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Packing to return to Haven was one of the strangest feeling things Achenar had ever done.

There had been no real choice that mattered the first time. A trap Book was a trap and a prison Age was a prison.

He had never needed to affirmatively decide to stay in the Age. He had never had to leave and go back. He'd never been given the opportunity.

He'd never gone to Haven knowing he was staying but could leave for visits. That he was going for keeps but without a barrier between him and returning.

That he was bringing supplies for a life there, but could get more later.

He had clothes, blank journals, proper ink. He had his extra canteens and replacement table utensils. He had his whetstones, the best the head of the Guild Of Stone Masons could find once he'd quietly been told what the problem was and who wanted them.

And he had his knives. Folding pocket knives, two of them. Three new hunting knives. And a monster that barely escaped being better termed a saw.

He felt richer than he ever had as a scourge of Ages. Gold was gold. It sparkled and humans of every Age had one reason or another to value it.

This was survival, no trading necessary.

And he hadn't been deceiving Atrus. He could make every other weapon or tool he used so long as he had a knife to start with.

He could ask for more, if he needed anything. Pens, if he tired of whittling his own from reeds. Empty glass bottles for his painting inks. Anything.

He was just too used to making everything to go back to a metal pen nib. And the Channelwood ink method played strangely if the results were stored in glassware -- he'd learned that on Channelwood.

He'd learned some things about contentment, and what really mattered.

It was also strange because he was actually leaving something behind knowingly. His relationship with his parents was mending, he had a sibling who wasn't trying to manipulate him into atrocities, and he was developing relationships with some of the other D'ni.

Vahtah had even made him promise he'd keep up the remedial learning.

Which meant coming to Tomahna for visits regularly.

Which meant meeting with Vahtah while he was visiting.

He wasn't sure whether meeting was the goal or if keeping his diction from getting any worse was.

He wasn't sure what he thought of that.

Maybe it was just pity. She'd met him at his most miserable, after all, and she knew what the process of becoming literate in D'ni meant to him.

If... well, if she ever acted interested in anything beyond friendship, he'd discourage her. She deserved better than someone who didn't know for certain if he could go to the Perfect Age. A priestess couldn't be with someone like him.

Besides, he'd never been interested in anyone that way, regardless of age or Age. Even at his worst... well, he hadn't done anything on that entire list of possible offenses.

Not that it was something to speak of with pride, compared to the list of things he had done. Didn't molest, did murder. Didn't rape, did torture.

His dreams were so completely spoken for with working through his guilt, there was no room for anything else.

Maybe language wasn't the only way he'd been Made wrong.

Or maybe the Maker had seen what choices he would have and which he would not, and saw fit to prevent some complications.

Or he took after what he was beginning to suspect about D'ni men in general--there was no way that huge spacing between births naturally happened and there was no surge in births when D'ni fell and the survivors were stuck wherever regardless of contraceptive access.

In any case, romance and potential marriage wasn't going to be a complication of his life. He'd put the potential aside in his mind when he'd accepted he was trapped on Haven and it had long ago stopped feeling like a loss.

Being friends with people who stuck around in his life was confusing enough. He'd thought he understood from dealing with the mangrees. Only he could barely speak to the mangrees and didn't understand much more.

It was a blessing that he could retreat from everyone again. It was a blessing that so few people knew about him: his family, Vatah and her father, a few select guild members who'd been involved in making the Linking room here on Tomahna. It was a blessing he could go off on his own again.

The Maker knew he wasn't even good company for himself in his own mind now. Not after what he'd done. Better to inflict himself on everyone else as little as he could stand to.

He Linked through alone and was shocked by the damage Sirrus had done. He hadn't had a chance to process it when he'd been so focused on saving Yeesha from him.

The Linking Book was still safe and secure.

Even if it hadn't been, they'd arranged a way for him to signal it was damaged.

He'd never thought Atrus' experiments on Rime would ever come to anything useful.

The chair tram to the treestand was sitting there, waiting on him.

Everything felt slightly less than real. He hoped the feeling would pass. He hoped it wouldn't harm his survival routines.

His mother had forced a week of food on him, anyway, so he had time. Worst case, he wouldn't venture away from the mangree lookouts until he'd got his edge back.

Absolute worst case, there was no way Katran Of Riven was going to let her surviving son starve. Not if she knew it was happening.

At least he was still used to the heat, even though Tomahna had none of the humidity. And to drinking straight from canteens.

And this time, he could always leave.

The happy calls from the lookouts greeted him as soon as he got close enough to hear them.

It was strange, knowing they had definitely missed him. One lookout calling his return would have been normal, but this was a full chorus as if the others were picking it up.

Maybe not even just the lookouts.

They had actually missed him.

He wasn't just a big clumsy primate they allowed in their territory. They actually missed him.

The ride wasn't long, but by the time he got there the treestand was covered in vociferous mangrees.

They did have enough manners to let him put the bags down and sit on his bed -- something, probably them, had kept it clear of leaves -- before jumping on him and beginning the 'making sure you're okay' nervous grooming.

They were calling out his name over and over again, along with other things he didn't understand.

Not just a few things. Not just one or two phrases that could refer to his return.

Emotional words. They had to be.

The mangrees weren't just communicating concrete things. They were communicating internal states, unseen and unseeable.

And they hadn't been saying those things to him. Only between themselves, so he'd never heard enough context if he heard them at all.

"Okay, I'm here, I'm back, I've been hurt but I'm getting better," he told them. "And I'm happy to see you too."

Why hadn't they been using those words? Why had they kept to simple concrete things and basic manners? Why had they done that for years, even after he'd gotten fairly good at using the sound board to talk back?

It didn't make sense.

They began to calm down, or at least they did after a lot of ear scratches and turns picking through his hair.

And the calls they were making began to standardize and simplify. The rich vocabulary disappeared like a camodile slinking into high grass.

So the omission was entirely intentional, otherwise they would have kept using it now that he'd heard it.

He was going to be doing a language study on a species that was actively hiding parts of that language from him.

At least that was going to be less of a challenge than the foundation for the lakehouse had been. He wasn't going to risk drowning if he did this wrong.

He wished there was some kind of common starting point he could use. At least in D'ni he had the option of asking the word for something. Instead he just had what little bits of vocabulary he'd picked up, mostly what they yelled at him.

And what they yelled at him was based on presuming he was a great big clumsy oaf with language problems... which was not inaccurate even though it was unhelpful.

He sighed.

At least he knew all the phonemes. And he had a better way to write them now.

That could wait.

They kept calming down, but no one was leaving.

The sun was nearly setting.

There was a familiar odor in the air.

Storm's coming.

"So once again I am everyone's friend because I have a roof."


He yawned. At least he was going to have no choice tomorrow about stowing his new possessions properly. The rain would probably last the entire day once it hit.

Rain was annoying but he'd missed it in Tomahna.

The simple presumption that the sun would always be out.

The unthinking predictability of knowing any rain would be brief and there would be weeks between.

He'd rather have weather prediction be a part of every morning and evening. It added something to his life, somehow, to be so bound to rhythms he had no control over.

No matter what he planned, the Maker could change it with a cloudburst.

There was something to having that constant reminder of natural humility in the sky over your head.

He yawned and tried to get what sleep he could before the storm hit, wondering sleepily if living where there could never be any rain had anything to do with how the D'ni had ended up.