by Mary Lou Mendum
(Not to be confused with Eric Satie's composition of the same name, which is available from the Classical Music Archives.)
Tallin, titular First Companion in Dar, picked his way on foot through the hills surrounding the Sime town of Sommerin. He was sweating freely in the late summer sun, as Gens do, but he hardly noticed. He was intent only on finding a place where he could be completely alone, free with his thoughts.
Being alone was not normally something a Companion sought, as being with one's channel was so much more satisfying, and there was always more work to be done. However, Tallin was no longer a working Companion, because his channel was dead.
He had yet to come to terms with the concept. It had been a full six months, and it still simply didn't seem possible that Nilba would never come to him again, her sparkling eyes laughing with pleasure in him, in them, and in life itself. How could someone be so vitally alive one moment, and be gone the next?
It hadn't even been intentional. Nilba and Tallin had been paying a visit to Householding Sorn when Pen shortages had triggered one of the periodic pogroms which were a sad fact of Householding life. From the confused accounts that Tallin had managed to piece together after the attack, the stone which had smashed Nilba's skull as she hurried the children to safety had been aimed at one of the Sorn defenders, and had simply missed its target.
Tallin had not had time for grief at first. When he had seen Nilba properly buried, he had returned to Dar to help his son and hers assume the office of Sectuib. Califf was only a few years past changeover, which was very young for the position, but he had already demonstrated an aptitude for Householding administration. Still, he had required a great deal of advice and support at first.
In the hours he could not fill with Dar business, Tallin had devoted his efforts to tracking down his wife's murderers. Not the desperate woman who had thrown the stone; she had outlived her victim by only minutes. Tallin wanted revenge against those whose mismanagement of the Pen distribution system had caused the Gen shortage in the first place.
The investigation had been more complicated than he had expected.1 However, in the end, he'd had the satisfaction of knowing those responsible for the Territory-wide Gen shortages had been arrested and convicted of Gen theft and treason. They were all dead or dying, and the increased stability of the Pen system meant that fewer Householdings would be subject to the sort of attacks which had taken Nilba from him.
Now that these self-appointed tasks were completed, however, Tallin had discovered himself at loose ends. Califf was developing his own style of leadership, as any Sectuib must, and he required less and less advice from his father. Although Tallin retained the title of First Companion, many of his former duties had of necessity been assumed by Califf's own Companion.
Tallin didn't begrudge the closeness between Jeffa and his son, nor would he dream of interfering with it. His fifteen years as Nilba's Companion and husband had taught him how important close cooperation was for both roles. He wasn't even sure he was ready to share that closeness with another channel.
However, it was a source of increasing frustration to him that his work as a Companion was limited to helping those channels in the House whose regular Companions were unavailable due to illness, pregnancy, or simple fatigue. Everyone had been very kind, but he couldn't help knowing that Dar would get along without him very easily.
Today, the strain of coping with his losses had become too much to bear. Rather than subject Dar's Simes to his moodiness, he had simply left the Householding grounds to seek a place where he could be free to grieve in peace. No one had noticed his departure, which he found both a relief and a fresh proof of his expendability.
The hills above Sommerin were too steep to be attractive as farmland, so they were covered with trees and occasional meadows. Once he had gotten over the ridge from the road, he had left all trace of humanity behind. When he paused to listen, all he could hear was the birds and squirrels going about their business, and the murmur of running water.
Thirsty, he followed the sound, and found a spring bubbling from the side of a hill, on the edge of a grassy clearing. The water filled a pool lined with smoothly rounded stones, which then overflowed to feed a small stream.
Tallin drank his fill of the cold, clear water, then stood for a moment and took in the peace that seemed to permeate the little clearing. It was the sort of place that Nilba would have loved.
A raw wave of grief washed over Tallin, and he let the tears roll down his cheeks as he surrendered to his loss and pain at last. In the privacy of the deserted hills, where there was no one to hear or zlin, there was no reason to control his feelings.
When he had no more tears to shed, he washed his face in the pool and sat down on a moss-covered boulder to rest. A mockingbird settled in a nearby tree and began to sing, pouring its heart into the fluid chirps.
Tallin had never been able to resist a musical challenge. Removing his silver flute from its box at his belt, he put it to his lips and began to imitate the bird's calls, smiling in spite of himself as it puffed its feathers at the presumed rival.
He remembered a day he had played the same trick on another bird. Nilba had laughed and called him a scoundrel, to tease the poor animal so mercilessly. He had declared himself penitent, and switched to playing courting songs of another kind.
Lost in memories, Tallin let his flute sing, almost convincing himself that he could hear Nilba's silvery laughter.
tres luisant (very brightly)
"Whoee! This is my lucky day!"
Tallin's ruminations were rudely interrupted by the voice, its course, lower-class accents a jarring contrast to his memories of Nilba's more cultivated tones. He mentally berated himself for his lack of proper caution. Once off the grounds of Householding Dar, and without a Sime escort, he was legally just a stray Gen. Any Sime who could catch and hold him could claim him as her property. At best, Dar would have to pay a ransom to redeem him: a sum the House could ill afford.
Of course, there was always the possibility of a direct defense. Tallin was no longer young, but he had years of practice in the unarmed combat that was Dar's trademark, as well as a Companion's skill at nageric manipulation. Without haste, he lowered his flute and looked up at the intruder.
She was already halfway across the clearing: a gaunt, dirty, ragged woman, face prematurely wrinkled by poverty and the stress of her junct lifestyle. Across her back was slung a carefully patched instrument case of the right size and shape to carry a shiltpron.
The sight of Zilmor the musician brought back the memory of their previous encounter. Tallin had been fleeing the Forst Genfarm with the precious evidence of Forst involvement with the Gen-stealing scam. Zilmor and two accomplices had been delivering a shipment of stolen Gens to the Forsts, and had decided to add him to their inventory. To lull his captors into letting down their guard, Tallin had coaxed Zilmor into playing duets with him. What followed had been one of the most challenging, intensive, and captivating musical evenings of his life. The two had experimented with sound and nager, pushing their limits just for the fun of seeing how far they could go. Tallin had never experienced anything like it.
Zilmor's interest had a rapt intensity, even beyond that of a poor junct capturing a Prime Kill. She slowed as she drew near, sheathing her tentacles in a fashion most likely intended to reassure a possibly nervous Gen. Was she, too, remembering the magic they had made together, and yearning to see if they could manage to create it again?
"Well, Pet, you seem to make a habit of gettin' lost, but there's no loss without gain, as they say. And here I was sure I'd hafta hunt hard to find inspiration!" She grinned broadly and reached out to pat his arm possessively.
Tallin scanned the woods behind his would-be owner, but there was no sound to indicate that Zilmor's lover Mak and his brother Eitan had accompanied her on her journey. He allowed himself to feel guarded relief: a Companion should be able to handle one junct, by force, if necessary.
However, Tallin was reluctant to use force on Zilmor. She might be an unrepentant killer, but she'd never had a choice about that. More important, in the Companion's opinion, was the idealism that prompted her to dream of a better life, and the skill with which she coaxed music out of her battered old shiltpron.
"You and me's gonna be a sensation, playin' together on the stage," she continued. "Gotta think of a decent stage name for you, though. Somethin' dramatic. Wonder what your owner called you?"
It was obvious that Zilmor didn't expect an answer. Juncts forbade their Gens to speak Simelan, as it made them seem too human. Still, there was nobody else around to speak for Tallin, and unhappy as he was with his current situation, he didn't fancy trading it for the life of a performing animal in a lower class shiltpron parlor.
No trained martial artist is reluctant to accept a calculated risk. Tallin drew himself up and gave Zilmor a formal bow which would have done credit to any aristocrat.
"I am Tallin, First Companion in Dar," he told her, in his most well-bred accent.
Zilmor gaped, then took a hasty step away from Tallin. It was a reaction the Companion had seen before: juncts might not accept Dar's Gens as people, but most did respect their combat abilities. More to the point, Tallin hoped, Zilmor likely had a greatly exaggerated idea about what the ambrov Dar would (or could) do to a junct who attempted to assert a claim to their property.
"I must admit, I'm a bit surprised to see you," Tallin continued, hoping to keep his would-be new owner off balance. "Weren't you and your two associates Mak and Eitan taken into custody over the Forst Genfarm affair?"
Tallin's concern was genuine. His own testimony was worthless, as Gens could not testify in court. However, the role of Zilmor and her friends in the Gen theft scheme had also been witnessed by the junct private investigator with whom the Companion had been traveling. Despite her unconventional choice of profession, no Nivet Territory judge would fail to credit any testimony offered by Eskalie Morlin, whose parents owned the Territory's wealthiest bank--and a working majority of its politicians, as well.
To Tallin's surprise, Zilmor answered his question. "We turned state's evvy-dence, and they let us off," she explained. "They had bigger-nagered Gens to hunt than us."
Her voice trailed off in confusion as she zlinned Tallin's amusement at her choice of phrase, for as a Companion, his nager was certainly larger than that of any Gen which the prosecutors were likely to find in their local Pen.
"How 'bout you, then?" she counterattacked. "What's a fancy Gen like you doin' running around loose? Dar don't usually leave its stock to wander."
Tallin smiled wryly, but surprised himself by answering honestly. "I'm afraid I didn't ask permission. My wife died six months ago today. Everyone has been most kind, but I required some time to myself, to remember her."
The hard lines on Zilmor's face softened, and she reached out to pat his arm again. "That's hard, Pet," she said sympathetically. "Was that why you were playin' courting songs?"
"Funny. One doesn't think of Gens goin' courting." She paused to zlin him speculatively. "Still, I s'pose if any Gen could win hearts, you got the looks and nager for it."
"Thank you," Tallin replied, somewhat wryly, hoping that the musician would drop the subject. Many juncts felt that inter-larity marriages were almost as perverted as accepting channel's transfer to prevent a kill...and anything that cast doubt on the moral rectitude of Dar's leadership could be used to justify ignoring Dar's legal ownership of him.
Zilmor's curiosity had not been satisfied, however. "Is that why you stayed with the perverts?" she asked. "It's plain their gates can't hold you, if you got a notion to run for the Border."
"That's true enough," the Companion admitted. "But once I married, leaving my wife and son was never an option."
The musician hooted with amusement. "Just like them ballads," she crowed. "The ones where the young man chases a girl so hard that he's the one as ends up good an' caught. Course, the songs end before he discovers all the duties that goes with the pleasures."
Her good humor was genuine, and Tallin couldn't help but respond. "Actually, I don't think my courtship would make a good ballad. It was far too ordinary, and I'd long since decided to stay on at Dar. As to how that last happened--that wouldn't make a ballad, either. A farce, perhaps."
"Well, obviously," Zilmor said, stroking his smooth, Gen arm with one handling tentacle. "But sometimes, with the right audience, funny stories play well. How 'bout it, Pet. Tell me?"
There was a hopeful undertone to the question, and somehow, Tallin couldn't find it in his heart to deny the request. "Actually, in many ways, Nilba was at the heart of my youthful decision to commit myself to Dar," he said thoughtfully. "Although neither one of us was thinking of marriage at that point."
Tallin was keeping his nager under careful control, guarding against the pain of loss that any thought of Nilba had brought, ever since her death. To his surprise, though, today he found it refreshing to share the memory of his wife with someone who had never known her. Most of the ambrov Dar were too courteous to mention her name in his presence unless it was absolutely necessary, to spare both him and the surrounding Simes from outbursts of grief. Califf was one of the few exceptions to that rule, but the boy was still coming to terms with his own grief. Besides, losing a wife and channel was different from losing a mother.
"Yes, the story would make a fine farce," Tallin continued. "To begin with, I had sworn to myself that I would always live free. A noble sentiment, to be sure, but I had gotten the idea through my head that the only place I could do so was in Gen Territory. I believed this even though I knew nothing about how the Wild Gens live. And even after I'd learned a bit, I was too hard-headed to admit what it meant, even to myself."
Zilmor's eyes sparkled with delight. "Tell me more, Pet," she commanded.
Tallin bowed courteously, and began.
du bount de la pensee (on the edge of an idea)
The whole world seemed to be weeping.
Tallin sat in Householding Dar's library, staring out at the cold fall rain that was soaking the bare dirt of the exercise yard. The ambrov Dar had moved the combat classes into their indoor arena that morning, although they were as enthusiastic as ever in their pursuit of mayhem.
Tallin could not share their indifference to the gloomy weather. Quite the contrary: the world seemed as bleak as his future had become.
A week ago, he had dreamed of traveling across the Territory until he found just the right city in which to set up as a locksmith, as his mother had been. He had been sure that he could be as successful as she, with a few years of hard work. After all, he had been her apprentice, and what Japora the Locksmith hadn't known about her profession wasn't worth knowing.
Of course, his career plans had assumed that he would change over--and he hadn't.
Tallin supposed he should consider himself lucky that he had chosen to raid Dar's fields for food that night. Gloron and Kintha, the two burglars with whom he had lived since his mother's death, would have sold him for a hefty profit at the Sommerin Gen Market, or killed him themselves. Due to the perverts' peculiar philosophy, they had offered him hospitality instead, and had even politely pretended that he had a choice about accepting it.
The refuge Dar offered came at a price, of course. Even perverts couldn't afford the food and taxes on a Gen out of pure charity. He had been courteously informed that he was expected to attend the exercise and drill sessions each morning, and to spend his afternoons in useful work. He would be required to learn how to make his nager undisturbing to Simes, and when his field peaked, and every month thereafter, his selyn would be harvested by one of Dar's seven channels and used for their perversions.
It wasn't a bad life for a Gen, he supposed, and was far preferable to being sold for a kill. The other choice, living like a wild animal with the free Gens across the Border, had its own drawbacks. Still, it was a sad comedown from the independent and respectable future he had planned. At least here there were books, a luxury he hadn't enjoyed in the burglars' filthy rooms.
In an effort to cheer himself, he got to his feet and started reading through the titles, hoping to locate some of his childhood favorites. He was puzzling over a shelf of texts in a strange, squared alphabet when he was interrupted.
"I thought I might find you here."
Nilba, Second Channel in Dar, looked much the way she had when she had caught Tallin raiding the Householding's fields the week before. That is to say, she looked as confident in her humanity as any adult with tentacles, and as convinced of her authority over the children and Gens of her House.
Tallin knew that her father, Dar's Sectuib, did in fact hold legal title to all of the Gens on the property, including Tallinn himself. Nilba would inherit his authority--and his property--when he died or was unable to carry out his duties. Tallin didn't begrudge her the security of her future, but he couldn't help contrasting it with his own meager prospects.
"I was just looking over the books," he said, hating his own diffidence. "What language are these written in? I've never seen letters like this."
"Those are written in Genlan, or English, as the out-Territory Gens call it. They're mostly textbooks on various subjects, but there are a few novels among them."
Tallin discovered that his jaw was hanging open, and closed it with a snap. "The Wild Gens print textbooks? And novels?"
Nilba laughed. "Of course they do. Just as they build houses, and have families, and do all the other sorts of things that people do." She ran her hand along the shelf of Gen books, then pulled out a slender volume. "This is one of my favorites. The author's descriptions are so clear, you'd think you were living in a Gen town."
Tallin stared at the Gen book, and an idea slowly began to form, almost frightening in the hope that it offered.
postulez en vous-meme (make your own demands)
"Could I learn to read Genlan?" Tallin asked, trying to keep his voice and nager steady. It would never do to betray his plan prematurely.
"Of course," Nilba said. "Almost everyone here at Dar speaks at least some Genlan."
Tallin had not expected such easy agreement. After all, what sane Sime would allow a Gen to learn anything which might aid her future property in escaping? For that was Tallin's plan: if the Wild Gens had books, and families, then surely they also had thieves, and thus a use for a locksmith?
It wasn't quite the same as being the best locksmith in Sommerin, but no Gen could aspire to that height. At least he would be free, not the property of a Sime.
Nilba misinterpreted the reason for Tallin's surprise. "It's very useful to be able to speak the Gen language fluently when it becomes necessary to travel across the Border."
Tallin hadn't thought about it that way, but of course Dar guards were hired to protect goods and people traveling to other Territories. Normal Simes would have used the opportunity to grab a free kill, but the perverts had no use for that.
"Dar guards actually talk to the Wild Gens?" he asked. "And the Gens don't notice that they have tentacles?"
The channel laughed. "Well, it helps if the ones actually doing the talking are Gen themselves. The Simes usually try to stay back and look inconspicuous. When it's actually necessary to do business in Gen Territory, our Gens handle it."
Tallin had to admit that being able to fool the Wild Gens into thinking the Dar party belonged on the Gen side of the border would be useful.
"I always wanted to travel," he admitted. "I've never been out of Sommerin."
Nilba smiled. "You will have the opportunity."
Tallin had always been good at taking advantage of opportunities. He smiled back, his depression lifting as his choices multiplied.
pas a pas (little by little)
"After due consideration, I decided to postpone my escape until spring," Tallin explained. "I've never liked slogging through mud and snow, and after the way I'd been living, the thought of wintering over in civilized surroundings was too tempting to pass up."
Zilmor hooted with laughter. "You just wanted a full belly every day, I'll bet."
The Companion smiled wryly. "That, too. Gloron and Kintha didn't believe in pampering me, and it had been a long time since I'd been able to eat my fill regularly. However, I did put the time to good use, mastering the skills I thought might be useful when I went to live among the Wild Gens."
Genlan had proved a bit more complicated than he had thought a language used exclusively by Gens should be, but by midwinter he was puzzling his way through Nilba's favorite novel, with the aid of a dictionary. He compared the picture of Gen culture he gained from it with the stories told by Householders who had grown up on that side of the Border, and concluded that Nilba had been right about the Wild Gens having as a complex a society as Nivet Territory boasted. It had been reassuring to know that he would be joining a real civilization, but some of its rules were complicated, and others made no sense at all that he could see.
There were other lessons, too. Every morning, he had spent two hours working with the armsmaster's assistant, building up his strength and stamina as he mastered the basic kicks, punches, throws and teamwork that comprised Dar's highly efficient style of hand-to-hand combat. Tallin considered his aching muscles small price to pay for the knowledge.
"And from Nilba and her father, I learned nageric discipline: how to keep Simes around me comfortable without tempting them, and how to ease the strains, sprains, and other small injuries and discomforts that happen from time to time. Of course, I was just as inclined to take advantage as any other youngster."
The Companion chuckled, and at Zilmor's prompting, recounted the story of the day on which he had learned the technique of making Simes itch from across the room, and the confusion which had resulted until Sectuib had caught him practicing.
"He explained that my nager was just as much a weapon as my fists and feet, and that careless misuse of what I had been taught for recreational purposes was a violation of my oath to Dar, and would not be tolerated." Tallin hadn't felt so ashamed of himself since the day he had brought his dog into his mother's workshop for a game of chase, and inadvertently ruined two week's work.
"Of course, that raised other possibilities that I hadn't considered," the Companion continued. "That was when I began experimenting with my flute, learning to reinforce the audible notes with nageric accompaniment. I also began applying what I had learned to the practice field, and it didn't take me long to discover just how easy it was to lure a Sime close enough to use the other techniques I'd learned. By the time the snow had melted, I was pretty sure that I could handle whatever Simes or Gens I might meet on my journey."
Tallin was so caught up in his memories that he missed Zilmor's growing alarm, until she blurted out, "You! You killed Yosum Forst, didn't you?"
sur la langue (on the tip of the tongue)
Tallin stared at Zilmor, cursing the bad judgment which had led him to confide the extent of his abilities to a junct.
"You tempted Yosum Forst with you field, and then you killed him," she repeated, backing away from him. "An' earlier, you used your tricks on me an' Mak an' Eitan. We mighta ended up with our laterals crushed as well!"
"No, I would never have done that to you," Tallin said, getting to his feet and stretching one hand out in a pleading gesture. "Not after the way we played together. That was..."
He wanted to make Zilmor understand how much he valued her, and what they had shared. It had touched something deep inside him that even Nilba had never reached, for although his wife had loved to listen to his music, she had never been more than an indifferent musician. Without conscious effort, Tallin's field reached out to reassure Zilmor.
It was the wrong thing to do. The musician promptly panicked, and she was just far enough away that he couldn't control her.
"Killer Gen!" she shrieked. She whirled with augmented speed and bolted, crashing noisily through the underbrush.
Tallin looked after her, a cold knot of fear settling in his stomach. For if Zilmor told the authorities how Yosum Forst had died, the Nivet Territory government would confiscate and execute him as a public danger. Worse yet, if she told them that all Dar's Gens were capable of doing much the same to Sime opponents, Dar itself would be destroyed.
The Companion listened as the noise of Zilmor's passage faded with distance, then he buried his face in his hands. Only the mockingbird heard his muffled cry.
"Nilba, what have I done?"
THIS WEEK'S INSTALLMENT CONCLUDES THE FIRST of the Three Gnossiennes. I will start posting Gnosienne #2 next week. In the mean time, why don't you post a comment on the message board to let me know what is working and not working in this story. Speculations on what will happen next are also entertaining, and who knows, they might spark further efforts in the future!
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[Return to the Secret Pens]
1) For details of this investigation, see "The Problem of the Pilfered Pen". [return]