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“It has occurred to me,” said Tazun, “that our conversations hinge almost entirely on Narisian culture—which would seem to be fairly easy for you to experience anyway, surrounded by it as you are. I have learned very little about Tiraan culture, by comparison.”
“Well, I still think that’s fair,” Elin said with a mischievous smile. Over the last few months he had gradually grown comfortable enough with her that such expressions no longer made him feel awkward, or at least not much. “We also end up having all our conversations in Tanglish. You’ve gotten quite fluent, and meanwhile my elvish is still almost as rough as the day I arrived.”
“Surely I can’t be the only possible source of practice for you,” he said.
“Yeah? Same goes. Anyway, there’s a compliment in there, Taz. Learning about Tar’naris is fascinating; I bet if we had a really in-depth discussion about life in the Empire, you’d nod off.”
“I would never do something so rude,” he said, putting on a tiny social smile to clarify that he was joking. “What an insulting thing to say.”
“All right, then, I’d nod off.” Elin hopped up onto the ledge behind her, legs dangling. Even after all this time, it amazed him how casual, how childlike the humans could be in their mannerisms. “Make you a deal, then? Next time you visit, we’ll talk about Tiraas. In elvish.”
“Hmm.” Tazun made a show of contemplating this, tapping his chin with a finger. “You’re right, that does sound quite tedious.”
“I would thump you, but that’s pretty explicitly against regulations,” she shot back, grinning outright now. “Damn you and your diplomatic protection. All right, before you dragged us off topic, you were going to explain the honorific system.”
“Yes, of course.” He paused as another soldier strolled by, escorting a young human woman in civilian attire; they both smiled and nodded politely, but did not pause or show any interest in the case of jewelry he had on display on the ledge.
The light in the Tiraan enclave wasn’t the best, Tazun privately thought. Humans favored their fairy lamps, which had a sharp, golden tone to their light which apparently reminded them of the sun. The paler, gentler glow of bioluminescence favored in Tar’naris better reflected on his silver pieces, in his opinion. He had already made up his mind to do some work in gold, next, as the enclave was proving a profitable venue for him, but Tazun still had a fair amount of silver to work through before he could justify buying more materials. Actually, his House would probably give him a small amount of gold to test his belief that it would sell better in a spot where he had developed contacts, but he was still new as an established craftsman, and wished to build a reputation. Better in the long run to show effective stewardship of the resources he had before seeking more, he reasoned.
“Honorifics,” Tazun mused after the two potential customers had passed. “Well, let me take myself as an example.”
“That’s convenient,” Elin said. “Since you’re here and all.”
“I,” he said, placing a hand against his chest and bowing, “am Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said gravely.
“There are three names within the name,” he continued, being used to her byplay by now. “First, my given name, Tazun. A Narisian’s second name is their mother’s given name—in my case, Vrashti. And, of course, Vyendir is my House.”
Elin nodded. “That much I’d actually figured out on my own.”
“Indeed, so far it is rather simple,” he said with an unforced smile, “but we were talking about honorifics. Each, you see, describes the person’s relationship with part of their name. The first delineates an individual’s relationship with their mother, the second with their House.”
“The whole relationship?” she protested, frowning. “With a couple of little syllables?”
“I…may have mistaken the connotation of the word,” he said carefully. “Obviously there are personal details of how someone relates to mother and House that are no one else’s business. I meant… Well, to continue the example of my name, my first honorific, tyl, indicates that I am a direct biological male child of my mother, in good standing with her.”
Elin blinked. “Wow. All that?”
“In most cases, adopted children have the same social standing as truebloods,” he continued, “but the Houses track bloodlines, and so natural-born offspring must be counted as such. Obviously, whether a person is female or male is taken note of in their name. And it is rare that someone will have their honorific altered to indicate that they are in their mother’s poor graces. It is a mother’s choice to do such a thing… It’s an extreme move. Someone thus humiliated is very likely to leave the family, if not the House entirely.”
“Harsh,” she mused. “but you said that’s not common, right?”
“I suspect we are roughly as prone to family drama as you,” Tazun replied, “but in Tar’naris, privacy is tremendously important. There would be no public airing of dirty laundry if it could be avoided. There are also additional honorifics to indicate one’s birth order, but using those is seen as old-fashioned and pretentious. You really only meet very old elves with such names.”
“Wait, but… It’s one syllable,” she protested. “It’s just tyl. How does it say all that?”
“Because that is what the word means,” he said, smiling.
Elin stared at him. Not for the first time, he thought it was subtly charming, the way her feelings could be so easily read. Peculiar, but cute. “So… You mean there’s an honorific for every possible permutation of those variables?”
“Those are the relevant variables, yes.”
“How can you know them all?”
“How many words do you know in Tanglish?” he countered. “How many of them describe social functions? The same way you learn anything else: you memorize them.”
She groaned dramatically. “I am just never gonna fit in here, am I.”
“I don’t think they expect the soldiers to retain information like that,” he said, his smile broadening to the very edge of what decorum allowed. Really, she was quite charming sometimes. “Some of your diplomats have taken the time to work it out. One obviously has a very great advantage if one begins learning it in early childhood.”
“Obviously…” Elin chewed her lower lip. “What’s nur?”
Tazun allowed his smile to fade. “That is a matriarch’s younger daughter. Of her bloodline, but not positioned to inherit the matriarch’s position should her mother pass. Be extremely polite if you meet one of those. They can be trouble even for foreigners, diplomatic protections or no.”
“Yeah,” she murmured, “we have nobles back home, too; I know the drill. Okay, what about the second honorific?”
As she clearly wasn’t going to answer the implied question, he continued. “The second honorific designates one’s relationship with one’s House. Like the example of nur, there is some overlap with the first honorific; there is a whole separate set of first honorifics for those in the matriarchal line, as well as some other unique situations. It has more to do with one’s mother than oneself; there are specific honorifics to designate someone who is elevated or lowered to a position different from their family’s, but for the most part, rank within House is influenced if not determined by the maternal line. I am n’dar Vyendir, indicating that my mother is highly placed within our House, though not of the nobility, and that I am thus the same, as my political relationship with her is normal.”
Elin whistled, a peculiar mannerism he’d caught a few times but wasn’t completely sure he could interpret. Confusion? Awe? “That’s just…so much information.”
“In Tar’naris,” he said, “there is a place for everyone and everything, and everyone’s proper place must be clear and understood. Our traditions are designed for this purpose.”
“Well, I guess I’m just not used to thinking that way,” she said with a wistful sigh, kicking her legs again. “There’s something to be said for not knowing all the details about a person up front. You have to find them, get to know them… There’s a little mystery, a little adventure to it. It’s an experience.”
“In Tar’naris,” he said quietly, “an ‘adventure’ is when there is not enough food, and a matriarch must decide whether it better serves her lineage to weaken everyone equally through distributed hunger, or sustain as many as possible by letting a few of her family starve.”
Elin’s face fell, and irrationally, he felt bad for distressing her. “And now I sound like an idiot.”
“No,” he assured her. “This is why we began these conversations, remember? Cultural exchange. I think we both understand each other a little better now.”
Her smile returned at that, and something about it was brilliant in its intensity. “You’re a smooth talker, Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir. Don’t ever change.”
“Is there a reason why I would?” he countered with a raised eyebrow.
Elin chuckled and hopped down from her perch, pausing to straighten out her uniform and run a hand over her short hair. Odd, now, to think he’d first seen its golden color as unnatural; it suited her so perfectly. “Well, I must resume my exciting duty of standing around looking sharp. How are my creases?” She half-pivoted, showing him the backs of her trousers.
“Perfect as always,” Tazun replied, retreating deep within his social facade and purging all emotion from his features. No matter how long they talked, a moment would always come when he’d be sharply reminded of the differences in their cultures of origin. She clearly had no idea how flirtatious that gesture would be considered here. He’d have warned her not to do it to others, but he couldn’t think of a courteous way to do so.
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, pointing at him in mock accusation. “When we will talk about Tiraas, in elvish.”
“I can’t wait,” he said, smiling carefully.
He forced himself not to watch her walk away.
It proved not to be one of his more directly profitable visits to the Imperial enclave, though Tazun remained mindful of the importance of relationships in business. He found it encouraging that the humans, soldiers and civilians alike, were increasingly familiar with him, for all that they sometimes crossed the line into what his own culture considered impropriety. Some of his best sales there had come from referrals from others—a few of whom had not actually bought any of his pieces, merely seen them displayed. So he returned home, his jewelry case still mostly full, only a modest mixture of chips and Tiraan coins in his purse, but not disheartened. Every day could not be a rich one, or one risked losing appreciation for the good days when they came.
Despite his growing familiarity with humans, it was always with some relief that he departed their presence. It wasn’t that their enclave was rowdy or disorganized, they were just so…human. They laughed loudly, conversed in strident voices, hailed one another at the tops of their lungs from across the courtyard. In conversation their gestures were so broad that he had only recently begun to trust that no one would hit him by accident. Even the way they walked was energetic to the point of aggressiveness, and in some cases worse; he’d never caught any of the soldiers doing it, nor the diplomats on duty, but a good number of human women seemed to sway their hips a lot more than was necessary.
The streets of Tar’naris were calm, quiet, orderly…soothing. The Imperial enclave had taught him to truly enjoy so much that he’d always taken for granted, such as the silvery light of mushroom patches cultivated atop stone obelisks at regular intervals along the streets. Their colors varied slightly, but the overall effect was pale, and calming in comparison to the sharp gold and blue of fairy lamps. He also didn’t have to worry about seeming rude by failing to nod and smile at people he passed. Drow ignored each other and expected the same in kind, unless they had some specific business. The walk home through the gently winding streets was always enough to restore his equanimity by the time he reached the estate of House Vyendir.
The House guards did not acknowledge him as he passed, which was proper; it was a man and a woman on duty, and the male could hardly have nodded to Tazun while his compatriot could not. He gave them a respectful nod anyway. Quite apart from appreciating the guards for their work, he really didn’t need stories getting back to his mother that associating with the humans was damaging his social skills. There had been surly whispers ever since the Treaty that humans would have that effect on society. Deliberately seeking out their company had made Tazun more mindful of his own decorum than he probably needed to be.
House Vyendir occupied a compound carved into the living rock of the wall separating the main chamber in which sat the city of Tar’naris from the even larger agricultural caverns beyond. The House’s gates opened directly onto the passage between the two, facing the gates of House Dalmiss, which was positioned in a similar complex opposite them. As such, since the Tiraan Treaty ten years ago, golden light from the cavern’s sun crystals streamed in constantly through one side of the citadel. It was pretty enough, from a distance, but Tazun was glad his own family’s quarters were on the opposite edge.
He relaxed after passing through the door into their private wing of the complex, though just as quickly frowned. Private or no, the household was generally quieter than this. The babble of voices from their central meeting room up ahead suggested either a large party, or his mother and sisters were excited enough about something to be rudely talking over each other.
Tazun wasn’t sure he had the energy for either right now.
Keeping a public face in place in case it proved they had guests, he paced carefully down the hallway and entered the meeting room.
The whole family had gathered, not just his mother and sisters, but their mates and children, the servants, adoptees and even two of his aunts visiting from other family chambers. His arrival went unnoticed at first, everyone’s attention being on the figure standing in the center of the room. Tazun’s own focus locked onto him immediately.
The human was flanked by two of the family’s stronger servants, who functioned as unofficial guards, and rightly so. He was a tall specimen, of Tiraan descent if Tazun was any judge—bronze-skinned, black-haired, with light brown eyes and a narrow face, surmounted by an aquiline nose and almost elvishly pointed chin. The man was well-built, and wearing nothing but a pair of loose trousers of clearly Narisian make. His hands were bound in front of him, and an iron collar circled his neck.
“Clearly, this will need to be exchanged, as well,” Tazun’s mother was saying, pointing at the collar. “It clashes with the aesthetic of absolutely everything. I have in mind something in silver, with the House crest, of course.”
“Taz could make that,” suggested Syraal, his younger sister. “He’s brilliant with silver.”
“We’ll see,” Vrashti murmured, pacing in a slow circle around the bound human. His expression was murderous enough to have both guards keeping hands on their cudgels, which they ordinarily wouldn’t even be wearing inside the family chambers. “Tazun does excellent work, but there’s the House to consider; I’ve expended a fair amount of political capital with this acquisition, and I don’t want to be seen as pretentious. Yes, it may be better to give some business to—Taz!”
She smiled broadly, catching sight of her son in the doorway, and beckoned him forward. “Come in! I’m sorry you missed the big arrival, but look what we have!”
“I…see,” he said carefully, pacing into the room and clutching his jewelry case to his side for comfort. “This is not a guest, I take it?”
“Honestly, Tazun, I hope you don’t joke like that with the Imperials,” Vrashti said, gliding over to him and taking him by the hand to pull him forward. “You can clearly see the collar.”
“How did you manage this, mother?” he asked. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but human slaves are…rare.”
“The word you are politely avoiding is ‘expensive,’” said Laouri, his eldest sister, with one of her sly half-smiles. “And yes, Taz, he was.”
“Don’t you worry about that, young man,” his mother said, reaching up to stroke his hair. “I would not make such a purchase if we could not afford it. And this is, of course, not to be repeated outside the family chambers, but the bulk of the expense here was not in chips. You see the result of years of accumulated favors. And more to come; he’s a wild one, still. The few remaining slave trainers expect to be generously compensated for their services. But we can afford it. And the prestige! Just think—once he’s properly behaved, he’ll make the most fabulous showpiece. We can deck him in our jewelry, even rent him out to other families for display!”
“That may not work so well for my purposes,” Tazun said carefully. “My clientele down at the enclave would probably be disturbed by this…”
“Well, obviously,” Vrashti said with affectionate exasperation. “I’m sorry you’ll get less use from him than the rest of us, my son, but pursuing Imperial contacts was your idea, after all.”
“Yes, of course,” Tazun said quietly, finding it difficult to give his mother as much of his attention as was proper. The human had fixed his stare directly on Tazun. This was the first time he had locked eyes with someone who very visibly wished him dead. The experience was disturbing. “What’s his name?”
“Not settled yet,” Vrashti mused, stroking her chin. “I’m leaning toward Ludi. I think it suits him.”
“Mother, you can’t call him Ludi,” Laouri said in an exasperated tone suggesting this was not the first such exchange. “He’s not a pet lizard!”
“Well, we’re not going to name him after something out of one of your poetry books,” Vrashti retorted.
“My name,” the human said unexpectedly in elvish, “is Selim Darousi. I’m just so pleased to meet you all,” he spat, baring a set of gleaming teeth.
“Your name is yet to be decided,” Vrashti replied, raising her chin, “and you will express yourself with more decorum and respect in the presence of your betters.”
Selim Darousi stared at her for a moment, then, unexpectedly, smiled. It was a smile that made Tazun want to take two steps back.
“Something amuses you?” Vrashti inquired.
“Oh, yes,” the human said, now in Tanglish. “I’ve just decided how you’re going to die. It’s going to take some work; I’ll need tools.”
“Razao,” Vrashti said calmly, “stomach only, please. Be very careful not to damage him; he was costly.”
Tazun barely managed not to flinch as Razao slammed his cudgel into Selim’s midsection, causing the human to double over with a pained wheeze. Humans were incredibly sturdy physically, but Razao, like nearly all members of House Vyendir, was a metalworker—unlike most of their family, who specialized in jewelry and ornamentation, he had pounded iron for many years, and could hit like a skaalink’s tail.
“I think that’s enough excitement for him for now,” Vrashti went on, turning her back on the now-groaning slave. “Everyone’s had a chance to meet the new pet; best not wear him out excessively. The slave trainer will be here tomorrow. Until then, he can remain in his chamber. Thank you, Razao, Druuld.”
The two servants bowed to her, then grabbed Selim by both arms and proceeded to haul him from the room. The human didn’t make it easy for them, but mostly because he seemed too dazed and in pain to walk properly, forcing them to half-drag him. He was clearly in no condition to put up a fight.
Tazun turned back to his mother, but found her already engaged in conversation with his aunts. Despite the burning questions on his lips, he knew better than to interrupt.
“Why, little brother,” Laouri said, stepping up to him, “you look less celebratory than I would expect.”
He studied her face carefully. They weren’t tremendously close in an emotional sense, but there were no rivalries or intrigues within the family, and he and Laouri shared affection as well as a sense of duty. She hadn’t done anything to actively harm or meddle with him since they were both children. Still… The thoughts foremost in his mind verged on questioning their mother’s judgment, which was never a good thing to express to an eldest daughter.
“That fellow is…young,” he said, very carefully. “And clearly Tiraan. How did he end up as a slave?”
“I’m certain you know exactly how,” Laouri said, arching an eyebrow. “The same way they all do. He’s a criminal. Don’t you worry, Mother isn’t reckless enough to acquire us a human who’ll have the Imperial government wanting to fetch him back. He’s just some nobody—now, at least, he’s a useful nobody.”
“I see,” Tazun said, frowning.
“Honestly, Taz, you look downright upset,” she said, frowning right back. “Maybe you are spending too much time down at that enclave.”
“I’m bringing in money,” he said defensively. “Very good money for a jeweler with my level of experience.”
“You’re also growing used to humans,” she replied. “This’ll be good for you; it’ll help you keep a sense of perspective about things.”
“You’ve… Laouri, I’m sure you hear the same rumors I do. About how they…get humans, these days.”
“What of it?” she asked dryly.
Tazun glanced at their mother, still in animated conversation with her own sisters and looking thoroughly pleased with herself. “If he was somehow…tricked, or enslaved under false pretenses…”
“Oh, honestly, you worry too much,” Laouri said dismissively. “It’s all perfectly legal. Mother knows what she’s doing. Surely you know that.”
“Of course I do,” he said automatically. “It’s just… It seems like something to worry about.”
“You let her decide what’s to worry about, and do the worrying,” Laouri said archly, but softened the rebuke by patting him on the arm. “Really, Tazun, leave it alone. This will be good for the family—we’ll gain a lot of prestige, and Mother’s very good at using valuable assets carefully, as you know. She can parlay this into even more success for us down the line, once he’s trained.” She grimaced. “I just have to talk her out of naming the poor fellow after her childhood pet, is all. Though on the other hand, if he’s going to be that unruly, maybe it’d go a long way toward teaching him some humility. You know how it is with these people.”
“Mm,” he said noncommittally, eyes unfocused on the near distance. For some reason, he was suddenly seeing Elin’s face in his mind’s eye. She looked…disappointed.
“They’re called ladybugs!” Saash’t held up his hand, a few of the tiny creatures crawling on his fingers. One spread its spotted shell and took off, buzzing away. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
“If you say so,” Tazun said doubtfully, easing backward. He had the sudden mental image of one of the insects flying into his hood and getting trapped inside his clothing.
“One thing leads to another, you see,” Saash’t continued, gently shaking his hand to dislodge the remaining ladybugs, and rising from where he had knelt in the soil. He continued on his way down the path bordering the rows of plants, Tazun falling into step alongside him. The agricultural cavern was so bright it was almost painful, hence Tazun’s choice of a hooded robe, but Saash’t tyr Sreinde n’dar Dalmiss was quite at home here, not minding the brightness or the dirt now staining the knees of his canvas trousers. House Dalmiss had overseen food production since time immemorial, and Saash’t was one of those who had acclimated brilliantly to the imported techniques and crops now occupying the cavern. “First we had to bring in bees—fabulously useful creatures, though accursedly difficult to handle. They’re necessary to pollenate the plants, though, as well as producing honey.”
“Honey comes from animals?”
Saash’t stopped and turned to face him, his public face barely concealing his surprise. “You didn’t know that?”
“I thought it was… You know, like the berries!”
“No,” Saash’t said gravely, not concealing his amusement as much as was strictly proper. They had been friends for years, after all. “Honey is an animal product.”
“What…kind of animals are these bees?”
“Insects. A little bigger than the ladybugs. Bees, though, will sting you if you annoy them. Ladybugs are perfectly harmless.”
Insects? How did they produce the cloyingly sweet amber gel? A few possibilities came to mind, none of which he particularly wanted to dwell on. Food was food, and Narisians were no strangers to insects as cuisine. For some reason, though, it seemed different when they were talking about an imported luxury dish.
“It’s proved impossible to completely isolate any species from its ecosystem, though,” Saash’t continued, resuming his course. He paused several yards from the last spot and carefully opened the tiny cage he was carrying to release a few more ladybugs. “I’m not convinced the bees are what brought the aphids, though that is the official explanation House Dalmiss has given out. I’ve ordered some research materials from Tiraas, but it takes time for them to arrive; I just don’t think the two species have that kind of relationship. Regardless, the aphids are here, and that means the neatest way to handle them is the way humans do: with their natural predators.”
“We already have spiders.”
“Our native cave spiders are too big to catch aphids, and don’t seem inclined to try. The ladybugs should work. Hopefully. And then, of course, we will have to see what new challenges they bring!” Oddly, Saash’t looked downright pleased at the prospect of having more trouble to deal with.
“This actually is very interesting,” Tazun said, glancing around the cavern, “but I thought we were going to talk about my problem.”
Saash’t smiled faintly. “I was.”
Tazun barely repressed a sigh. Saash’t was the smartest person he knew, which was both good and bad. His thought processes could be taxing to follow. “This is one of your metaphors, isn’t it?”
“Well, Tazun, what seems to be upsetting you is the condition of this new slave, correct?”
“I’m more upset with myself,” Tazun muttered. “A man should have more respect for his mother’s judgment. I can’t shake the feeling she’s making a terrible mistake, and that…bothers me. She raised me better than that.”
“She did,” Saash’t agreed, moving on to the next stand of…what were these plants again? Corn? “And I have never heard from any source a suggestion that your mother’s judgment is lacking. Perhaps it is not an issue of lacking, then, but specificity. We are in the midst of a generational change, Tazun. Look at all this!” He gestured expansively around the cavern. “This changes…absolutely everything.”
“We’ve had this conversation before,” Tazun said. “Repeatedly.”
“Ah, good, you remember! Then I don’t have to go through it all again.” Saash’t grinned sidelong at him before pausing to release more insects. “I have seen this much more in my own House than you likely have in yours; metal is metal, but crops are a whole different subject than they were ten years ago. The fact is, some very wise, very learned individuals are well-trained to lead their people skillfully in a world which no longer exists. Applying their hard-earned wisdom to the new world can yield…less than optimal results.”
“What are you saying?” Tazun demanded. “I’m right not to trust my mother?”
“You are right to respect her,” Saash’t said diplomatically. “But you are of the new generation, and you specifically have acquainted yourself with humans in a way that most of your family have not. Presumptuous as it may seem to say it… We see and know things, you and I, that our elders have not had cause to. Like, for instance, the complex relationships of ladybugs and humans to life in what is a very strange environment for them.”
“Selim isn’t a ladybug,” Tazun snorted.
“Of course he is,” Saash’t said calmly. “Just as you would be in his world.”
“Goddess be kind, I’m dealing with family issues and political issues, and you’re talking about your animals and plants again. Is that all you ever think about?”
“It’s more a way of thinking,” Saash’t said, still calm and faintly amused. “Or a way of looking.”
He paused, as a patrolling soldier in House An’sadarr armor passed. Both men stepped off the path and bowed to her; she glanced at them in response, but didn’t so much as nod, continuing on her way.
“Now, that, for instance,” Saash’t murmured as they put some distance between themselves and the guard. “There was nothing odd about that exchange to you, correct?”
“Odd? Like what?”
“Like nothing. But think how it would have looked to one of your human friends.”
The biologist gave him a glance that very nearly betrayed open exasperation. “That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m asking you.”
Tazun sighed. “Well… I suppose it would seem rude, to them. Her conduct, I mean. But that’s simply because a human wouldn’t understand our culture.”
“Exactly.” Saash’t gently shook a few more ladybugs loose as he continued. “You and I are aware that a female soldier on duty cannot possibly show any social interest in two men. An Imperial human would have no idea why that is so inappropriate to consider. It’s simply not fair to expect them to understand and adapt to Narisian ways like that. It doesn’t make sense to me to ask that they be held to the same standard of behavior. We’ve yet to see how well the ladybugs will adapt to our caverns in the long term, but it is a safe assumption they will have to adapt, one way or another. They cannot live down here the way they do up there.”
“You’re talking about the entrapments,” Tazun said slowly. “The way Selim and…all the others get taken in.”
Saash’t shrugged noncommittally. “I would simply rather you give yourself credit for the working mind I know you possess, Tazun. It is good that you respect your mother’s judgment, but it’s not truly respecting her to expect her to be flawless. That is blind worship, which doesn’t serve you, her, or your House.”
“I can’t possibly go against my mother’s judgment!”
“Is it going against her to point out information she does not have? It seems to me that is helping her to be the best leader she can.” Saash’t paused, watching a few of his ladybugs frolic on the stalks of…corn? Or were they beans? Whatever it was didn’t have any kind of recognizable fruit yet. “I don’t have answers, Tazun, only questions. That’s the best way I have found to keep an open and rational mind. But the more I consider this… The more I shudder to think of a world where people do not challenge injustice because it’s not their place.”
The windowless hallway was deserted, blessedly, and barely lit by single glowstalks growing in widely-spaced niches. Tazun crept as soundlessly as he could, expecting someone to come along any moment and demand to know what he was doing down here. His mother had made it clear that the slave was to be kept in deprivation and isolation until the trainer arrived tomorrow. A veteran human trainer she might not be, but one did not lead a drow family without knowing how to break recalcitrant slaves of some of their worst habits.
The door itself was of thick stone, but its small window was blocked by bars of metal. House Vyendir never lacked for metalwork in any of its furnishings. Tazun peered through, seeing the dim shape of Selim huddled against the far wall. None of the lights from the hall penetrated into the cell, but there was another barred window on its opposite wall, giving a view of Tar’naris beyond. The pale city, not the blazing agricultural cavern.
The sight of the man curled up like that was almost nauseating. He had the sudden, overwhelming thought that no intelligent being should ever be kept in a cage.
“Hey,” Tazun whispered. There was no response. After a few moments, he tried again. “Hey!”
Still the human just huddled there. Was he asleep? No, he was breathing too harshly for that…
Realization hit, and Tazun wanted to smack himself in the head in response. Obviously, there were whispers, and then there were whispers. He glanced furtively up and down the hall, seeing and hearing no sign of anyone approaching, then, with a wince, raised his voice to a level that, in his best judgment, the human should be able to hear.
That was apparently loud enough; the man uncoiled and bounded to his feet so abruptly that Tazun jerked back from the bars.
“What do you want?” Selim growled, glaring at him.
“Keep your voice down!” Tazun hissed. “They’re not going to feed you. Look, here.” He held up a single, fist-sized loaf of mushroom bread, filled with a paste of fruit and lizard meat. It wasn’t the most appetizing fare, but it was nutritious.
“So you came to taunt me?” The human sneered, folding his brawny arms. “You’ll have to do better than that, knife-eared—”
“Oh, honestly,” Tazun muttered, and tossed the loaf through the bars. Selim caught it, but barely and after much fumbling. “You eat all of it, understand? Every bit. Leave no crumbs. If there’s any evidence left, they’ll make you tell who brought it, and then I won’t be able to help you anymore. Understand?”
Selim looked down at the loaf clutched in his hand, then back up at Tazun, narrowing his eyes.
“Look, if you can’t do it, give it back,” Tazun hissed. “Less trouble that way.”
The human took a step back from him, clutching the loaf protectively, which was as good as an answer to that suggestion. His expression did not warm, however. “Why would you help me?”
“Not a word,” Tazun said firmly. “Nobody knows about this, all right? If they find out, I’ll be in no end of trouble, and you’ll be on your own.”
“I understand,” Selim said, still watching him with naked suspicion. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Tazun just turned and scuttled back the way he had come. It was rude, yes, but these were exceptional circumstances. He’d have given an answer if he had one. Right now, he was more occupied with the question of what he was going to do next.