on the covered ways; another peered beetle-like from a dark doorway.  Shrill voices, perhaps not even sentient, called high above.

Jass stopped at a door, tucked out of sight with the ramp leading to it in a fold of one of the buildings.  Both the door and the ramp seemed newer than their surroundings, carved from a coarse-grained yellow wood not yet worn smooth.  Folding the door aside, Jass stepped through, leaving it open for Absolom.  He entered.

A dim corridor lay beyond, with several curtained doorways on each side.  It was oppressively warm, close and narrow, and was carpeted with spiny matting.  The ceiling forced Absolom to stoop.  With some reluctance, he closed the door behind him.  He hurried to the end of the hall, where his guide waited by a doorway.  Jass spoke to him, a flurry of harsh sounds without meaning.  It held the curtain open.  Beyond was a small room, its walls polished, lit only by what light filtered in at the edges of the shuttered window.  A resilient gray material covered the floor, soft and yielding to Absolom’s feet as Jass let the curtain fall behind him.  Beside a T’sai Lho coupling couch and an empty rack on one wall, the room was unfurnished.  It stank – stale nhej, mingled with the overpowering reek of human waste kept in a closed room for several days.

Absolom’s throat tightened, and the hair on the back of his neck rose.  The tiny figure lying in the middle seat – what –

He knelt closer in the poor light, his heart hammering fiercely.


It was not a human infant.

It was not, as he had first imagined, a human infant covered with spiders.

He muttered a quick prayer of thanks, blasphemously closing with “ghan ma ghukan”.  The girl was a few weeks old at most, Absolom guessed, and was almost impossibly small for a human child.  From her sticklike limbs and distended belly, she was badly malnourished.  Beneath her coat of dusky hair, much of her skin was red and swollen from lying in the damp.  Whoever looked after the child had wiped her resting place clean when she soiled herself, leaving the rag for this purpose in a basin of filthy water by the side of the couch – from this the stench came.  He supposed T’sai Lho did not find the smell unpleasant.   Their own dung had never offended him.

Absolom did not touch the child, fearing to wake her.  So this was his kind, here in Nesjhaim – a Ruhura!  He supposed they were as good as brother and sister, compared to the dribbling scaly Kalamen or the T’sai Lho.  Her tiny fingers ended in pointed claws rather than nails, her nose was curiously shaped, her feet almost hands – but the resemblance was clear enough.  Glancing away from the child, he saw Jass enter – it had stripped off its abdominal garment, and was drying itself methodically with a piece of spongy red material.  It said something to Absolom in its own language.

Yes, yes,” he said.  “Not my kind. Not my kind, but –”  He felt ashamed of his fear of a moment before; pity for the Ruhurdh child despite his contempt for her race; somehow insulted by his guide’s careless nakedness; and full of questions that he knew could not be answered.

Not my kind – a similar kind.

Jass finished its toilet, indicated the Ruhurdh infant with an arm, then brought the same arm over and pointed to Absolom, approaching until it touched his chest.  It spoke, meaningless garble to Absolom, then repeated the gesture, touching one digit to the girl’s mouth and then to the human’s right breast.

“I -” Absolom started, and could not help laughing.  Mirthless laughter, it sounded hollow and despairing to his own ears.  “I fear you have picked the wrong wet nurse, Jass.”  Then, in Cirilian, “I can not. I – we are different kinds.

The T’sai Lho made the gesture a third time, quickly, pushing Absolom with some force.  This time it woke the girl, who began to wail.

I can not – we are two kinds – you need the other kind.”  He felt  the futility of  seeking a humanoid wet nurse in Far Ka Z’usar, even in a city of many thousands.  He reached down and stroked the child hesitantly with his fingers, hoping to quiet her, while Jass continued to address him in gibberish.

My kind is found in two kinds,” struggling to make his point in the language of the sexless Cirilmen.  “So is the kind of the child – you need to find one of the other kind.

With a sudden movement, Jass picked up the infant and pressed it into Absolom’s arms.  He held her awkwardly, like a small sack of jahfa tubers, while she continued to cry, feebly, hopelessly. Her eyes were rimmed with red.  Revulsion from the little room struck Absolom – he could not stand to crouch over any more, the stench assaulted him.   “Take us somewhere else-” he said.  Banging his fist against the ceiling, “Lead us to a different room.”  Absolom pushed past the T’sai Lho and into the hallway.  Its integument a grass green, Jass struggled past him, trying to get between him and the door to the outside.  It grabbed his blouse and dragged him through another curtain, then through a door beyond.  The chamber beyond was a shaft giving access to the upper levels of the building, and there was a small space at the base of  the stair where Absolom could easily stand up.  The shaft was dimly lit from far above, where a latticework of green glass was set in the ceiling.

Jass went back the way they had come, leaving the door open, and vanished.  ”Wait-”  He made small useless noises to comfort the girl.  “Where have you come from, little one?  Where have you misplaced your mother?  Yes, I know, it is hard to find victual in this place – especially if you object to being poisoned.  Quiet, quiet.”  He tried to remember seeing any hairy animal larger than a dhiim in this country.  He could not, excepting Humen and Argandarr. Perhaps a suitable Argandarr female could be found, but they were far prouder even than his own race.  He knew there to be no lactating women on the “Breath of Plenty”.  There was no hope.

Absolom studied the disconsolate child.  She still seemed to him more like a wounded animal, so small, so overwhelmingly fragile.  Her eyes were barely open, mired in tears – they looked to be black, but it was difficult to tell.  The angry rash that disfigured her skin looked ghastly in the green light.  What was he to do with her?  He was only a sailor, of a different race, but this far away from home – even the incalculably distant link between him and the Ruhura made them relatives, and that link, invisible in the human land of Udh-Tanith, was almost tangible here.  He could not abandon her – there was no help for it – but what could he do?

He wondered what had happened to the girl’s mother.  It was said in Udh-Tanith that the Ruhurdh often held their children of little consequence.  Most likely, she had simply abandoned the child.  Or she could be dead.  Perhaps she died in childbirth, or – he shied away from the thought.  Plagues arose in the lands of the west, strange afflictions that could leap from one race to another with unpredictable consequences.  Even now the wild Ruhurdh of F’nhal could be dying, a few desperately seeking the civilized lands they usually avoided, reeking infection from every pore while they bartered their few possessions for medicine.  Absolom examined the girl’s rash with care until he was satisfied only lying in the damp had caused it.

Jass returned, a wrap of some metallic fiber about her hindquarters, and with her came another T’sai Lho, a larger one costumed in white – inlays of horn on its chest, pearly rings about its limbs, and a delicate multilayered  abdominal garment.  Its eyes were a deep dark blue.  It carried a wax tablet and a stylus.  Jass made a few precise whistles, and the newcomer inclined its head to Absolom.  It held up the tablet, on which were marked several of the logographs with which the Cirilmen recorded their speech.

“I fear, my learned sister, that I never got far past alif baa taa.  No, I can not.”  He waved the tablet aside.  He felt he had no choice, had not the possibility of one since he looked up from his fish bowl.  “I thank you. I will take your child.

The T’sai Lho talked among themselves, to him, plucked at his clothes with apparent excitement, and Jass blued to aquamarine.  Absolom sat down on the stair, and a third T’sai Lho brought him first cloth with which to clean and clothe the Ruhura, then the wherewithal to dry himself.  It was a youth, smooth and sexless.

He inquired as well as he could of Jass and the scribe about hairy animals, about the Ruhurdh of Nesjhaim, and he asked what had happened to the mother of the girl.  None, none, and dead was all he gleaned from the replies.

Did that one die of a sickness?


Of – of giving child?  Did that one die while the child appeared?”


Of a misfortune?

They both agreed, distending their mandibles again and again and making low chittering sounds.  Yes, yes, truly a misfortune.  A dozen more questions left him no wiser.  He left.

Outside the rain had ceased, and already the harsh sun was drawing the water upwards once more.  That film of moisture on his skin – was it sweat, or had it just now settled out of the steamy air?  He had given the girl his little finger to suck, and that or exhaustion had stilled her cries.  He guessed at which direction the harbor lay, and began walking.

Somewhere above them a  Cirilman was crying out –

Only I will live forever, only I,

Only I, I, I –