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From: The Welcome Rain #18
Subj: Two hours before the exodus
TWR hops onto the deck of his ship and notices the provisions piled thereupon. After a moment of puzzlement, he recognizes the arrangement of the sacks.
"Thwarted by the generosity of others," he chuckles. "I think I recognize Racsa's hand in this." He wanders aft and looks at Kwangpard's broad-beamed boat. Sure enough, Racsa is standing on the deck and looking expectant.
"Best not to disappoint him," muses the Rain, "lest he think of some more pointed jest." So he roars a mock imprecation at the delighted karasko, who capers briefly before disappearing below.
Still chuckling, The Welcome Rain picks up the first of Kwangpard's sacks and heads for the cargo hold.
"A moment of your time, good mask-wearer!"
The Rain turns his attention to the docks. Jaseroque stands before him, playing his mazurkin. This is not a standard Sirenese instrument of discourse, but its intonations can be subtly varied by a skilled player. The Jaseroque clearly qualifies; his strumming is respectful yet insistent.
The Welcome Rain drops his sack to the deck, reaches for the formal zachinko. "You have my full attention," he replies politely.
"As an outworlder," the Jaseroque sings, "I cannot get a boat. No shipwright will offer me a vessel of an appropriate quality."
The Rain remains neutral. "This is often the case, even in Fan, where the folk live in proximity to the Spaceport and are hence more tolerant of outworlders. Unfortunately, I am not a shipwright, and so I cannot help you." He moves as if to pick up his sack.
The Jaseroque continues, undeterred by the uneffusive reply. "I ask not for a ship, but merely for a berth on your vessel."
This was what TWR had feared. "I am notoriously solitary," he strums regretfully, "and it would be difficult for me to accommodate you. I do not even take slaves-"
"This is well," Jaseroque interjects, "for I am not a slave."
"Yes," sings TWR, obviously at a loss for words. "Well." He sighs with a brush of the strings on his zachinko. "If you can endure an uncongenial companion, I have no real objection to your presence."
"Excellent!" The mazurkin springs to life with a spray of cheerful chords. "I will bring my belongings and whatever provisions I can commandeer on such short notice."
"There will be no need of provisions. I am amply supplied." The Rain stares briefly at Kwangpard's boat, much less amicably than before. Racsa has deprived me even of that excuse, he thinks.
The Jaseroque is pleased. "Then I will be here within the hour. I need only a few clothes, a change of masks, and my books."
The Rain nods in resignation. "There are several unoccupied rooms; many others are strewn with junk. Arrange your accommodations to suit your preferences. Two rooms only are unavailable: my cabin, and a small chamber near the starboard bow with a glass-encased tome in its center. This is my Book of Deeds and it must not be disturbed."
"It shall be as you say." The Jaseroque pauses. "Book of Deeds, you say?
I did not know that was a Sirenese custom. In fact, I have only heard of one people who keep such books: the Rhunes of Alastor 933."
The Welcome Rain stands stock-still, his only motion the plucking of the zachinko's strings. "I spoke without thinking; I had forgotten your acquaintance with offworld customs. I am indeed a Rhune by birth. Please be here in two hours' time."
Jaseroque, realizing that he has touched upon a sensitive topic, plays briskly on his mazurkin. "Two hours it is, and you have my thanks." He backs away respectfully, leaving the Rain to his private thoughts.
From: Kwangpard's Dolorous Folly
Subj: Nightfall, sans insanity
The sheltered deck opens like a sardonic grin below the gleaming eyes of the aft lanterns. Its simplicity of design is somewhat obscured by clusters of oddments; here a staunch box-table filled with open books, there a column of recessed shelves piled with curious shells and fabrics, and under one lamp an antique kiv has been hung rather irreverently as a wind-chime.
Upon an os-cushion amid a pile of sumptuous rugs is seated cross-kneed the figure of Kwangpard's Dolorous Folly. He is dressed in a loose open robe to admit the warm evening breezes to his skin; he wears the casual evening version, silken and embroidered, of his usual daylight mask. In his lap rests a water-lute; as he strokes the strings resonances travel along glass tubes filled with pale-colored liquids. He sings quietly as the water lute thrums and burbles at his fingertips:
No auspicions, brass or bold,
Restless hearts for restless deeds
Only moon and tide agree
Seek direction from no sea
of surf or stars-no human needs
Cast gleams to either depth of cold
Then emerald dawn with reins enfold!
Life to those who'd leap away
Sing to the blood and bone that's borne
To what one's prowess genders clear!
Those who will, and so enveigh
The deeps, may for an instant hold
The beat-though winds their own way steer,
And dauntless iron time return.
Considerably engloomed, the Dolorous Folly returns the water lute to its case and descends into dark reverie. He ponders the brevity of life, only to shake himself with a sneering smirk when he realizes how much of this spare and precious time he's wasting in the worrying of it...
He rises, takes a flaky-edged scroll from the table and starts to read, when he hears a call from below. Stepping to the railing, he sees a small houseless naetzu (1)...
___ Blue Wave/QWK v2.1
From: Kwangpard's Dolorous Folly
Subj: Well met in anchor-moor
The Dolorous Folly, lacking an instrument at hand, invokes some quiet wavering and tinkling tones from the wind-chime kiv. "The hours of night likewise invest the mind with blackness; the lamp of a friendly visage is most welcome. One who sings invites the presence of an old and beloved friend into this humble yet comfortable residence."
He turns with a small skip of buoyed emotion, seizes a boarding rope from a nearby pile of loose equipment, hooks it over the railing and lowers it. The rope is made fast to the naetzu to moor it; it tautens; moments later a twilit figure climbs over the railing. She wears an Exuberant Phantasm mask, which displays ratted streamers of rich red hair framing a pale and spectral face with a small twisted smile.
The Dolorous folly has by this time located his ganga; the two friends briefly embrace, then sit cross-legged near a platter of stuffed leaves and brine-cakes, with Yirenthi liquor in small shells; a fluid suited well to the lubrication of lucubration. There is silence while both partake.
The Exuberant Phantasm runs a fingernail along the ridges of her Yirenthi shell, producing a resonant rattle. "So soon as I return, you depart. So much I surmised from discourse on the docks. As the sea and the coast do our comings and goings interlock..."
"So well it might be said of complementary souls, that they nowhere meet, yet fill the world between them. Whither have you gone?"
"To Omb I have been, and Kalsoe. My ship was lost from under me in the Tan-Fosca interferum, and with it my masks; some time was lost in regaining my reputation. I have danced in the Exhibition of the Equinotical Attitudes in Semsar and slain night men off Red-Foam..."
The Dolorous Folly strums approbation from his ganga. "Time thus devoted is well spent. It had been my hope that you might be on hand to witness the departure, or perhaps even to join us... But you require rest from travel?"
The Exuberant Phantasm plucks wryly at her ganga, producing shimmering notes of regret. "Rest-and yet no rest. Four months ago I was honored by the offer of a Demon Ravisher, and likewise honored him with my acceptance- in fact, honored him more than he is now aware..." The Dolorous Folly's fingers strike a note of shock from his ganga. "Yes... I fear that I would be an irritable sea companion at best, and ere long I shall have work enough to do... But silence has seized you?"
The Dolorous Folly breathes deep, and his song is a sigh. "It seems a radical departure from your usual lifeways... Did you not consider to..."
The Exuberant Phantasm ripples her ganga angrily. "To what? To drink of the pan-sat fruit and so end it? So that I might offer the honor to you, I suppose! Well! For good or ill, what you hoped, another has done! And it is as much my deed as his-a fact that most men pass off as abstraction, if it passes their consideration at all..."
The two are still for a time; there is only the slap and rush of the water and the tingle of the breeze through the wind-chime.
The Dolorous Folly strokes the ganga quietly. "One who has caused shame would seek the undeserved honor..."
She laughs suddenly, strums merrily on the ganga. "The honor's given, provided you give it back. Such moods are not for old friends reunited... And now, let us hear more of your fascinating expedition..."
The two speak on for hours more, a time filled with gaiety and light, until the barkings of the neglected drayfish recall them both to reality. They stand, visages frozen in constructs of leather and silk, Sirenese semblances of stone. Then, the Exuberant Phantasm takes his hand, pulling it under her mask, kissing his fingertips. He likewise kisses her hand, and they stand a while grasping each other. Then, a swift turning, the thrumming of the boarding rope, splash of drayfish, casting off.
The man in the checkered mask stands at the railing, looking for a long time upon sea, ships and stars..
From: Kwangpard's Dolorous Folly
Subj: Footnote: The Naetzu
"The naetzu is formed by lashing Salad Tree logs together, with supple lengths of takan wood for crosspieces. The construction of the basic naetzu is quite similar to terran rafts, but the Sirenese have added a refinement permitted by the uncommon strength of the materials: the central two logs, or kaie-foue, may be tilted perpendicular to the rest of the raft, and slid within their lashings, to form either a mast or a drogue as the weather dictates... A sturdier variant of the naetzu, said to be capable of crossing vast ocean distances, omits the central pivots, featuring instead a permanent fixed mast at the stern and central boards, fore and aft, which when worked in combination serve to steer the craft. Both of these designs date back to a period before the general use of dray-fish, and serve those Sirenese who cannot afford the upkeep of these animals.
"Small versions of the naetzu, lacking permanent structures and dyed gaily in checkerboard or triply-alternating patterns, are generally lashed to the sides of Sirenese houseboats for everyday or emergency use... these always have dray-fish harnesses for greater manueverability..."
Mathew Kershaul, _The Faceless Folk_
__Blue Wave/QWK v2.12
From: The Sea-dragon Conqueror
Subj: The Day of Departure
The announced hour of departure comes and goes, but no ships join those of The Welcome Rain and Kwangpard's Dolorous Folly. The Red-Bird expresses dismay at this, but the Earnest Enquirant reassures her that punctuality is not a Sirenese virtue.
His word is made good two hours later when a baroque houseboat decorated in teals and triumphant reds approaches the others. A man in an unassuming grey rodential mask appears on the deck carrying a lyre. "Unusual instrument for a Sirenese to use," remarks the Enquirant. "I suppose he can get away with it if his musicianship is up to the task. What can you hear?"
"You mean after you're done jabbering?" the Red-Bird asks, with a mockingly saccharine tune on the kiv at her waist. "They're not saying much of anything, really. Just exchanging pleasantries."
The Earnest Enquirant nods. "They're each feeling out the other's style and strakh. It might be interesting to know what their conclusions are. The music provides the real clue in that regard. If you could hum a couple of bars... well," taking in her reaction, "perhaps not."
The Red-Bird resumes listening. "Well, well. It seems the ship's captain had announced his intention to join the quest, but took off in a naetzu-raft with the cook. Only the cook returned." A pause. "I can't be hearing this right. The captain pushed an android overboard a while back for some misbehavior, and it looks like the thing followed the houseboat walking on the ocean floor! Then it followed the raft and waited for it to drop anchor. The last the cook saw of him was a swirl of water as the thing dragged him into the deep blue sea." She turns to the Enquirant. "Androids? Here?"
"That explains a great deal, actually. The houseboat must be one of those tourist jobs. Offworld junkets can charter a boat and watch the depredations of the Night-Men from the safety of the sea. Quite the tourist attraction. The androids are employed in order to satisfy outworlders, who sometimes react poorly to being served by slaves." The Enquirant twangs his strapan in exasperation. "Why is it acceptable to enslave an android of greater intelligence than its masters? ... Ah, well. In any case, it's the off season, so they won't be carrying tourists now."
The Red-Bird knocks twice on her zachinko, demanding silence. "How many people do you see on the deck?" she asks after a few seconds. "I can only see one, but my eyes are nothing special."
"There's just the one above decks," affirms the Enquirant. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I distinctly hear two voices on that houseboat."
"Maybe someone is hiding below," suggests the Durpa-Bane, breaking a day-long silence. The others turn to him in shock; he realizes belatedly he has forgotten to sing the words, and repeats the passage lamely with a poor excuse for an accompaniment on his strapan. The Red-Bird growls wordlessly at the condescension implied by the choice of instrument; the Enquirant turns away in disgust and resumes his watch.
"Neither of them," the Red-Bird asserts, "is hiding below. There's no distortion in either voice. Whoever is producing that second voice is on the deck of that ship, I'm sure of it."
The Durpa-Bane clears his throat, carefully selects his kiv. "Then his lyre may be a sophont." He assumes a defensive tone as the other two stare at him in astonishment. "It's not unknown. Certain planets in the Alastor Cluster produce such things."
"Actually," the Red-Bird sings, "I think you're right. One of those voices has a sort of musical resonance to it...just what I'd expect if a lyre could speak. Where would the Sirenese get the money for all this fancy AI?"
"Oh," the Enquirant says, "there's a trade in Sirenese tools and masks. Outworld collectors prize them for their intricacy." He grows excited. "If such instruments gain popularity here, imagine the social consequences!"
"Right, whatever," the Red-Bird cuts him off. "The Mouseman is saying the ship will decide collectively whether to join the adventure or not."
"Then we'll be waiting a while," sighs the Enquirant. "Contentious Sirenese! In the absence of a captain, such a discussion will take hours, days."
* * *
An hour later, three more ships join the party. One is a pirate vessel, which surprises everyone but the Enquirant. "Piracy is a romantic tradition among the Sirenese," the scholar explains. "Remember, they have none of the usual compunctions about murder. They gloss over the business of looting." He warms to the topic. "Strangely, it's the only occupation of strakh which the islanders may aspire to. It's a weird subculture...they talk like parodies of old Earth pirate films, but their swords work as well as anyone's."
"I was wondering." The Red-Bird shakes her head. "Shiver me timbers this, avast and away that. Damn!"
The other two ships are ordinary houseboats, if of better quality than the average vessel. Unfortunately, they approach the convoy from the opposite side of the Oikumene agents, and their speech and visages cannot be determined.
"A healthy posse to take on Fane Rampad," pronounces the Red-Bird with satisfaction.
But the Enquirant is less reassured. "Knowing Rampad as I do," he remarks dolefully, "I wonder if if is enough."
From: Orion's Lyre #56
Strumming chords of mild anxiety, Orion's Lyre tweaks Mouseman's tail to get his attention. Mouseman seems intent on giving Bishop intricate instructions about a beverage. Seguing to minor key, the Lyre increases the intensity of the chording, adding a high obligato in query-counterpoint.
"Mouseman? Mouseman. MOUSEMAN! This damn houseboat is MOVING!"
From: Mouseman #17
Subj: Good Help
Is so hard to find. One can instruct a servant on the exact proportions of certain bevarages, however one cannot instruct them on how to serve with the savoir faire some so richly deserve.
While checking with Bishop on certain prior arrangements as to the dinner menu, I felt a certain positive delight in my plans, mixed with the dichotomic trepidation that the best laid plans of mice and men, well... The table was correctly laid, the sunset cooperating and something was tweaking my tail. Ahhh details, oooops.
From: Kwangpard's Dolorous Folly
Subj: We must away...
On a small and rounded houseboat of ludicrous shape stands KDF; he has selected today a variant mask called Kwangpard's Unnoted Entrance Into The Strongholds Of Lo, an artistically tattered construction designed to display evidence of its wearer's strakh only upon second or third glance. On a sleeker, trimmer vessel The Welcome Rain, one foot resting upon a rope-pile, deftly twines his fingers in a kiv of brass, silver and carved shells. Mouseman, meanwhile, reclines along a sail-support and pipes from within his rodentine mask, accompanied by the strumming of the movement-limiting Orion's Lyre. The three conversants sing simultaneously...
The time arrives
And so, although
Though few Sirenes
And so, although
I steer a craft
And so, although
(A fragment from _The Maskado: Or, The Hunt For Hueindo_ by Gwenk and Sukoban.)
___ Blue Wave/QWK v2.12
From: The Welcome Rain #18
Subj: Three Sheets To The Wind
After installing himself in appropriate quarters and putting his belongings in order, the Jaseroque climbs to the deck and offers his help. The Welcome Rain brusquely declines it with a rattle of his crebarin. "It takes experience to pilot a ship," the now-revealed Rhune explains, busily knotting ropes and darting from bow to stern. "I cannot spare the time for explanations lest the craft sink. However, I do not begrudge you your leisure. You are a scholar; you have books; what else do you need?"
The Jaseroque returns to his quarters undaunted, and repeats his offer of help later in the day. The Welcome Rain surveys him, dropping a belaying pin and assuming a stance of amusement. "I have crossed the Titanic alone in this boat many times. Does my seamanship seem so sloppy that you think you can do better?" However, the jibe is softened with a laughing trill of the cordial kiv.
"Quite the opposite," the Jaseroque replies courteously on the mazurkin. "As a scholar my interest in knowledge is general. I know nothing of sailing and welcome the opportunity to learn more about the subject."
"Hm. Just so." The Rain is bedecked in the Driving Flood variant of his mask, with a grey billowing thunderhead atop an avalanche of vertically-striped opaque glass. To an offworlder unfamiliar with Sirenese mask symbology, the effect would be bizarre; to a fellow maskwearer, the visage implies implacable purpose. "I have no objection to this plan. On the first day you will only watch me. I will supply explanations as time permits. The trip will be of about two weeks' duration; by the end of that period you should be a reasonably competent sailor."
In fact, the Jaseroque is able to assist The Welcome Rain at the end of three hours' instruction with nary a hitch. "This does not seem so difficult," the neophyte boatman remarks, hastening to add: "I do not wish to demean the skill in any way."
But the Rain is in high good humor. "We are assisted by the time of year and the trade winds. I chose this time and this route in order to make it easy on poor Kwangpard's slaves. They are competent enough in port, but imagine piloting that pie-plate of a ship in rough waters! They would have no more control over their direction than a toy balloon."
"Is that why we lower sails whenever there is a gust of wind? To make sure they and the houseboat can keep up?"
"That is so. Although we cannot help outpacing them in the daytime, I strike sails at night so that their second shift can catch up while I sleep."
That night the two outworlders dine on roasted haunch of durpa and a vegetable medley, which while foreign to the Jaseroque is quite tasty. The Welcome Rain serves him his portion in his quarters. "You must pardon me," he explains, "but I maintain the Rhune custom of dining in solitude. Old taboos are the hardest to reason away. I would, however, like you to join me on the aft deck afterwards. I can provide something choice in the way of brandies."
"It would be my pleasure," the Jaseroque replies with a skirl of keys on his mazurkin.
Later they sip their liquor, watching Mireille set and discussing the expedition.
"I had expected more participation," sings the Jaseroque. "The Sirenese are valorous and love a spectacle."
"They are valorous, individually." The Welcome Rain has changed masks; he now wears his Swirling Floods variant, symbolic of fey detachment from affairs and quite a departure from his earlier mask. "But they cannot act as a group. If they could, the Night-Men would have ceased to be a menace long ago. A hundred mask-wearers with pistols and swords could resist them effectively during their nocturnal raids. But each Sirenese is obsessed with his own private drama, or that of his master if he is a karasko. They do not care to coordinate their efforts."
"This is not a problem among the Rhune."
"Indeed not. They - I suppose I should say we - fight in armies by inclination."
"And so effectively that you drove the Majars to near-extinction, and are prohibited the use of air-cars and modern weapons." The Jaseroque delivers this observation in a distant tone.
The Welcome Rain favors him with a pale glance. "I cannot dispute the truth of what you say. Nonetheless, we would not stand helpless against the raids which the Sirenese suffer."
"Nor would many other peoples. The Sirenese are almost unique in their individualism. Is that what attracted you to the planet?"
"That was part of it. Naturally I appreciated the convenience of the mask, by which I could assume a new identity of my own choosing. I had studied musicology as one of my specialites-the Rhune, as you probably know, are as obsessed with academic disciplines as with military ones-so the requirement of instrumental virtuosity posed less of a problem than it might have."
"And swordsmanship, of course, would be second nature."
"There you're wrong. The Rhune favor ranged weapons; we do not care to touch our opponents. A strange sort of prudery that must seem... But I learned quickly enough. In time, I think most people forgot I was an outworlder, or chose to assign it no importance."
The Jaseroque nods. "I have only been here six months, and my strakh is still in need of improvement. Unfortunately, I am disinclined to make my name through violence, and so must do my best to master musical expression."
"My ear can detect no flaw in your composition or execution. Your instrument-a mazurkin, you call it? -- is not traditionally Sirenese, but that matters less these days than it used to. The important thing is to convey your meaning tonally, and your mazurkin is wonderfully flexible in the effects it can produce. While I burden myself with no less than eight instruments!"
The Jaseroque laughed. "Don't give them up yet. The mazurkin is capable of a great variety of emotive tones, but like many general-purpose tools it is not as good for a specific task as a specialized instrument would be."
"There is something in what you say."
Both of them sip at their drinks, the glass straws conveying the liquid behind their masks.
"I wonder," says the Jaseroque after a few minutes, "why the Night-Men are able to continue their atrocities. One would think that Sirenese selfishness would be selected out over the years, in favor of a people who are willing to organize for their mutual benefit."
"If it were not for the placid Titanic Ocean, that would probably have happened already. But since the sea provides a convenient sanctuary against the savages, there is no evolutionary pressure to form armies." The Rain cocks his head at his guest. "You are fond of speculation, even for a scholar."
"The matter is of more than theoretical interest. Fane Rampad is protected by Night-Men; it therefore behooves us to know as much as we can about their tactics and strengths."
"This is true, and it has not escaped my attention. From my observations the Night-Men are no great tacticians themselves. They don't need to be; any Sirenese they catch on shore is probably alone. Rampad may have trained his coterie to higher standards, of course."
"Then our limited numbers pose a problem, do they not?"
The Welcome Rain sighs. "They may, but where could we get more? Selfish Sirenese! Ah, well, perhaps our companions in the houseboat have some tricks up their sleeves. They have already managed to rid themselves of a notoriously inefficient captain..."
"I thought a crazed android killed him."
The Welcome Rain steeples his hands. "And from whom did we get this information?"
"Ah. The crewmen on the houseboat. I see." The Jaseroque ponders this.
"Does it not give you pause, to be accompanied by mutineers? They may rebel against one man as readily as another."
"I suppose they might. I do not expect perfect cooperation, however, and I do not intend to give them orders. And who knows? Maybe the android story is true. Stranger things have happened in Fan.
"But enough of this, if you will. I would know more of your home planet - it's in Mircea's Wisp, isn't it? Starfarers often regale one another with tales of their homelands; let tonight be no exception! A story for a story."
The Jaseroque nods, takes a measured sip of brandy, and begins.
From: The Jaseroque
Subj: "Indeed, Mircea's Wisp...
The Jaseroque pauses a moment, then reaches beneath the his robe, pulls out a small pouch, and holds it up to the starshine. With a slight shrug of his shoulders, he begins extracting from the pouch single gold coins in succession and consigning them in lazy arcs to the Titanic’s sandy bottom. The Welcome Rain emits a brief discordant scratch of incredulity on his hymerkin; it is quickly silenced as the significance of the gesture registers.
"An expected offworlder reaction to such casual disregard for precious metal. It is as you surmise, I fear," sighs The Jaseroque. "I expect never to leave the surface of Sirene, thus I have little use for metallic baubles; they are mere deadweight here."
After a suitably respectful silence at this revelation, the Rhune asks, "Who, exactly, do you hope to escape here on Sirene?"
"Your perspicacity is admirable; indeed I wear this mask, here on this world, for motivations other than curiousity. You no doubt have heard of, and in fact (I suspect) have had more than passing contact with The Institute." The Jaseroque pauses to gauge the reaction; none is forthcoming. He continues. "I am.... Ah, old habits die hard. I was an employee of The Institute. From my boyhood on Old Earth I had admired their scholarly endeavors, primarily in the fields of paranthropology and exopsychology. My life’s goal, formulated in the pleasant fog of naivete, was to become a Fellow of The Institute, to travel to distant worlds in pursuit of...bah, why deny it, Truth." The last syllable, accompanied by a clashing dissonance of the cymbella, slowly fades into the background calls of the karasko at their nocturnal divertissements.
"I know not which disgusts me more," continues The Jaseroque, "the sheer ignorance and futility of my youthful ideals or the ‘truth’ I have discovered about The Institute, namely that its aims and goals are determined more by idiosyncracies of personality and power-grabbing ploys of petty prosimian pithecanthropoids..." His voice rising in stridulence with each alliterative syllable, The Jaseroque stops short with an eructation of disgust.
Recovering his calm somewhat, he concludes, "I suppose the degeneration of my diction and the maudlin character of my little outburst are revealing, no? Suffice it to say that my expression of such views, though in much less definite and demonstrative terms, was not welcomed by my superiors. After my second near-accident in the Alastor sector, under what I interpreted as suspicious circumstances, I determined that my career with the Institute would be terminated in one of two ways: a mysterious disappearance on my part and on my terms, or a more permanent and unequivocal disappearance at the hands of Institute special agents. Only a very short future awaits me off-world; I hope for a longer one in my current guise."
Relishing the ensuing silence and seemingly reluctant to force its end,
The Jaseroque inquires, "Is my story worth the barter for yours?"
From: Kwangpard's Dolorous Folly
Subj: Moody by moonlight...
The Kwangpard wearer looked out of the observation desk at dusk. A vast range of mountainous clouds obscured the dazzling recession of Mireille, and the sky was rich with a turquoise intensity. Dots on the horizon suggested other ships - taking advantage of the quiet weather along this route, or perhaps belatedly joining the expedition. The Welcome Rain and the Outworlder Jaseroque had not tried to slay each other yet - a fair auspicion. Perhaps Outworlders had different sorts of social grease to smooth the sharp locking edges of contesting strakh. More likely, the Jaseroque was indeed worthy of spirit to join the task at hand; The Welcome Rain was known to respect Competence as among the highest Sirenese virtues.
The Kwangpard wearer would come to know the Jaseroque better as the expedition advanced. He turned to leave the observation deck, operating a ceiling crank which lowered weighted curtains over the view, and walked down a narrow hall, musing upon the teeming billions of humans inhabiting the Outworld. What an unseemly idea, to advance among barbarous people, to push aside hordes of climmy-faced lip-slabbering moist-eyed chittering Kirascene... Surely the way-force of one's strakhful mask would cow them back into tremulous waves, receding meekly from thunderous steps!
The very notion of leaving Sirene was ridiculous - yet it was a titillating fancy indeed, and one not so impossibly achieved. One had but to convince one's star friends to arrange passage... Hordes of naked female faces, shamelessly displayed... Would not the erotic touch of fingers to another's breath lose savor, washed away with boundaries broken by such a change?
But what deeds of strakh lay to be accomplished in such places? The very feasibility of arranging the trip dimmed the dream... And then what to achieve, among flocks of naked durpa droning in flat voices? What prestige for one's mask lay in a realm of the maskless?
One could laugh to shake the stars down! So compelling was the promise of the heavens, oded by poets and lusted for by the brave for centuries... The all-pervasive stars were indeed a mask of mystery, but bitter, pretentious, false was the face behind! No strakh to be discerned in that roil of light and flesh, and the whole greased throughout with this oleaginous Oikumene...
But surely in that ouroboric mass were some few of daring, pluck and personal force; how did they exercise and build their prestige, what opportunities lay open for them? He grew troubled for a time thinking on this, then arrived with pleasure at the answer. Those with strakh or potential for such would perforce come to Sirene. Was it not so with his star friend, The Welcome Rain, who now properly worked on attaching his deeds to his mask, rather than to a book read by no one else? This was surely also the Jaseroque's motive... to escape from foul soul-consuming barbarism. The Welcome Rain had mentioned that his own people had a habit, when a rare darkness came to their world, of behaving much as did the Night-men... Did the Rain ever feel a twinge in his soul when assaying the snow-speckled night sky? The Kwangpard wearer frowned behind his mask...
And this thought returned him to Fane Rampad. The horrid depredations along the Titanic Littoral - collaboration with the Night-men - rapes, murders, burnt ships - these bothersome theological divergements tended to irritate the Kwangpard wearer. He had overemphasized these factors in the public display at Fan, that The Welcome Rain could make the counterpoint that the expedition should have no such motive. And yet -
The wearer of Kwangpard's mask grew still, searching distant memories, tasting the bitter bite of wrongs unavenged. Certain actions, even social solecisms, carried the seeds of their self correction; and death was an excellent means of assuaging one's desire for revenge. Even so, there came a point where offenses mounted like putrefaction stains on a corpse-sheet and could not be put aside to fate, nor left to hypothetical afterlives for resolution.
There were reasons for hunting down Fane Rampad that he had not even shared with The Welcome Rain.
In his shipboard wanderings he had reached a deep russet door, the wood lacquered and polished to a shimmering translucence. The door was barred with an intricate brazen press-lock in the form of an Effulgent Dazzle-Ray mask, of which not even Racsa knew the combination. A similar door at the opposite side of the ship barred a room whose contents only the ship's previous owner knew; the Kwangpard wearer had left that lock untested, relishing the mystery. The present lock he had meticulously unpuzzled, converting the small room beyond into a private workroom. He quickly worked the lock, envisioning three quick arpeggios upon a kiv, and entered, activating a light. The door clicked shut, and he set down to his craft.
For Fane Rampad, not a hundred, not a thousand deaths would suffice...
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