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Tin Soldiers

Chapter Text

I

 

Joseph Adekunle took a bite and chewed. For someone who'd eaten nothing but regurgitated plant paste most of his life, the feeling of chewing anything this tough was unpleasant. But he knew the other councilors seated along the wooden table would use his reactions as a cue to their own, so he kept his features still while he tried to sort through the sensations.

Food putting up a fight was weird. His tongue didn't know what to do with itself. At least the taste was almost normal, as if he was eating a well-salted ration of owoc childfood while standing in thick smoke billowing from an oruc wood fire. He could do this. He absolutely could. He made himself swallow, but harder than he should have, he realized too late.

Of course his might-as-well-be father Julius Cohen, decades older but still unable to discretely ignore anything he found funny, burst out laughing before managing to gasp, "Oh, hell, your face! That dignity, the stoic martyrdom! I wish I had a camera!"

To Joseph, cameras were only one more fading entry on the long list of technology lost to their small population of humans when the starship Magellan had crashed on Ishtar. Wishing for what they lacked was useless, as useless as sulking about Julius's ideas of amusing. Joseph hoped he sounded imperturbable when he asked, "How well does it digest? Should I be expecting difficulties?"

"Drink a lot of water. You kids -- er, younger adults -- are all active enough that peristalsis will take care of the rest. I didn't have any other problems, and I've lived on nothing but this stuff for the past two eightdays." Julius shrugged. "What's more important is that smoked pukewurst should keep for a couple of months if you make sure it's tightly wrapped and dry. About time we ummuns be able to travel without dragging along some poor owoc to nurse us through every step of the way."

With the brutal honesty about himself that made his brashness tolerable, Julius smacked his forehead and said, "Stupid. Me, stupid. I should have known right off the bat that retarding rehydration was key to childfood preservation on this ever-overcast, steaming Seattle of a planet. When I took the advice of that refugee trader and tried brine soaking before firing up the--"

Indira Toledo, effectively mother to all the now-adult survivors of the Magdallen, broke in on what would have been a detailed explanation by her husband with the smoothness of long practice. "What truly matters is that you found your error and fixed it. Now, I'm afraid, we have to move on to our next problem." She glanced over at the map in the center of the room and frowned.

The governing council of the humans was meeting inside the center-pole hut that Julius, in one of his mysterious jokes, had insisted they name the Pentagon. None of its increasingly newer and larger versions had ever been built with five sides. But all the versions had sheltered the same huge, mud-sculpted model of the Chiton, the mountain where their lifeboats had crash-landed and the humans made a home. A beleaguered home, which is why Joseph, as Captain of the human defense force, had to attend meetings of the five person council even though serving officers weren't given a vote.

Not that his missing vote mattered in the end. The military leader of a people forced to fight, he was effectively warlord of the human tribe, gaining whatever mild deference and massive difficulties his position brought along with it. Only Indira, with her historian's knowledge of how problems like theirs had been solved on the home planet Joseph barely remembered, had anything like his influence with the others these days.

Sometimes believing someone else could possibly fix a few of their difficulties was all that let Joseph sleep at night. But if Indira's learning was that important to him, then maybe he should pay attention. She was about to speak. No, first she was unwrapping a reed cloth bundle that contained…a rock. A shiny black rock half the size of Joseph's clenched fist.

Given the way Julius goggled, it must be a very important rock. "That's one big chunk of cassiterite," he said.

Indira nodded, and then sighed, her sharp features shifting toward ruefulness. "Evidence of my own mistake. My abuelito would be disappointed in me."

Answering the inquiring look of Maria De Los Reyes, Joseph's peer and their oldest surviving doctor, Indira told her, "Grandfather worked as a miner, but what he mined also became his hobby. The mineral cassiterite is the easiest to find and simplest to smelt source of tin. And copper combined with tin becomes bronze. "

Heads nodded automatically all around the table, just as if Indira had announced the summed squares of the sides equaled the square of the hypotenuse. She'd made certain they'd heard about bronze at least as often as about right triangles while they were being schooled. On bronze-age Ishtar, the alloy was crucial. Bronze meant tools. Bronze meant weapons.

Indira turned to Julius. "Love, when you told me, years back, that you'd found no copper and only traces of tin on the Chiton, I wasn't paying enough attention. And I should have been since this is the one bit of geology I know more about than you. A lack of copper isn't odd. But any tin is something to notice. Tin is really rather rare, and that's a geochemical trait, not an Earth-specific one."

From the sudden look of chagrin on Julius's mobile features, he understood her. "Sure. I should've remembered that."

"Perhaps, but you're an exobiologist. I'm the offspring of generations of Bolivian tin miners." She shook her head. "I've spent too much of my time on Ishtar being the offspring of generations of Bengali farmers. In any case, we should have been searching for more tin all along. Now we've been preempted."

"So we didn't find this rock…this mineral," Maria corrected herself. "Who did, the Pilgrims of the Way or the Guoktu tribes?" Neither alternative meant disaster. Their growing human colony shared the Chiton's valleys -- and its newly-formed political confederacy -- amiably with both groups of gukuy, the more technologically inclined of Ishtar's two native species of cephalopod-like sentients.

Indira snorted. "Nothing so simple. Our mysterious trader from the exotic southwest has made her presence known again."

"Who, Kuakua?" Julius frowned. "I thought she might be up to something, something other than swapping speculations about barf preservation for ruminations about fixing pigments, I mean. But scheming seems normal for her. I think she's stuck that way. Reminds me of some characters I knew who sold discount holotanks over in the New Jersey Floats.

"Anyhow, I still got Rottu to don her second hat as her Squidness the Spy and double-check our latest visitor. Kuakua and her particular group of refugees really were scooped up off the plains by those patrols the Guoktu sent out, right before the Utuku could catch up with them." And eat them, Julius didn't have to add. At least the numerous, authoritarian, and cannibalistic Utuku tribe was as clear-cut a group of enemies as any war leader could want. "Rottu talked to some tagalongs of their refugee party and confirmed they barely made it out of -- Where was it? Wulani, I think -- alive before the Utuku sacked it."

Indira nodded. "I also talked to Rottu but only after Kuakua talked to me. Kuakua wants to make a deal."

"She wants to sell us the knowledge of where she got this tin," Joseph said, tasting certainty as he spoke.

"That, and more. It seems she and her kin have taken our measure, and their results hint at a great deal of profit to be made. So they've decided to establish a branch of their extended trading clan, the Ofanu, on the Chiton. However, this particular group of Ofanu also wants to become citizens of our new nashiyonu."

"Is that a problem?" Joseph asked her. Then he felt himself scowl. "These Ofanu aren't slavers, are they?"

There was a brief flash of approval in Indira's eyes before she continued, "No. If Kuakua isn't lying, trading in gukuy or owoc is against traditional Ofanu beliefs. Taboo. Somehow unclean and courting ill luck. All in all, I think they're more of an opportunity than a problem, but a complicated one. As far as the opportunity goes, Rottu informed me assorted Ofanu deal in metals all up and down the Shell Roads."

"Which is how Kuakua could recognize this cassiterite," Maria said, sounding pleased to have the small detail neatly sewn up.

"Of more interest to us, they also craft bronze. And occasionally set up stone quarries and other sorts of diggings. As well as sponsor placer mining for metals."

"Aha!" Julius said, and then shifted the forefinger he'd jabbed into the air to point at Indira. "They want a slice of our action on the Chiton."

"Perhaps. Kuakua wouldn't go into too many details. It seems negotiations to establish a new…call it daughter house…must involve all the members of their clan in the immediate area, even any mothers and males. However most of the other survivors of Kuakua's clan are still in Fagoshau including at least one mother."

Fagoshau was the settlement that the refugee Pilgrims of the Way were building in the large valley farthest to the east along the Chiton's immense southern summit. It was six or seven days of gukuy travel away, a three day journey even for the much faster humans. Slowly, Joseph nodded. Negotiations with these Ofanu would necessitate someone going to them since the huge and awkward gukuy mothers found travel across the Chiton's rough terrain very difficult.

"They expect a major show of interest from us," Indira warned the council. "Kuakua was clear they would only seal the commercial part of this bargain with our nashiyonu if they had the agreement of the senior members of the ummun clan. Although they'll accept our own war leader," she nodded to Joseph, "or elder mother as able to represent ummun opinion. Better both, but one will do given the current crisis."

"Nice to hear being chased halfway across the Papti plain by cannibals hasn't lowered the Ofanu's opinions of themselves," Julius said. "They want consensus from our council on this deal, sure. So far, so clear. But, given your expression, you're about to drop the other shoe."

A smile flickered across Indira's features and was gone almost before it appeared. "As well, Kuakua insists that someone they know and trust be put in charge of guarding her trip back to Fagoshau and advising them, once there, about security for the subsequent prospecting expedition."

"They already have a candidate in mind." Joseph's words weren't a question. He got the feeling Indira was barely preventing herself from sighing before she spoke the predictable name. He knew that urge himself. "Let me guess. Kuakua specifically mentioned Shutuppen Nukurren."

"Former troop leader, former mercenary, heroine of song and story, and current Sharredzhenutumadzhoru in charge of training the unified Chiton army," Indira agreed with a wry smile. "Some past acquaintanceship seems to exist between them."

"So, when will I meet someone on this planet that Nukurren hasn't met first?" Julius inquired of the lashed-together crossbeams above them.

Jens Knudsen, Sergeant Major and Nukurren's counterpart in the human defense force, laughed. When Joseph glanced over at him and hoisted eyebrows in inquiry, Jens raised a huge and placating hand. "Sure she knows lots of people. What would you expect? When you're stuck piecing together whatever scraps of work someone feels like giving you, you cover more ground." He thoughtfully rubbed the back of his neck. "Any of us who's ever filled the 'other, miscellaneous' slot on the chores roster knows that. So you can hardly blame Nukurren for having lots of acquaintances." Jens's voice was mild as he took his turn to glance over at Joseph." Although that's just my opinion, of course. You could ignore me. I'm only here to report on the results of the latest integrated field training exercises, remember?"

Even though Joseph didn't snort his incredulity, he still felt like it. In his experience, once Jens got stubborn about something , he was about as easy to ignore as an owoc mother standing on your foot. And Jens was just as stubborn about Nukurren as about any of his other friends. More so.

Ruthlessly squashing a pang of jealousy, Joseph reminded himself that Indira, now she was sharing her long-horded stock of military knowledge at last, had told him such prodding was a trait common to all good senior sergeants. He sure hoped she was right. He'd hate being the only one nudged along as visibly as this.

"Fine," Joseph said. "If the council approves, I'll see what Shutuppen Nukurren has to say. I will see," he added sternly when Jens stirred slightly. "This request is Nukurren's to accept or refuse, and I don't want her to feel obligated by any personal bonds with us ummuns."

Jens settled back into stillness on his stool, his expression bland but his attitude somehow satisfied. Joseph narrowed his eyes in that direction before returning his attention to the general conversation.

The rest of the council's discussion of the proposed deal didn't take long. "We need this tin," Indira said, her features honed and cold as a spearhead while she summed up. "We have a long war ahead of us and an even longer peace if we survive. A good source of tin would not only pay for more weapons than we can forge ourselves, but give us and our gukuy and owoc fellow citizens a resource base for long-term trade. And, according to Rottu, Kuakua's kin are reputed to know their metals."

"We also need to start testing smoked childfood as rations in the field," Joseph said, "so a short and peaceful expedition right now is a double opportunity." He didn't let himself sound as if he were asking. "Indira, we can't risk you around an unfamiliar group of foreign merchants."

Indira nodded. She knew the knowledge she possessed was, in many ways, more valuable and tempting to the gukuy than any amount of tin.

In other ways, Joseph told himself sharply, her answers culled from lost Terra weren't valuable at all. Only subtle traps she had to trigger for her children again and again before they could get caught in them. The Pilgrim sage Ushalubang had showed him that.

But now it was his turn to try triggering what might be a trap. "So I have to go and represent our interests."

He was chagrined, if not surprised, to discover how pleased he was by Indira's aborted gesture of protest before she again nodded agreement. As his own young children were teaching him, a boy needed to be valued by his parents. But his pang of happiness was well hidden, Joseph's small secret. If he had been a chromatophoric gukuy, no green of pleasure would have shown amidst the colors of the emotions tinting his mantel. Captain Joseph Adekunle only displayed faint pleasure when the council vote was unanimously in favor of his version of their final plan.

 

***

 

"I don't understand why you're avoiding Kuakua." In the bright light from their young glowmoss pedestal, subtle tones of turquoise and red ochre chased each other across Dhowifa's small mantel in complicated swirls that mixed affection, annoyance, and social chagrin. Given how superbly he displayed the chromatic grace and emotional complexity of a true male, any gukuy would judge him beautiful when he was exasperated. Nukurren certainly would. Did.

I resolved to pay more attention when Dhowifa speaks, Nukurren reminded herself. "Why would I meet with her?"

It was amazing how Dhowifa could make clear with his mantle tints alone that, although fondness was still conquering annoyance, the tide of this battle could turn quickly in the face of unyielding foolishness. "Perhaps because she seemed to like you? Because she was one of the few caravan traders who even bothered trying to be fair to us? And now she might wish to speak with someone familiar in these new and strange surroundings? Or…No, wait." Nukurren suspected Dhowifa had learned that sarcastic gesture from her although he deployed it with more good-natured elegance than she, a former helot, could even have imagined. "You're a warrior, dominated by a warrior's interests. So we must consider a warrior's reasons. These particular Ofanu fled Wulani right as the beaks of the Utuku drove deep into its meat. Perhaps, just perhaps, Kuakua might have learned something interesting about the enemies of us all?"

"Rottu, or one of her eight and eighty shadows, must already have talked with them," Nukurren said. She was sure her shoroku, the unwavering gray of placid indifference displayed only by those of strongest emotional discipline, never wavered. However Dhowifa was both clever enough and familiar enough with her to catch the tiny trace of sullenness buried deep beneath her words.

He whistled derisively. "Of course they did. And, of course, traders are well known for unpacking all their hoarded secrets as soon as the first stranger inquires."

Nukurren kept quiet. She was in no way sulking, she told herself.

Dhowifa curled the small tentacles around his beak in a gesture of resignation even as his long arms flicked defeat. "Fine. Maybe you'll understand my own selfish motives? I am told Kuakua has hinted she wishes to speak with me at length. You know an Ofanu won't converse with a male under your protection until you've acknowledged her."

That stirred Nukurren to protest, "I'm not your wife. Do I look like a mother?"

Now the umber of bemusement dappled Dhowifa's mantle. "No, you look like my skilled, heroic, and unnatural female lover. But if Kuakua wishes to treat me with respect, how else would she do so except by holding to the customs she believes most honorable?"

"I don't know why she's suddenly bothering with respect. She flirted with you enough while we traveled with her aunt's caravan."

"As Ofanu females who hew to the old customs are given to doing in mixed company," Dhowifa said, the words quite neutral and his color suddenly pearly grey. "I believe you are the one who told me far southwestern ways are quite different than those of the Anshac Prevalate in that regard."

Annoyed, Nukurren started to say "Far southwestern ways are…" and then stopped as she realized how she'd been going to finish that sentence.

Dhowifa's silence was somehow discreet, but the tiny tracery of new-growth green creeping across his mantle made it clear he had heard the unspoken end of her sentence, "…perverse." Heard, and was amused.

For a moment, Nukurren studied him with the single good eye a warrior's life had left her. She hadn't run off with the youngest of the Paramount Mother's young husband bond, leaving behind her hard-won position in the elite Motherguard, just because Dhowifa had been beautiful, loving, and sorely abused. He was also canny, the canniest male she'd met or known. Still annoyed, but her annoyance now leavened with fondness and grudging admiration, she whistled acknowledgement of a fork blow landed before she told him, "Neatly flipped."

"You told me you'd learned that senior warriors sometimes liked as well as respected you. Could you please consider, if only for a breath or two, that there might be other gukuy who like you as well?" That tiny touch of plaintive brown as Dhowifa spoke made Nukurren want to stroke his forehead indulgently while she reassured him. He knew it, too, the cunning little spawn. No one could manipulate with the heart-felt truth like her Dhowifa. Unless it was his great-aunt, the Pilgrim sage Ushulubang. A formidable line of gukuy.

She allowed a little of her feelings to show when she said, "Enough. Don't think I'll be carving some shell of courtship to send Kuakua. But you are right. I should speak to tell her why she needs to share any of those precious merchant's secrets she might have about the Utuku." As she considered this, Nukurren knotted her tentacles thoughtfully. "It's true, I would like to hear some hints about why the Beak of the Utuku pivoted her main army west to attack the caravanserai towns rather than reforming the entire army and coming north to dispose of us."

"A wasteful tragedy, but the delay may save all of us on the Chiton," Dhowifa said.

"Also a gift. I distrust any gift, especially one that involves the Utuku."

"Then I won't mention what war project one of the smiths from the Pilgrim forge told me will be done soon." There was a flirtatious curve to Dhowifa's teasing gesture of negation. "You might consider it too much of a gift." The tiniest hint of ivory passion chased his mantle edge, too.

But -- such was the life of a warrior -- before Nukurren had her chance to enjoy any more of a pleasant and domestic evening in the crude ummun hut that was now their home, someone had to knock. That someone must be an ummun or they would have whistled rather than risk thumping a limb against the doorjamb, another strange ummun custom. Nor was this visit due to a crisis or a hail would have accompanied the thumping. But the ummuns had enough respect for even the irregular relationship between Dhowifa and her not to intrude this far into her off-watch with anything trivial.

When she went to slide back the matting that shielded their quarters from passing eyes, she was confronted by Yoshefadenukunula, kapitanu of the ummun warriors. She might have no great liking for him, but she did respect him enough to know he would not be wasting her time. And his posture confirmed her suspicion. Eightdays of working with the young commander had taught her to look past the implacable black of his hide and read some of the strange stances and gestures that displayed his emotions. That stiffer than usual posture, combined with the entwined arms across his chest, hinted he was here unofficially on vital official business, the sort of complicated social tangle officers loved to knot themselves into.

"Nukurren." He made the odd, grating noise of clearing his siphon that meant he was delaying. "May I come in?"

Not Shutuppen Nukurren or Sharredzhenutu Nukurren, so this would indeed be off the rolls. Whatever it was. Resigned, Nukurren shifted to unblock the doorway.

To give him his due, once within Yoshefadenukunula immediately turned to the cushions where Dhowifa was ensconced and gestured greeting. The pair of them studied the Pilgrim's Way together under Ushulubang's guidance, and Dhowifa was helping any interested ummuns with their dukuna while his great-aunt visited Fagoshau's Pilgrims and flailed their overconfident opinions about easy answers and proper conduct. Yoshef's greeting was the respectful one of a junior student to a senior rather than an indication of condescending politeness from a war chief toward an unattached male.

"Yoshef." Dhowifa's own greeting was both placid and lightly tinged green with recently sprouted affection. There was also a touch of humor in his mantel he wasn't bothering to hide, which may have been what caused Yoshef to make that grating noise of hesitation again. Dhowifa had mercy on him and indicated a stack of spare pillows. "Sit, please. Be welcome."

He did so, folding up in the way Nukurren still found peculiar. Then he shook his head -- somewhat disturbing -- before saying, "I'm not much good at this."

This uncertainty, he likely meant, whatever the other business that brought him here was. Yoshefadenukunula might not always be as sorrowfully implacable as his brown-black mantle tint would claim, but sureness was still part of his nature. It had to be, as tiny as the ummun tribe was amidst the dangers of this cruel world they all must traverse together.

"Nukurren. We -- the ummun council and I -- would like to ask you a favor. To consider doing us a favor." He paused and then gestured irritation. "I need to be better at negotiation than this since I'll be doing much more of it soon." His annoyance seemed to steady him and he continued, "It's about that refugee trader from the far southwest, the Ofanu Kuakua."

"Of course it is," Nukurren said, resigned. At Yoshef's gaze of inquiry, she waved for him to go on. "You had better explain everything to me. And in detail, or we will both end up looking like fools while Kuakua stands next to us seeming innocently concerned and yet somehow still richer than she was."

Yoshef crunched his features into a ummun expression of worry. "She's that subtle?"

"She's a successful Shell Road trader." Seeing Yoshef didn't understand the implications of her words, Nukurren added, "Those who must deal each day with problems that can't be solved by an application of flails or spears are often as convoluted as the whorls of a sacred snail shell." She didn't glance over at Dhowifa when she said this, but she could still sense his amusement.

"True. My mother…" Yoshef trailed off with whatever else he'd been going to say, and then tilted himself forward. "In any case. This all starts with tin."

Later that night, after Yoshef had won his skirmish and departed, Nukurren studied Dhowifa. "Will you agree to Yoshef's request that you join us on this trip?"

"I believe so. After all, Kuakua might finally talk with me, rather than about me, once we're on the trail. And it's not as if I'd never traveled." He indicated reluctant nostalgia, obviously referring to their many eightweeks with various caravans. "I would like to speak with Ushulubang for a while. The ummun students could use the time while I was gone to find problems with their new answers." For the time of a breath, Dhowifa studied Nukurren, his arms stilling as his mantle glowed a soft and thoughtful green. "Besides, I think you'll need me."

Not long ago -- too short a time ago, perhaps -- Nukurren would have ignored this statement or made some jest about exactly why Dhowifa was always needed in her yurt. Now she only said, "I think you're right," before finally giving in to the urge to reach out and stroke his forehead. But there was no indulgence in the gesture. Only yearning and comfort.

 

II

 

This third day, their small expedition to Fagoshau was traveling at a gukuy's speed. At an obnoxious, age-slowed, Paramount Mother's speed, Nukurren amended. It was good that the near-creeping pace suited everyone making the journey, including Dhowifa.

Nukurren was using the trip to personally flail some advanced training into a cohort of scouts who would likely be assigned to work with ummuns in the field. After the recent exercises, she had high hopes for them. Not that she would tell them that, at least not yet. Instead she had just used this latest rest pause to send away their cohort leader with mild and conditional -- very conditional -- praise of last night's patrolling.

Yoshef and the ummun cohort were using the slow pace to employ their unique abilities at traveling steep slopes and rough terrain, aided as they were by the stick-like leggu that substituted for the tough but awkward peds of owoc and gukuy. All along this expedition's route, the ummun warriors had collected many, many rocks and made frequent notes with sharpened reeds on those new resin-coated slates their elders adored. It was easy to tell this was part of a performance meant to be seen by Kuakua, one demonstrating that ummuns didn't intend to be surprised by more unexamined rocks any time soon.

Hardened by experience, Nukurren watched as Maryaomaloyu seemed to flicker from point to point all the way down the shattered and stony northern slope of this section of the pass. No matter how many times it was explained to Nukurren that the flickering was due to the gukuy eye being tricked by the unfamiliar speed of ummun motion, the effect was still unnerving to contemplate at length. No wonder the ignorant insisted ummuns were guardian demons summoned forth by the recent perils tormenting gukuy across the meat of the world.

After Marya descended to the canyon floor, she slowed to walk up the trail past the trader's party and toward Yoshef. The bonded apprentices who hauled the small Ofanu wagon withdrew from Marya's path, their mantles tinted pink with apprehension as she passed. Kuakua, who had been speaking with the Ofanu toolkeeper, whistled annoyance and turned toward the apprentices for what would be, given past experience, a colorful lecture about the proper comportment of anyone who aspired to journeyman status on some currently unimaginable day in the very far future. Nukurren could hear the scornful, punctuating whistles, and some of Kuakua's louder and more colorful phrases, halfway down the column.

Finished with the report from his warrior, Yoshef strolled over to Nukurren. "I shouldn't find that amusing," he said.

"Inspiring, maybe. She's flailing them with bronze. It seems some techniques are similar no matter what the occupation," Nukurren told him, a rare indulgence in public musing. All of Dhowifa's happy discourses about the Coil of the Way were wearing her down. And in more ways than mere musing out loud, she realized. She had just gestured unconscious approval of Kuakua's juicy comparison between unthinking apprentices and the smelly freshwater limpets that must be scrapped off a ferry raft.

The words were shortly followed by Kuakua herself, and this with Yoshef's presence cutting off Nukurren's route for an inconspicuous tactical retreat.

Kuakua came up to them and squatted down on her peds, her usual genial green already reappearing. "Now I make a great show of talking to you in Enagulishuc, kapitanu," she said. "While they watching me not slumping over dead from bad demon breath."

Yoshef briefly crunched his mouth in what Nukurren judged to be reluctant amusement. "I see."

"They must learning not so wary of strangeness. I was unhappy I must driving them like ganna, or they was still trembling and hiding like weak spawn in dear old Wulani, waiting to be Utuku food."

"Was that what happened to Lalapapa?" Nukurren asked, her mantle placidly gray with the discipline of her shoroku. Talking with Kuakua might be easier with another warrior by her side, but Lalapapa was still a sore subject.

"My elder aunt," Kuakua explained to Joseph. "Master trader of my house, often our caravan master, and very foolish. Or no," she corrected, "not foolish but also not bending and then bending back again. Breaking like bad bronze instead."

"Brittle. Rittuluc," Yoshef said, giving her the Enagulishuc word.

"Yes, that. She was sending to Ansha houses for her apprenticeship, and was thinking like an Anshac ever after." Nukurren wasn't diverted for a breath by the complacently smug gesture as Kuakua said, "I was sending to the far southwest along the Shell Roads and learning the old way of the Ofanu Teachers."

Seemingly, Yoshef wasn't fooled either. "What did happen to your aunt if I might ask?"

"Well." Obviously the time had come to add some goods to the display pile. "She was deciding we was staying and trading with the Utuku. Everyone loving bronze, she was saying."

Nukurren whistled sharp derision.

"Yes. Maybe everyone loving bronze. But the Beak of Utuku was not loving a trader who was thinking she was a haughty Anshac merchant. One wrong grovel, then merchant for dinner and Ofanu for slaves at best. I was believing Lalapapa lasting maybe an eightday, but why lingering and finding out?"

"Not safe even if I hearing the Utuku was badly needing trade for more flints, obsidian, and bronze. They was working to death for no good reasons all those captives not warriors. Even metalworkers and stoneknappers, both skills slow mastering and hard replacing. Likely the Beak was not grasping yet how good weapons was coming from some gukuy in a place and not from some place full of gukuy." And this was a shell of true value dropped to one side of the trading heap, a plausible explanation of the attacks on the caravanserai towns.

"Did you tell Rottu this?" Yoshef asked with a gesture of mild interest.

"The spymaster? She was wanting my vision, not what I was thinking." Given her faint blue tint, Kuakua's annoyance was so familiar that it had almost worn down into indifference. "I was noticing warriors, priests, and high clan gukuy often feeling the same way. Oh, you fat merchants only ever thinking twisty, selfish thoughts about making goods and increasing your trade, so inglorious next to killing and oppressing." She whistled mockery. "All merchants the same, they was saying. Just as if you two was exactly like Utuku warrior commanders and the Sage Ushulubang was peddling fake prophecies like some Anshac priest."

"I see." Yoshef contemplated the trader for the span of a single breath. "So, given your past experiences, why are you trying to negotiate with us now?"

"Well." Kuakua gestured amiably. "Your mother was talking with me and always remembering the greedy merchants who was living before and hurting your world beyond the sky, but was not sending for her children with spears. Only fretting like a House Mother at tax time. And your father was different again. Whenever he was thinking hard, he was forgetting opinions and talking with Kuakua instead. And I was also knowing Nukurren, who was knowing you with respect if not much liking. That was telling me more than her respecting one she already liking. So, during my visit, I was learning you not so much demons with their great wrath." She whistled laughter, but then sobered and turned toward the south. "The Utuku? Like adult spawn still filled by the beserk hunger of all gukuy before we was learning talking. Much worse than demons. Worse even than those with minds like wagon wheels always rolling along within the same dry-season ruts."

Abruptly she shifted into Anshaku. " Kapitanu, I know you don't speak Anshaku with great facility, but I am informed you understand much more than you say. Please excuse my changing languages for a time, but given my earliest education, the exact shapes of Enagulishuc words of doing are driving me as mad as a spawn."

Strangely, just for an eye blink, something important seemed to hang in the balance. Then, showing a sense of humor Nukurren hadn't thought he had, Yoshef tilted back his head and produced the barking noise that served ummuns for laughter.

Kuakua must have recognized the sound. To the eyes -- eye -- of one experienced, her satisfaction showed.

Yoshef stilled his barking and told her, his gestures too formal to be taken seriously even without the tint that should have emphasized his jesting, "I would be pleased to help you with your verb tenses, Kuakua. But you must not let me trade for anything during our lessons."

"Do not worry, Kapitanu Yoshefadenukunula. I will not steal from you. As the third Ofanu Teacher observed, 'The richer you make your partners in trade, the richer you, too, will become.' I have found these to be not only words of honor but also words of wisdom." Kuakua blinked both eyes thoughtfully and added, "Although I believe we Ofanu will still end up richer than you ummuns."

Snapping out her tentacles in the gesture of firm decision, she said, "So I will tell you something without recompense, my gift to show the riches of the Ofanu rest upon firmer foundations than just our trade. This trip has taught me what great warriors ummuns may become, and I think that is a snare you should fear."

The noise Joseph made was obscure.

"True, the gentle owoc will feed you and your offspring childfood for as long as you protect them. But life is more than stabbing and eating, and I have seen your village now. Your building are crude. Your new tools are clumsy. Your practices of cultivation for the owoc are both ignorant and naive. All to the borders of danger. You do not have enough time for fighting battles, simple tasks, and honing your craftsmanship. It shows." Kuakua's mantle was light brown with regret as she continued, "Unless you mean to bond helots, depend on the good will of every future Pilgrim sage, or end as nothing but an ummunguard serving the strongest gukuy nashiyonu of any particular eightweek, you must discover more to trade than war making and idea weaving."

She waved an arm toward where another ummun warrior was working along the shallower slope to the south of them, poking at his slate and gathering his rocks as he went. "That ability is all yours, something that could be swapped for many other goods if you chose to do so. There are not eights of eights of eights of gukuy to learn to do it better. But if you still believe you can throw your own spears, tend your own fields, forge your own bronze, and then spend evenings considering the intricate details of the coil of beauty beyond the sky as thoroughly as all the eager young priests and high-clan sprouts, you have never learned how draining it is to do basic work well instead of only well enough. There is more than one reason our apprentices must haul carts as part of their training." Kuakua's geniality surged back. 'Listen to me, hooting like Aunt Lalapapa. Didn't I learn anything in Wulani?"

After a brief pause, Yoshef slowly said in Enagulishuc. "The tin is located someplace you'll have difficulties getting to. You wish to recruit we ummuns to help you with your diggings."

"Yes, if we all survive," Kuakua replied in Anshaku. "But that does not mean I am not still right." Gesturing exasperation, she added in Enagulishuc , "I must learning verbs well."

"I will help you," Yoshef said, not jesting this time. "We need to understand each other better, I think."

"Already you trading better than the Utuku. No flailing to death the presuming merchant. And ummuns also loving bronze, I thinking," Kuakua said, annoyingly -- and distractingly -- smug once more.

It was not until the next pause in their slow march that Yoshef sought out Nukurren to ask quietly, "Kuakua's Enagulishuc verbs are actually fine, aren't they?"

Nukurren gestured bemused uncertainty. "Who knows? I am sure they could be better. Kuakua would not lie about so small a detail. Why bother when you can use a coiling truth?"

Yoshef started to speak, shook his head -- still disturbing -- instead, smoothed his crumpled features, and turned away toward the cluster of kolo where three of his warriors awaited him.

 

***

 

Given the day's events, Nukurren wasn't ambushed by the evening that followed. At least, she wasn't badly ambushed.

The shining gray of the daytime sky had dimmed, and the weather-worn hide of their doorway was lowered. Nukurren could barely see across the yurt to where Dhowifa rested on his beloved pile of faded pillows. She moved to settle next to him, and he slowly and delicately began stroking her head with the deliciously lengthy arms of a male. On some other night his caresses would have been a prelude to passion before he reached deeper into her mantle, but tonight, with his usual acuity, Dhowifa sensed she was disturbed by the day's events.

"I saw you talking from the supply wagon. Are you done avoiding Kuakua?" he asked after a quiet interlude.

"Yes. Exasperating as she is, I don't need to flail her down anymore."

"I thought it was Lalapapa who…" Dhowifa visibly searched for words.

Withheld our pay from us, Nukurren silently filled in. Stole our caravan shares from us. Shamed us as perverts in front of her house to provide her excuse. Slandered us to the other outland traders, leaving us with no better employers than the corrupt and the slavers. Dared us -- dared me -- to kill her and ruin my name with any other employer forever. But I would not give her that final satisfaction.

"…wished us ill," Dhowifa finished at last. "Didn't she die in Wulani?"

"Has Kuakua finally spoken with you?"

"No, but it seems as if Lalapapa was the sort who would stay behind."

"She was." Nukurren suddenly whistled laughter. "She did."

"Attributing events to some inevitable justice is a deceptive temptation, but satisfying nonetheless," Dhowifa noted. He would make an adorable subject when the Pilgrims finally succumbed to the degeneracy of depicting their great sages in portrait weaves, as likely they someday would.

Of course, as all budding sages seemed to be, he was also incurably inquisitive. "Why did you want to flail down Kuakua? She was the one who sought us out afterward with your pay, which I know you also suspect came from her personal hoard. And I understand she tried to speak well of us although that would not overcome the pleasures of lurid slander."

Nukurren paused to consider. Gukuy were rarely fooled by their own feelings, but this emotion was unfamiliar to a warrior -- a survivor -- of her tremendous prowess. She felt sheepish.

At least she didn't let herself gurgle when she spoke. "She wanted to help us. Help me."

Wise Dhowifa didn't say a word or vary the silvery green of his mantle by a single tone. He only continued his slow stroking while she pondered. She was still trying to marshal her thoughts when Kuakua hooted inquiry outside the yurt's entrance.

Kuakua was as boisterous a guest as ever. "I would've brought along some fine and sweetly-aged ashu as a tent gift," she told Dhowifa, "but I've heard you still keep to many of the prohibitions of the Kiktu. The Guoktu tribe now," she corrected herself. "Perhaps such discipline is why time cannot bleach your beauty."

Dhowifa coiled his arms in amiable reproach. "Flatterer. I know I've gained weight."

"But it suits you so well. The lushness of your virtues displayed for all to admire."

Another few rounds of this kind of nonsense, and Nukurren realized she was rolling her tentacles upwards in mild exasperation. She feared such a motion wasn't as intimidating as she might have once desired. In any case, both the other occupants of the yurt ignored her.

Or perhaps not. After a sly, sideways glance, Kuakua said, "At last, clever Dhowifa, I can again savor the dancing grace of your wit." Suddenly she sobered. "Now that valiant Nukurren has condescended to overlook my slimy failure to redress the honor of our house."

This time, Nukurren barely paused before gesturing bemused disagreement. Her pondering was done, and there was no sense in hauling this baggage she didn't want any further. "At least you tried." With greater force she added, "So don't flatter yourself by believing you should somehow have been able to succeed against all opposition."

For a moment, orange surprise chased the green from Kuakua's mantle. Then amiability flushed back once more. "I am instructed. Thank you for the gift, Cohort Leader."

The noise Nukurren made in response was rude, but Kuakua only whistled laughter.

Traders really were as good at making themselves welcome as Nukurren was at making herself feared. Of course, unusually for civilians, they had much of interest to discuss. The supplying of an army -- logizhutuku -- was always part of Nukurren's concerns. And there was a great deal to be said about bronze. Truly, the evening could have been worse. The Ofanu could have traded perfumes.

"I won't tell the ummuns to support your deal," she finally told Kuakua, making it blunt.

"You won't need to. It will be a good deal," Kuakua said. "We will all watch our stores of goods stack up to the ceilings. I think my new house will be very rich very soon. Or very dead, but the first Teacher reminds us we all come to that in the end."

"I'm interested in the Teachers of the Ofanu," Dhowifa interjected with enthusiasm. "They seem to have found you a great many answers," he continued more neutrally.

"Perhaps," Kuakua said. She turned to Nukurren and added softly, "See my opportunity arrive," with a smug tentacle waggle that left Nukurren torn between amusement and rolling up her own tentacles in exasperation once more. Then Kuakua turned back to Dhowifa and continued, "We know we haven't heard all the best answers. That would be as if I claimed I'd made all the good trades. In fact, those of my house who care for such matters have asked me to express their interest to you."

Dhowifa gave her a bright-eyed look of inquiry.

Kuakua's address was suddenly very formal. "The Mothers Atototo, Guhuhu, and Turoro invite you to enter our temporary quarters and speak with them and their husbands about the Way of the Pilgrims while the negotiations to establish our new house are underway."

"All three of the Wulani trader mothers fled with you?" Nukurren interrupted, her tones sharp.

"By our more traditional standards, my Aunt's behavior toward you was truly dishonorable," Kuakua replied. "Bad for business, too. It weakened her influence. Also, their responsibilities incline the mothers to take a somewhat longer perspective on possible profits. As I once told you, it is the mothers who actually hold the honor of a house. As well as our tokens of hospitality exchanged with other Ofanu houses, and the reed bundles recording our accounts, and our bills of warehoused goods, and our private seals as merchants, all of which I might not have told you about before," she continued with unmistakable relish. "Not to mention the house treasuries, which came away with us."

Picturing this kind of caravan trying to make its way across the Papti plain, Nukurren could only hoot soft incredulity at Kuakua's presence in their yurt. But these Wulani traders had survived, after all, and there was no argument in war as strong as success.

Meanwhile, Dhowifa had returned to what, quite rightly, interested him. "I would be happy to enjoy the hospitality of the Ofanu."

"Yes. Good." Kuakua hooted delicately. "The mother Guhuhu has also expressed special interest in your reputation as a…supple thinker. Her husbands are quite willing to schedule… private tutoring."

The red ochre of embarrassed puzzlement was a rare color on Dhowifa. "Supple. My thanks. I would be pleased to offer a little tutoring, I suppose, although I would not wish to favor any one unduly over another…"

Kuakua was looking up at the hides. Kuakua was looking down at the reed mats. Faint vermillion, Kuakua was glancing over toward the doorway. Nukurren, also initially puzzled but easily able to spot what Dhowifa was missing, watched in growing amusement. At last she had mercy and interrupted. "As I suppose could be predicted, the mother Guhuhu might wish for you to spend the night in her mantle."

Dhowifa went bright orange with surprise. "But…I am unnatural."

That put Kuakua back onto her peds. "True, but you are also very bright. The Ofanu have always built up our treasury of knowledge with and through our males. As to strictly masculine concerns, I know you are swift and observant. Do you tend Nukurren's funds for her? Can you add and subtract correctly?"

"Yes," Dhowifa said rather blankly. "Of course."

"Then you have covered the primary requirements for an Ofanu sire. And what should be the secondary requirements as well, at least according to the eumale Otuotu who double-checks my accounts."

With a touch of the turquoise indicating affectionate irritation, Kuakua added, "I will be glad when the new house is founded and I am no longer running everyone else's customary errands. But since you are…denied your own masculine support, Teacher Dhowifa, I thought you should have some warning."

"Thank you." The words were rather quiet, and Dhowifa had the look he got when he wasn't sure if the implications of his latest philosophical notion were brilliant, terrible, or both.

Nukurren knew Kuakua was too good a negotiator to convey this Guhuhu's offer of intimate hospitality -- her thoughts had to pause for hilarity before she could call them back to order -- if the mother in question was the least bit unpleasant. In truth, if the mother was any sort of student at all, Dhowifa would enjoy himself a great deal. He loved to be the expert. This offer probably also, in some subtle way, helped restore Ofanu honor, which would assist the tin negotiations. And it wasn't as if their sorry world couldn't use some new-spoken spawn with Dhowifa's canniness, even if they did end up as traders.

But her trying to review the logic of the situation was in vain. A female conveying this particular proposal could never be anything but hilarious to one raised in the Ansha Prevelate. Nukurren had every reason to be grateful for the placid gray of her shoroku as she maneuvered to restore the conviviality of their evening by offering Kuakua a bowl of reed infusion.

 

III

 

During the fourth evening, done at last with reports about rocks and rearranging patrols, Joseph realized he had some time to himself. He decided to spend it eating a solitary dinner since he still hadn't learned to like being watched while he chewed.

Earlier in the day, the expedition had descended into the middlemost of the southern slope's three great valleys, crossed its broad floor, and started upslope again. Now, after a wearying afternoon spent slowly trudging, they were encamped at the usual site, a widening of the trail just past the rubble of a recent land-slip. All of the shelters had been set up well away from the scarred and steep rock face to their north in order to avoid any chance of awakening to a visiting boulder. That meant Joseph only had to walk past the shelters and toward the towering cliff to achieve an illusion of privacy.

As he passed, Joseph saw that the door flap was down on Nukurren's and Dhowifa's yurt. Nukurren must be done with her latest round of critiquing that new scout cohort of hers, one of her pet projects. Those warriors looked to be shaping well. Perhaps that was why she had been in a fine mood all day, obvious even through the unchanged gray of her shoroku.

He wished he could say the same for himself. About to begin his fifth day of dining on pukewurst -- thanks for the unforgettable name, Julius -- Joseph was starting to realize exactly what he was missing.

His problem wasn't nutritional. He wasn't hungry. He was eliminating just fine. His energy level was high; maybe his energy level was too high, considering his mood. No, what Joseph was missing was the owoc.

Those gentle plant-eaters had fed him most of the days of his life for motives never less noble than affection and the mildest of gratitude. Seemingly, this had mattered to him more than he 'd understood.

 When he'd been angry, he could go to the owoc and consider their tolerant acceptance of life's Coil of Beauty. If he'd known doubt, he could concentrate on the straightforward need to defend them. Any fear of failure could be fought back by remembering his past triumphs freeing them from slavery.

If Joseph felt lonely, set apart from his peers even within their shared longhouses by his martial prowess, also separated by the decisions he would someday have to make and the favoritism he shouldn't show because of the future he knew was coming, he could always seek out an owoc. He'd known they loved him even when they didn't understand him at all. It was a guarantee he didn't have from anyone else on the Chiton. Even the adults. His parents, really.

For the first time, there was no owoc along on a ummun trip. And Joseph hated this.

Otherwise, the expedition was going well. Julius would be delighted with the information they were gathering about the Chiton. He'd regretted the time diverted from researching Ishtar to teaching the kids to weave reeds and hunt snails. Joseph had always known this. But that diversion had been necessary. Joseph had only ever felt a little guilt about whatever was necessary.

He'd reached the talus slope beneath the rock face. Taking out a piece of pukewurst, he took a bite and stoically chewed.

He was making some progress with Kuakua, too. They'd spent part of this day talking. She was, as Nukurren had warned him, very twisty. Even so, he was beginning to feel Kuakua did mean well by them all on the Chiton, and experience had taught him to trust such intuitions. Her good intentions and oblique behavior made it more important than ever that he not foul the negotiations between the Ofanu and the other gukuy of their young nashiyonu.

At least the experience doing journeyman work at diplomacy would help him in the future. Indira, who had carried much of this burden in the past, wouldn't live forever. And Joseph would probably inherit many of her political responsibilities to add to his own. Especially since the gukuy all knew him. His military prowess was greatly valued no matter what they thought of his implacable, demonic hide.

How did people ever come to enjoy chewing this hard? Joseph suppressed an urge to spit out the pukewurst. Food was a gift and not to be wasted.

It was too bad Jens wasn't here to jolly him out of his mood, but he'd been delighted to go off to the north with Ludmilla's platoon on another leg of the ummun's great rock survey. Maybe the two of them would find the tin-bearing mineral together. Accomplishing something with each other always made them happy.

All at once, Joseph's mouth flooded with saliva, and he stuffed the rest of his half-eaten pukewurst ration back into his pouch, feeling loathing. This was probably no more than he deserved for wondering all these years at Indira's unconquerable revulsion toward regurgitated childfood. He'd always hidden his nearly contemptuous wonder, just as he hid all the other feelings he didn't have the leisure, the right, to show.

Had he always felt these doubts? It seemed as if they had only crowded in on him since he'd started studying the dukuna with Ushulubang. But, no, he was merely seeing clearly now what had already been all around him, as if his eyes were adjusting to the dark. Dhowifa might make something out of that comparison.

Restless now, Joseph decided to go see if Nukurren could tolerate his presence in their yurt long enough for him to have a brief talk with Dhowifa. The truemale's presence was usually as soothing for Joseph's feelings as his conversation was challenging for Joseph's mind. Odd that tiny Dhowifa was the gukuy who reminded him the most of the huge owoc.

He came to their yurt, took a deep breath, and knocked. The door flap lifted and massive, battered Nukurren stood in the entrance, as ready and able as ever to repel an intruder. But she must still have been in her fine mood from earlier that day. She moved aside readily enough to let him enter.

It was only after he was inside that Joseph realized Dhowifa wasn't there.

 

***

 

Throughout the day, Nukurren had needed to mute cheerful hoots several times. After Kuakua's departure, Dhowifa had begun dealing with his uncertainties about visiting the mother Guhuhu in the way he often did when puzzled, by having a quick review of what he already knew about the intricacies of the subject. As his conscripted assistant, Nukurren had found his determination first amusing, then sweetly touching, and finally entirely compelling. At least, she had found it so while she could still spare the attention for thinking. And afterward they had slept very well.

This evening she had shooed him off to visit Kuakua's yurt and settle any other details that might trouble him. One advantage countering some of the irritation of dealing with far southwest traders was that Dhowifa didn't need a ride in her mantle to conduct his own business. Of course the Ofanu might try to have him recount some trade bundle or other for them, but that was Dhowifa's problem. Otherwise he was safe enough. And, left alone, Nukurren could concentrate on cleaning her flail and fork, pleasantly mindless chores.

She was surprised to find Kapitanu Yoshef in her doorway again but not alarmed. The ummun wasn't that hard to read, given practice, and he didn't bring danger with him. Instead he was pulled in like a wububo slug that had just been lightly poked. If he were a gukuy, she would have read that pulled-in posture as being ochre brown.

He stopped abruptly once inside. "I'm sorry. I was hoping to speak with Dhowifa about…a problem."

Likely he wished to discuss yet another twist in the ever-coiling Way. The weaver to her stringing, the warrior to her drill, and Pilgrims to their endless, endless chattering. Still feeling amiable, Nukurren gestured benign indifference. "You may wait. He visits Kuakua and should return soon if they do not try offering him a writing set or woven pillows. I am only cleaning my weapons."

For a moment he hesitated before folding himself up like one who was weary. Feeling no need to chatter herself, Nukurren went back to work with her sponge, cloth, and whetstone. After a time of silence, Yoshef ventured to ask a question.

Although officer coddling was part of most cohort leaders' duties, since the higher clan officers had rarely deigned to notice a former helot and ex-slave like herself, it was a task never piled onto Nukurren's mantle. But she had watched others do it often enough to know some of the common situations and tactics.

Yoshef was promising enough to be worth a little extra trouble, she decided. Just a little. She let him start a not unpleasant conversation about the small details of a warrior's life and waited to see where it would lead.

At last he ran out of talking with, "I'm being nosy."

Given the oddly protruding nosu humans had, that wasn't hard. But he meant he was being inquisitive. Nukurren honked -- a ummun would have grunted -- and asked, "You've forgotten I live with Dhowifa?"

He barked amusement before saying, "But he has a claim that I do not. You love him. You dislike me." For a breath's time, he was quiet. Then he asked, "Is there some special reason you dislike me?"

If his posture or tone had hinted to Nukurren that he was hunting for reassurance, she would have squelched him more thoroughly than a new recruit at the first assembly. But she could tell he was genuinely curious, so she let herself consider his question. "Not much reason anymore. And never because of my eye."

"I wish I hadn't speared you there."

"I told Dzhenush I earned the wound by working as a slaver's bodyguard. I am sure he told this to you. Do I waste my time spinning stories about such matters?"

"No, Nukurren," he said.

She heard the unspoken Shutuppen in front of her name and gestured satisfaction. "Good. And I do not think you are sorry you speared me to stop me, so there is no sense in preferring one place over another. You could have speared me in the ped. You could have speared me in the brain."

He pondered this at length, as if they were considering one of Dhowifa's exercises in dukuna together, before saying, "True."

"I know it is." Familiar with the ways of bright males, she went back to answering his original question before he could ask it again. "Spearing me did not incline me toward liking you, but it was not what rasped my peds. You were obviously talented, skilled, and confident. Too confident." She whistled derisively, considering her first encounters with him. "Everyone says such confidence is needed in an officer, and it is. But it is also the drum beat before dead warriors."

"I know it is," he said, unconsciously echoing her. Then, all at once, it was if she had cracked through the shell of a snail pot.

His fears and follies were hazy stuff, really, and not many of them unfamiliar. Only fancied up by his youth and strength, and by the convoluted teachings of his demon parents. But she heard him out patiently for a while before raising an arm and telling him, "Enough!"

He quieted and sat gazing at her. She didn't let herself consider how much hope his look held.

"Do you think I have some easy answer for you? Then I must tell Dwofina he has wasted all his time." She wished she could rise to her peds and stride back and forth in the yurt. "You obviously did not learn my most important lesson, the one when I taught you that you could be defeated, early enough. You have gone on to draw the wrong conclusions. Ignoring a victorious opponent will not defeat her in turn. Instead you must consider her ways." She could not bellow within the yurt, either. She settled for glaring at Yoshef. "Your feelings are not your enemy, only your ignorance of them. You will learn the discipline of the shoroku."

His eyes widened and his jaw dropped slightly. Surprise.

"True shoroku does not flow from denial and rejection but from recognition and acceptance. I will teach you this. And you will learn enough not to waste my time."

Training had made Nukurren good at reading humans, but not good enough to interpret every way Yoshef's face crumpled then. However the crumpling was swift, and ended in a slow nod -- not nearly as disturbing as the head shake -- along with another, "Yes, Nukurren."

"Very well." She considered him. "Part of the confidence I disliked in you still remains and is good bronze, I think. You would not fail at need to command even one who taught you, as you thought best."

His look of innocent amazement was amusing. "Of course not."

"Again, good."

Officer coddling was tougher than she had expected. And, being tougher, it was going to take more time than she had thought. But there was also an unexpected satisfaction to it, much like watching her hand-picked cohort begin to fight as they should, which made her willing to take a little more trouble. Just a little. "You also need to talk to those who are most fond of you about these things that torment you. Ludumila. Dzhenush. Your mother."

He stirred in what any training leader would recognize at once as protest unsuccessfully suppressed, so she gave him a brief taste of the flail. "Foolish dzhiludh. Are those who love you mere spawn? Have they not fought in their own battles? Do you not trust them to lead those you also lead, even toward their deaths? Then why do you think they will quail helplessly at the revelation of your feelings?" She hooted derision. "Your mother, for one, will likely be reassured by all your doubts, at least until she starts worrying about them in turn."

This time when he barked, the skin around his eyes wrinkled and his mouth opened. Green amusement, she judged, quite green. "Can't argue with that."

"Nor should you." Nukurren made a gesture of rude indifference that involved her entire body. "Let those who do not know you well cling to any stories they need about Yoshef the bold and Yoshef the brave. Those closest to you have never believed you were that simple. In the end, even you didn't believe it."

Still with his skin wrinkled, Yoshef gave her the bow he would have given to Ushulubang. "You are very wise, opoloshuku."

Eying him balefully, Nukurren told him, "For that, you will be assigned exercises in discipline. Many, many exercises."

 

***

 

Of course Dhowifa practically braided his arms in excitement when Nukurren finally got Yoshef out of their yurt and could tell her lover the details of what had happened.

"You have never offered to pass on the shoroku."

Nukurren rolled up her tentacles in exasperation. "I have never before found one who needed it so badly. I only acted to defend us all."

Dhowifa's eyes were very bright. "I think you may be right. I think this might be a new path forward. I think, between the shoroku and his dukina, we can forge--"

Really, how could Nukurren have resisted the hoot of derision? "Are we to be metalworkers in our dotages, then, and open a teaching hearth? Come into our yurt, all of you. We'll take you pilgrims of copper and warriors of tin, and forge you together into…"

For once, it was Nukurren whose words trailed off. But that was not her fault. There was something very alarming about Dhowifa, something all too reminiscent of his great-aunt Ushulubang, when those colors of intense speculation started creeping across his mantle.

 

***

 

Joseph wondered why he wasn't more surprised when, early on the fifth morning before they'd departed their camp site, Maire brought him the small chunk of cassiterite she'd found half-buried in the rubble of the land-slip back along the trail. He only turned to gaze up at the cliff face. Far above their heads, barely visible even in the easterly brightness of morning, a broad streak of something darkened the rocks. It would require a difficult climb to confirm what that something was.

Turning back, he instructed Maire to keep the news of her discovery to herself and sent her off with a shoulder-squeeze and a smile. As he tucked away the cassiterite into his belt pouch, he realized his smile had turned wry while he considered what he should do with the mineral during the approaching negotiations.

Typical. Ishtar never did give him any easy answers.