SM, CH.6

Chapter 6

 I stood in the presence of Thru’tei’ga’ma for the first time since our arrival in To’wak.  Ki’shto’ba was beside me, as were our awestruck helpers.  The Champion believed we should not proceed with our rescue plans without consulting the old Seer.
He had ejected all his assistants and he lay spraddled on a bed of those egg-smelling leaves.  His flaccid wings drooped nearly lightless on either side of his body, so the only illumination in the dark chamber came from my own half-fanned wings.  The stench of the vision-fungus, whose name does after all mean “sour gut,” overpowered the odor of the bedding leaves.  Thru’tei’ga’ma’s quarters were in the Alates’ Holies, right next door to the bir’zha| chamber, but the smell did not originate there.  The Alate’s hemolymph must have been pure extract of bir’zha|.
He greeted all of us by name, in a manner that expressed satisfaction.  “I have been waiting for you to come, offspring of Prai’mo’na’sha’ma,” he said.  “But I will not tell you what you are going to say.  I want you to tell me!”
Ki’shto’ba said, “We have visited the Shum’za captives, Holy Seer.  Rather, Wei’tu has visited the Workers and Di’fa’kro’mi the Warriors.  They found a way to get in without being detected … ”
Thru’tei’ga’ma bobbled his antennae.  “Tell me how.  I was not shown that.  Let Di’fa’kro’mi tell it.  He is a Teller of Tales.  He will tell many before his life ends.”
So I told him about the dung-smearing and the magic skin.  “Magic skin … ” he mused.  “Ah, yes.  The strange beings in the flying box …  The time is new … ”
“With your permission, Holy Seer,” I said, “a ‘new time’ was the first thing Lo’ro’ra’s beloved Seer Kwi’ga’ga’tei foretold, and now you … ”
His antennae continued to wobble.  “Oh, yes.  The special One.  kwi’a’zei| vi| ta’teio| u| vi| ta’gano| shno’no’zi| ||.[1]  Others have seen it, too.  I do not know if it is good or bad, but … change … change … None of us knew … We live by the repeated thing …  How could Shshi know that in the end change … will rule … all … ”
His speaking ceased and his head sank.  His wriggling palps ruffled the leaves in his bedding hollow. 
Trying to focus the Seer’s attention, Ki’shto’ba said, “Holy Thru’tei’ga’ma, we want to free the Shum’za captives.  Can we do that without fighting?  Without damaging To’wak?”
Thru’tei’ga’ma quivered and lifted his head.  “Oh, To’wak needs to be damaged.  Di’fa’kro’mi can see that.  Damage will come.”  His ravaged body twitched.  “Did you know that I will not be eaten upon this world any more than you will?  I thought I would tell you that so you would know that the strongest body and the weakest body will share a similar fate.  Nameless One, you do not mind that I spoke of that, do you?  I did not think so, Beloved.  I will come whenever you summon me.  But I know, I submit to all!  I will wait … I … will … wait … ”
Our little helpers shivered against my flanks and I felt my own hairs prickle.  I had never before been in the presence of one who conversed with the Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name as if she were present in the room.  Perhaps she was, to this Seer.
Only Ki’shto’ba stood stolidly.  “Thru’tei’ga’ma, can you advise us?  Or is this a time when we must find our own way?”
The Seer raised his head again.  “Tell me your plan.”
So Ki’shto’ba spoke of our plan, and Thru’tei’ga’ma heaved his body and tried to fan his wings.  “It will serve.  But go to the Holy One and speak to her however she would have you speak, for once you have embarked upon your course, you may not see her again.  Take to see her these who are with you.  She would like that, to know who your Companions will be.  Wei’tu the Staunch, the Founder.  And Twa’sei … ”  He groomed his half-blind eye agitatedly.
Wei’tu stood puzzling over the surnames it had been given, but Twa’sei took a tiny step toward the old Seer.  “‘And Twa’sei’?” he said.  “Twa’sei what, Most Holy Seer?  Have you no name for me?  Am I really so unimportant?”
Thru’tei’ga’ma stretched out an antenna and touched our smallest helper on the clypeus.  “Twa’sei the Seeker … perhaps the Finder – I cannot say for sure … Twa’sei the Never Satisfied … ”
I said humbly, “And I?”
“Di’fa’kro’mi vei’fi’zei| – fi’zei| and fiv’zei|, both?  I think so.  Perhaps bag’zei| as well, but that grows too complex … ”[2]
That perplexed me at the time, but now at the end of my life, I understand …
Thru’tei’ga’ma was still clawing at his eye.  “I am growing blind of outer sight and I know why.  Once I emerged into the presence of the Nameless One when she was not expecting it and I saw her grooming her great belly.  She was not pleased … ”  The Seer convulsed suddenly, then went still; finally he said, “A’zhu’lo is not with you.”
Ki’shto’ba hesitated.  “We have not yet told it all the plan.  I have some apprehension about … ”
“You must include the twin in your plan.  A’zhu’lo must make the decision itself,” said Thru’tei’ga’ma.  “I cannot change what I have seen.”
Alarmed, Ki’shto’ba said, “What have you seen for my ni’a’zei|?”
But Thru’tei’ga’ma only repeated, “A’zhu’lo must make the decision.  Whatever it decides is the right course.”
Somewhat reassured, Ki’shto’ba said, “Will I see you again, Holy Thru’tei’ga’ma?  You have meant a great deal to my life.”
“We will speak once more before you go – of that I am certain.  Come closer.”  Ki’shto’ba advanced and lowered its head, and the Holy Seer laid both his antennae against the fierce mandibles; it was as near as he could get to the Huge-Head’s face.  “I need give you no additional surname, Huge-Head.  Time’s tale will make many others for you.  But look – look there!  The winged watcher is very angry!  It has but three legs!  Are you so weak that a feather can wound you?    The Holy Ones are not as safe as they were before the Shshi got used to sacrilege …  That horn is hollow – breaks more easily than one would expect …  How can a horn speak? – Watch out for the lightning! – and so powerfully!   Baskets cannot fly – what can the lizard be thinking?   Incredible – where do all those legs come from?   Even the shma’na’ta| that live in water cherish their offspring …  Gold … a haze of gold, the sun-color, far away, long off, a distant dream …  A horn speaking a tale in the place of thorns …  There are twelve of them, but not all at once – a-i-i …  Sand … so many heads below the tree … water … deception … burning … a-i-i … No more Seeing, Beloved, I beg – I am tired … beyond bearing … ”
Now he was groveling and clawing at his second pair of eyes as we watched in awed misery.  “Go away now.  I must take bir’zha| to quiet my mind.  Go to the Mother.  Let what is to come begin!  Perhaps as each piece of the future passes behind, it will leave my head and I can rest.” [3]
*         *          *
“How will we speak of our plans to Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta?” I asked as we scurried toward the Holy Chamber.  “There is no way to escape the King, or her attendants for that matter.”
 “She never lets Yan’ut’na’sha’ma come near her except during insemination,” said Ki’shto’ba, “and she and I have learned ways to speak round-about or with close antennae.  And she will send most of the others away, even the Chamberlain and her Tenders.  She rules her own chamber and no one dares nay-say her.”
And then we were past the surly guards and were standing before Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta.  The King was on the far side of the chamber, in a kind of closet or wall-niche with a leaf-lined bedding hollow in it.  I had never seen such an arrangement in a Holy Chamber.  Kru’bu’gli’sti the Keeper stood alongside him.
When we came in, the King jumped to his feet.  “You!  You are not wanted here!  Guard!  Chamberlain, eject them!”
“Be not stupid, Yan!” said Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta imperiously from her resting-place in the center of the chamber.  “Bu, I would like to see you go away for a while.  Go perform some useful duty.  Find some decent plate fungus for my next meal.  The last was overripe and the spores irritated my eyes.”
“Holy One,” said Kru’bu’gli’sti, dancing, “you put yourself in danger.  At least allow the guards … ”
tha’sask|>||  Danger!  With Shto present?  Get out!” responded the Holy One.
The Chamberlain went.  The King subsided into his niche and groomed his antennae jerkily.
Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta was awesome.  She was no bigger around than Lo’ro’ra’s Mothers, but she was longer and her foreparts were huge.  Cowering in front of her, Twa’sei looked like a sclerite louse.
She dismissed all her Tenders except two, whom she allowed to remain by her ovipositor in case she laid while we were there.  Ki’shto’ba went up and lowered its jaws, and she nuzzled the base of her offspring’s antennae.
“Come closer,” she said to all of us.  “I know who you are – Di’fa’kro’mi, Wei’tu, Twa’sei.  Thru’tei’ga’ma came to see me earlier today.  I was expecting you.”
After we had made our obeisances and reverent greetings, Ki’shto’ba said, moderating its word-sending so that even standing close at hand I could hardly receive it, “We are concerned about the Shum’za captives.”
“And I,” said the Holy One.  “To’wak has committed a grievous wrong.  I know you have a plan, but do not speak of it to me.  I will support whatever you do.”
“What if I never return to To’wak?  I will miss you, Holy One.”
“Oh, and I, you, Shto!  But I am a na’ta’zei| of the Da’no’no Shshi, and I am not of the world.  You are of the world and must fulfill your destiny there.”
“I fear for you, beloved Mother.  The Seer spoke of dangers for Holy Ones.”
“Oh, he blathers all the time!  But I am safe and will live out my allotted life – of that he is sure, and so am I.  Do what you must.  I would rather see To’wak humbled and defeated than to see it continue on its present course.  The elements that weaken its fiber must be removed one way or the other.  Do what you must.”
“Will you protect A’zhu’lo?”
Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta spoke nothing for a moment and then said, “If I can.”
Sudden speech made us all jump.  Yan’ut’na’sha’ma had sneaked up on the Holy One’s left side without anyone noticing.  “Why do you speak so secretively with these outlanders?  Why should they be permitted to receive your words when I cannot?”
Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta swung her foreparts toward her King.  “Ha!  You forfeited your right to my trust when you schemed against Ki’shto’ba and sought its destruction!  One of your own offspring!”
“It is not my offspring!” exclaimed the King, bobbing up and down agitatedly.
“It is the offspring of To’wak, the fortress of your own hatching.  For that reason it is your offspring more than mine!  If it truly was engendered by Prai’mo’na’sha’ma, then it is the offspring of all creation!”
I had the sense that they had engaged in this argument many times before.  But the King surprised me.  He abased his head and groveled and said, “I am afraid.  I am afraid for my life.”
There was a great outflow of distress pheromones from him, and it occurred to me that he had been resentful and vindictive for a long time, but that now he was also frustrated and lonely and full of regret.  After all, for half his existence the one who should have been the close comfort of his restricted life had rejected him.
The Holy One hesitated a moment as if she also saw something she was not accustomed to seeing, but the years had taken their toll.  She tossed her antennae and said, “Such a weakling!  You will live out your life, even as I will live out mine.  You will die, of course – but of old age.  Thirteen is getting along for a King.  And then they will fetch a new inseminator from another fortress so I will not have to mate with one of my own offspring, and To’wak will have neither Holy One nor King of its own hatching.  Maybe then my life will bring me some satisfaction.”  And she turned her head away from him.
Yan’ut’na’sha’ma crawled back into his niche, contorted his body, stuffed his face into his bedding, and said no more.  Ki’shto’ba stood with its head down, its mandibles resting on the floor.
“What would you have me do?” asked Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta.
Ki’shto’ba lifted its head.  “Will you order the Commander to call Council later today?”
“In three turnings of the water vessel.  Will that suffice?”
“It will serve.”
Lo’zoi’ma’na’ta turned to me and the Workers and began to converse about general matters.  We talked of the Star-Beings and of Ki’shto’ba’s exploits at Lo’ro’ra.  She allowed Wei’tu and Twa’sei to scratch under her wing stubs.  At the end the Mother of the Huge-Head said, “I feel grateful to have met some of the Companions who will help my Shto and whom it will help.  Good fortune to you all, and may the Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name guide your way.”
*          *          *
“I must find A’zhu’lo,” said Ki’shto’ba as we hurried back to our quarters.
“What does the King believe about your twin?” I asked.  “Is A’zhu’lo his offspring or Prai’mo’na’sha’ma’s?”
“No one knows,” said Ki’shto’ba.  “That is not saying that I myself believe that tale about the Spirit King.  But no one knows whether the egg was meant to hold two offspring, or whether two eggs from different inseminations somehow grew together.  There has been endless debate about it.  But suffice it to say, Yan’ut’na’sha’ma is not fond of A’zhu’lo, either.”
A’zhu’lo came to our chamber and we told it the entire plan.  It stood silent.  Then it said, “It is a noble plan, but it has its risks.”
“Thru’tei’ga’ma said that you had a decision to make and that you would make the right one,” said Ki’shto’ba.
“I will make a decision,” said A’zhu’lo.  “Who can say whether it will be the right one?”
At the appropriate time we all went to the Assembly Hall where we had met on the first day.  Bai’go’tha had been avoiding its sibling; none of us had seen the Commander for many days. 
It waited on the riser at the end, surrounded by its Chiefs and its Alate Counselors.  Kru’bu’gli’sti was there, and the Remembrancer Goi’o’na’tu, whose glance crossed mine impassively.  Bai’go’tha reared its foreparts and said to Ki’shto’ba, “What is this?  The Holy One ordered me to hold a Council, but if it is merely to receive your … ”
Ki’shto’ba cut it off, addressing it in an insolent way, without title.  “Bai’go’tha, we have visited the Shum’za slaves.”
Throughout the Hall there were shiftings and stampings of astonishment.
“Visited them!” exclaimed the Commander.  “Impossible!”
“We have Shum’za magic,” I said impertinently.
Bai’go’tha ignored my words as the jest of one beneath contempt.
“We have spoken with the Workers in their prison near the Charnel Hall,” said Ki’shto’ba.  “We know that only thirteen of some eighteen who arrived here remain alive and that they are sick and starved.  We know how you drive these honored guests of yours through whole suntimes or darktimes without rest.  And we know that of the Warriors only eighteen survive out of twenty-six.  Did you think you could keep this knowledge concealed forever?  We who are in the right have our own ways of seeing!”
At that moment a great incoherent sizzle burst against our antennae from outside the Hall’s entrance, accompanied by a now familiar smell.  Thru’tei’ga’ma pushed through the curtain, walking on his own between his hovering attendants.  “I am feeling astonishingly well,” he said, “and I could not miss this Council!  It is the only Council worth attending that has been held in six years, or perhaps twelve.”  And he staggered into the center of the chamber and settled down, looking around in satisfaction.  “Have the Names been named already?  I am Thru’tei’ga’ma, of the Alates, Priest and Seer!  What has been said?  Never mind!  I know – I know!  Bai, you are looking dangerous.”
The Commander had taken a few steps toward the edge of the riser.  “Old da’sask| Alate!  This is your doing!”
“Oh, no, no!  I am only a messenger.  I never do anything.  This is your own doing.”
“It is, indeed!” said Ki’shto’ba.  “How do you intend to amend the situation?”
“Amend!  There is nothing to amend!  The shlam’wei’zei| are worthless nonentities – they are small in more ways than the sizes of their heads!  When they are all dead, the world will not be any different!  This Council is disbanded!”  The Commander turned to go out, scattering terror pheromones.
“The Council is not disbanded and you will not leave!” said Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head.
“Oh, no, not disbanded, not disbanded!” Thru’tei’ga’ma babbled gleefully.
“And how do you intend to stop me from disbanding it?” responded Bai’go’tha, whirling and posturing.
“I could kill you,” said Ki’shto’ba, as if it were proposing a stroll along the river.
“It could kill you,” said Thru’tei’ga’ma.  “It cannot be killed where there are witnesses, you recall.”
“Ha!” said Bai’go’tha.  “As unlikely as it ever was.”  But its fear smell was sharpening.  “Are you challenging me?”
“I would rather not … ”
“Cowards see cowardice everywhere,” interjected the irrepressible old Seer.
“But I have a proposal,” said Ki’shto’ba.  “I cannot allow these Shshi from a fortress where I served as Champion to be enslaved, starved, and treated with contempt in the fortress where I was hatched.  So one of two things will happen.  So that you cannot say I stole your property from you, I will pay a ransom for them.  If you release them, I will leave To’wak.  I will go out into the world, as I had indeed planned to do in the first place, and I will attempt to perform twelve wonders, as you mockingly ordered me to do when I left for Lo’ro’ra.  I will not return until that is done, and – who knows? – perhaps not then.”
“Indeed!  And if I do not release them?”
“That is the second choice.  But then I will challenge you and kill you, and take the Commander’s post, and then I will release them myself.”
“If you take the second choice, the Huge-Head will stay in To’wak,” commented Thru’tei’ga’ma.  “Many would like to see that, I believe.”  And he ceased to babble, cocking his head pensively.
Bai’go’tha stood swaying, stepping from one foot to another, as if seeking the catch in Ki’shto’ba’s offer.  “How do I know that you will not challenge me even if I release them?”
“Because I speak my oath upon it, and the oath of our Holy One will confirm it, if you must have it so.”
Bai’go’tha swayed some more, then said abruptly, “The lo’ro’ra’zei| are of no value – not worth fighting over.  Take them.  Good riddance.”
“I have your oath in return?”
“Yes, yes, you have my oath.  Take them and go away from To’wak as quickly as you can.”
“I want to see them.  I want the Warriors and the Workers brought to the Hall now.”
“You will pardon the Huge-Head,” said Thru’tei’ga’ma, “if it does not fully trust that you will deliver them as planned.”
tha’sask|>||”  Bai’go’tha issued some orders to a subordinate, who scurried off.
We waited.  The Seer muttered and bobbed.  Goi’o’na’tu scraped about in discreet satisfaction.  Kru’bu’gli’sti skittered to and fro.  Bai’go’tha paced, working its mandibles compulsively.
At length, the bewildered Workers were herded in, all thirteen of them.  Wei’tu and Twa’sei ran among them, talking and soothing.  They were pitiable – scared, weak, and sick, and not one lacking nasty fungus growths somewhere on its anatomy.  A babble of emotional word-sendings filled the Hall.
Then the Warriors entered, only seventeen of them.  Ki’shto’ba hailed them and they groveled to the Champion.  The Hall was now quite overrun with wriggling bodies.
I located Mu’tot’a and called it forward.  “Someone is missing.”
“Ur’cha’toi died today in the exercise yard.  It had been wounded earlier and it had no strength.  Its opponent crushed its thorax.”
“There will be no more of this brutality!” cried Ki’shto’ba, turning to Bai’go’tha.  “Set them free or I will … ”
“They are free, they are free!” exclaimed the Commander, waving its forelegs crazily.  “Take them now!  Go!  It is a small price to pay for being rid of your pious pronouncements!  Keep your oath and go!  Leave To’wak in peace!”
Ki’shto’ba hesitated.  “I will take the captives and go peacefully, even as I said.  But I never promised that To’wak would be left in peace.”
Bai’go’tha stood befuddled, the fear pouring out.
Thru’tei’ga’ma was babbling again and bouncing, whirling his antennae.  “No, no, tyrant, the Huge-Head never promised that!”
I thought Bai’go’tha was going to leap on Thru’tei’ga’ma and I had a vision of Kwi’ga’ga’tei’s fatal wound.  But the old Seer only spun his antennae more wildly. 
“I cannot die – the business between me and the tyrant is not finished yet,” and he taunted the Commander, “No peace.  No peace.  No peace!”
I was frightened.  Did we dare leave the Seer behind in Bai’go’tha’s clutches?
Ki’shto’ba moved to put itself between the Commander and Thru’tei’ga’ma, but A’zhu’lo was closer.  It jumped in front of Bai’go’tha.  “You will not harm a Holy Seer,” said A’zhu’lo.  “I will not allow it, vermin.”
It was too much.  “Ill-gotten freak, I will kill you where you stand!”  And Bai’go’tha hurtled from the riser.
But Ki’shto’ba was ready.  To my horror, the three Warriors crashed together and rolled over and over across the floor.  Everyone – Shum’za and Da’no’no – scattered, falling over one another, piling up against the walls. 
Not one of the Chiefs on the riser jumped to its Commander’s aid. 
Then the flurry was over, and Ki’shto’ba was standing with Bai’go’tha supine beneath it, its jaws pressing the ventral neck.  “I will not kill you,” said the Huge-Head.  “I believe there is another end for you, but I do not think it is to die of old age.  I promised to leave peacefully and I will.  The Council is ended now, in truth!”  And it leaped off Bai’go’tha, who twisted itself and sprang away uninjured.
A’zhu’lo had scrambled to its feet and stood trembling.  It bore a deep scratch on the metathorax, but that was its only injury. 
Wei’tu and Twa’sei smelled oozing hemolymph and rushed to A’zhu’lo to lick the wound.  Beside me, Thru’tei’ga’ma, who had merely backed away from the fray unconcernedly, was saying, “No peace.  No peace.  We have the fourth.  Thank you, A’zhu’lo – well done.  But I am going to miss you very much, small twin.”
I looked at the Seer and at A’zhu’lo, who said to me, “I have made my decision.  There is only death for me now in To’wak.  With your permission, I will join you and my ni’a’zei| on your journey.”

[1] “The One who sees and who speaks much,” another alternative interpretation of a name.  “Kwi’ga’ga’tei” is usually interpreted as “One of many speakers who sees.”

[2] The Seer surnamed Di’fa’kro’mi “Word-Maker,” with a pun; fi’zei| is one who makes or draws images while fiv’zei| is a maker in the sense of creator.  bag’zei| is a maker in the sense of builder or fabricator.

[3] The ocelli, or vestigial second pair of insectoid eyes, seem in Shshi Alates to be connected to brain centers involved in the hallucinatory process of prophecy.

Coming Next!
Chapter 7
The Companions Set Out a Second Time

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