As Aven exited the shuttle and stepped onto the dirt of Prarownt, he was struck by how pleasing the colors of the surrounding hills were to his eyes, more so than the vegetation on any other planet. Even though he was ship-hatched, there was no doubt that his genetics were tuned to the light of Prarownt’s sun.
The Vaijori ship had already set down at the other end of the landing field. It was about twice the size of the Calti ’s shuttle, and was therefore rather large for a human ship, although still barely a fifth the size of the Calti itself. Aven ignored it and walked briskly down the path to Deidell. He did not have the rank to trade directly with human leaders; his best opportunity for profit lay in town. For the first time in fifty years, individual humans had been given permission to trade directly at the plaza, and Aven planned to use his expertise in humans to reap profit.
As he arrived in the outskirts of the town, he kept his eyes open for an empty outbuilding that a Rownt of his rank might claim during the Calti ’s stay. He could of course keep to his quarters on shuttle, but since they were likely to be on planet for some months it would make sense to move his pillows to another nest for the duration.
A group of Grandmothers from the town approached him, presumably on the way to the Vaijori ship, and he paused to bow low. The most senior was larger than even the eldest Grandmother on the Calti , and the smallest was still two feet taller than Aven. His tail twitched involuntarily at such a concentration of attractive females, and the youngest Grandmother looked at him, her cheeks tightened in amusement. He wrapped his unruly tail around his leg and gave her a second bow, and she tilted her head in approval, acknowledging his attempt at better manners. It would be many years before he would have high enough rank to twitch his tail in earnest at such an impressive group of Grandmothers. His relief at her acknowledgment warmed him, and he set out once more to the center of town.
He had almost reached the trading plaza when a small creature dashed past him, and then stopped to turn around and call out in English, its high voice breaking the normal quiet of the town.
“Come on, Alek! We’re almost there!”
Aven stared in astonishment, his eyes opening wide. The human before him was tiny, smaller than any he’d seen before. It seemed barely large enough to manage the pack on its back. He knew that the human palteia Liam and Zach who lived on the Calti were taller than other humans, because the adjustments to their genetics that gave them a normal lifespan also gave them height equal to Aven’s own seven feet. But the human before him was less than half his size. The human’s skin was also much darker than the pale color he was used to seeing on Liam and Zach, and the thatch of black hair on its head was long and think. It was male, he supposed, since it lacked the fatty protuberances on its chest that were a human female secondary sexual identifier. His shirt was embroidered with a leaf design, and a necklace of wooden beads hung around his neck.
“Matei, calm yourself! The trading plaza is not going to walk away.”
The second voice came from another male human with the same dark skin and hair as the first, although this human’s hair was woven into a pleasing pattern that kept it tight against the head before hanging down in plaits. This one was also taller than the other human, but only by a couple of feet, and was still much shorter than Aven. When he reached Aven, he bowed low. A wooden bead necklace, similar to that of the smaller human, swayed with the bow.
“I offer apologies, honored trader,” he said in passable Rownt. “My younger nest mate is very excitable to seek trade with Rownt this day.”
The phrase “younger nest mate” did not make much sense in Rownt. In the very rare occurrence where two Rownt successfully hatched from the same clutch of eggs, they would both be the same age. However, Aven understood him to mean that he had a genetic connection with the smaller human, who was young enough to lack control.
“Youth are forgiven while the aged are held culpable,” he said.
The human gave another bow. “I am Journeyman Alek Letka, of the Vaijori ship Norocos and primary trader of the Letka clan. This is my small brother Matei.” He used the English word brother , which did not translate precisely into Rownt. There might exist a male hatched from an egg laid by the same Rownt who laid Aven’s egg, but Aven never had occasion to search him out, and if he were to meet him, their connection would not be closer than any other two Rownt of the same line.
The attempt at politeness deserved the reward of an introduction. “Ye-Aven, of the line of Nabait, honored graduate of the Deidell Academy, member of the ship Calti, and one to whom three Grandmothers have offered certificates of excellence.”
“We go to trading plaza,” said Matei. He had unfortunately conjugated his words in such a way as to sound like he was ordering Aven to accompany the two of them.
“You and Journeyman Alek are going to the plaza, youngling,” Aven corrected gently, making it a statement of fact rather than an order. “I am also going there.”
He hesitated. His purpose for coming to town had been to interact with the new human traders. Trading directly with the lower-ranked humans from the previously unknown human social group Vaijori was his most likely path to gaining ka-rank. However, these two appeared so young that he feared associating with them closely might lower his own status in the eyes of the Deidell Rownt. They had already attracted several observers curious about the new humans. These planet-bound Rownt would be judging Aven as much as they would the two humans.
On the other hand, better to hunt the desga in front of you rather than wait for a larger one that might never appear. His contacts on the human net had informed him that the Vaijori were all liars and cheats, and they were taught from the nest - or rather from the cradle - how to steal. Even allowing for the human habit of exaggerating for the sake of entertainment, it sounded like these Vaijori might be worthy trading partners.
“It is possible to walk together to a common destination,” he said. Another statement of fact, implying no further obligation.
“It would carry pleasure to walk with you this sunny day,” said Alek, bowing again in respect. Switching to English, he addressed his brother in a lower voice. “Go ahead, Matei, but do not run. Be respectful.”
“Yes, Alek,” said the youngling, and then began walking swiftly toward the plaza.
Alek waited for Aven to begin walking at a more sedate pace, and then fell in step beside him.
“Did the Calti arrive at Prarownt recently?” asked Alek.
Such a demand for low-value information might be considered a disrespectful attempt at trade, but Aven suspected this was the human practice of “small talk.” If this were a conversation on the net, where he was assumed to be human, he would’ve reciprocated, but he dared not in front of the other Rownt, who would see it as a sign of low status.
“Information on ship traffic is available on the open broadcast, youngling,” he said instead, in the tone of an elder instructing a very young Rownt.
“Ah, thank you, ye-Aven,” said Alek, confirming his youth and low status. Aven ignored him and strode forward and climbed the steps to the plaza.
Matei was already waiting there, standing in front of the first row of tables, his whole body wiggling in a way that reminded Aven of the Imshee when they were processing new information. He had never seen the palteia Liam or Zach shake in such a manner, though. Perhaps this small human had some neurological disorder.
The plaza was busier than he had ever seen it. One of the front tables was taken by an older Rownt with display of artistic carvings. Assorted pottery rested on a second row table with no Rownt currently present, and a Rownt about Aven’s age stood next to a table in the same row with a display of electronics. Finally, two very young Rownt, likely new unranked adults, were standing next to piles of vegetables on tables in the very back row. Aven suspected that like him, they were mainly here to see the new humans.
“Ye-Aven,” said Matei in his high-pitched voice, “Which table is ours?”
Aven froze to keep from showing his shock at such a question and took a slow deep breath to avoid growing pale. The other Rownt in the plaza did not show such control, with the older Rownt trilling his distress and the two young Rownt turning very pale indeed.
Talking was generally not allowed on the plaza, but Aven could not leave the human uncorrected. “Youngling, any Rownt who would claim adulthood must know their own worth as a trader. No other can tell them where to stand.” That was why there were so many tables in the plaza, much more than would ever be used at one time. Rownt needed plenty of room to sort out relative rank.
Matei did not seem affected by the rebuke. “Oh, then my large nestmate takes a front table, because he is most good trader on the Norocos !”
The older Rownt gave another trill, this time in amusement, likely due to the description of Alek as “large.”
Alek gave a huff of what Aven recognized as amusement but likely baffled the other Rownt not used to humans. He then managed to shock the Rownt a third time by drawing Matei into his arms and ruffling his hair. Only a child or a palteia would ever be shown such physical affection by a Rownt.
“My small brother is very loyal,” he said, once more using the English word. He then walked over to a table in the second row, a few spots away from where the Rownt with the electronics stood. He swung the pack off his back, and then helped Matei off with his pack.
Aven moved to stand by the table of electronics while still listening carefully to the two humans. They switched to English, and spoke in quieter voices, seeming unaware that Rownt hearing was better than a typical humans, and that he could understand every word they said.
“Now, go ahead and unpack everything while I go back for the other carvings. After you’re done, just stand quietly and watch the Rownt,” said Alek.
“And can I trade while you’re gone?” ask Matei, his voice rising.
Alek ruffled the smaller human’s hair once more. “No Rownt will want to trade with one as young as you.”
“But if they do want to trade with me, can I? Please?”
Alek gave another huff of amusement. “You may trade the wooden carvings, and offer tasting portions of the spices. That’s all.”
“Thank you!” said Matei, hugging the other human. “Just you watch, I’ll get that Imshee dictionary for you.” The last was said in such a hushed tone that Aven just barely understood.
Misgivings filled him. The tradition of silence in the plaza was meant to protect young traders from making foolish mistakes. Perhaps he should’ve warned these humans, one of which acted like a palteia or a child, before they gave away such critical information as their most valuable goods, and most desired trades.
Too late now, but he could keep watch to see if he could avert further trouble. He was concerned about Alek’s instructions to Matei to unpack their trade goods, since Matei could barely see over the top of the trading table. But the small human rummaged inside his brother’s larger pack and drew out a metal frame, which, with a few twists, assembled itself into a step ladder that gave him the height of a young Rownt adult. Rather ingenious.
Seeing the human settling in, Aven turned his attention to the table of electronics. Most pieces were ones he could find on ship at similar or better quality. The Calti , by necessity, had a greater concentration of those skilled in engineering than would be found in a planet-bound Rownt town.
However, there was a portable translation unit that included a module that shifted Rownt-pronunciations of English to the human counterpart. He trusted his own ability to communicate in English better than any computer program, but there were some sounds necessary for human speech that the Rownt just couldn’t make. This device solved that problem. He slid the device closer to trading circle, and then placed a token for an hour of his time dedicated to computer programming on the table.
The other Rownt moved the device away from the trading circle and shoved a small communications tablet towards it. Aven removed his token and replaced it with one for a measure of ship-grown tuthaha fruit, which was similar to the planet-grown version but grew on a hydroponic vine rather than the native trees. It was too sweet for most Rownt to eat, but it was favored by humans, so Aven kept tokens at hand for when palteia Liam or Zach joined him for a meal, in case their conversation was not payment enough for the food server.
The tuthaha fruit token was pushed away from the circle, and trading began in earnest. Aven’s most valuable tokens were those linked to his programming skills, but he was unwilling to offer too much of his time given the Calti would likely not stay more than the current planned month at Prarownt. Now that he’d seen the device, he could likely trade on ship for one of the engineers to manufacture a similar one, and write the program himself. Thus it was important that he not pay too much for the device. However, it would be more convenient to have one already assembled, and there were advantages for him to have completed a successful trade on the planet’s surface. In the end, a token for three hours of his time, plus one for a quarter kilo of gold lay in the trading circle alongside the translation device when the trader turned over his marker to show the end of the trade.
It was a good trade for both of them; the electronics dealer could certainly use the gold in his work, which otherwise was in too small of a quantity for most trades. And three hours of Aven’s time would serve the purpose of demonstrating his expertise without tying him too long to the planet. He bowed to the other Rownt at precisely the same angle as the other bowed to him.
As he stowed the device in his own satchel, the small human spoke, breaking the traditional silence of the plaza once more.
“Ye-Aven, Alek said that I can trade my first trade outside my mother ship today. It is said much luck comes from first stranger trade with Vaijori!”
Aven was torn between amusement at the young human’s clumsy attempt to pull him into trade and dismay that the other human had left such an inexperienced youngster to face the Rownt alone. He reminded himself of his earlier impulse to help the young humans and walked over to their table, well aware of the eyes of the other Rownt on him.
“Youngling, in the trading plaza, trade must be silent in order to protect the less experienced,” he said, as he looked at the goods offered.
“Apologies!” Matei blurted, and then pulled his lips into his mouth, making himself look more Rownt-like. Alek ignored him as he continued to examine the goods.
The wooden carvings that the larger human had said Matei could trade were grouped into sections, each with a hand-written label. The first group was labeled Carvings by Apprentice Matei. Each was made by hand from a single piece of tari wood. Apprentice, he recalled, was a human title for one still learning a skill. The carvings were impressive none-the-less. The unfamiliar dark wood had been shaped into a ball a little larger than his fist, with a latticework design carved over the entire surface. But the impressive part was that inside the design was a smooth sphere which had been shaped beneath the design and moved freely within it. There were five such carvings, and Aven could see they were progressively more detailed, showing how the youngster’s skill improved over time.
The next group was labeled Carvings by Journeyman Alek, and also were carved from a single piece of wood. Aven was not familiar with the title of journeyman, but given its literal translation of “one who travels” he assumed it was equivalent to the lek rank of a Rownt who has newly left the nest and claimed its first rank. These carvings had the same type of latticework as those of Matei, but instead of a smooth sphere inside, there was another level of carving, with the smooth sphere nested inside the second layer. Such a carving would take a steady hand and much patience.
The next section of the table had the label Carvings by Master Carver Mara , but the table was empty. This was presumably the place that the carvings Alek went back to the ship to fetch would go. Aven mentally applauded the youngling for clearly marking even more intricate carvings to come. He had definitely gained Aven’s attention.
The next part of the table had samples of delicate cloth in different abstract color schemes - blue and green like the ocean, red and orange like the sun, green and brown like the hills. The labels claimed them to be made from natural silk , a substance Aven was unfamiliar with. They would be unsuitable for clothing or nest pillows, but might make a fine donation to the temple if he could trade enough to make some drapes. Beside the samples were tokens indicating different lengths of the clothes available. Given Alek had not permitted Matei to trade these, they were likely among their most valuable goods. Aven let go of any thought of trading for these today, since he would need to research silk first before making such a large investment.
Finally there were the goods that most intrigued Aven, the spices. Alek had said young Matei could offer tasting samples, and Aven was determined to find out if these humans had any new spices that would appeal to Rownt palette. There were six shallow bowls with different colored powders or flakes in them, each with a label bearing a name, and the general origin of the spice - tree bark, root, fruit, seeds or leaves. He was pleased to recognize cinnamon, and ginger , both well-liked by the Rownt. The other four - douglah, cacao, turmeric and curcain - were unknown to him. Each bowl had several small spoons in front. Tokens for larger amounts were stacked to the side, and with a certificate from the Grandmothers proclaimed all safe for Rownt consumption.
Aven ignored the spices and picked up the simplest carving, examining more closely. On closer inspection, the ball inside the carved lattice was not quite perfectly smooth; he could see faint carving marks all along the surface. He set it down on its stand and picked up the next piece. In addition to the more complex carvings, the internal sphere was also smoother. He skipped the other apprentice carvings and picked up one from the second set. Unlike the apprentice carving, this one was not just an abstract pattern. He could see the outline of some great beast curling around the holes that exposed the next layer. The carvings on the interior sphere were less intricate than the outer one, but still notably more detailed that the apprentice pieces. He placed it in the trading circle and put down one of his tuthaha fruit tokens.
The warm scent of human satisfaction drifted across the table even as Matei’s mouth set in a deliberate line. Aven repressed his amusement. Tuk-palteia Liam had once lamented in detail how big a disadvantage human’s scenting was for trading with the Rownt. Of course, Aven was quite aware how misleading Liam was being, since as a Tuk-ranked trader living amongst the Rownt, he had no doubt learned to control this automatic response. But the young human in front of him had no such control.
Matei returned the carving to its original place, and nudged the simplest carving slightly towards the circle. Aven repressed a rumble expressing his own satisfaction. The human was young, but he knew the basics of trade. He pulled out more tokens and began to trade in earnest. Matei has much more patience that Aven would’ve guessed, and the shadows lengthen as various carvings moved closer and further from the circle and the stack of tokens shifted on and off the table.
Two journeyman carvings and one apprentice carving now sat in the trading circle, with tokens for tuthaha, gold and palladium on the table. Matei picked up a small spoon in front of the dish of yellow powder labeled turmeric and held it out to Aven, who accepted it and touched it to the powder the bowl, capturing a tiny amount.
He slowly inhaled the scent of the unfamiliar spice. It reminded him a little of ginger, and a little of citrus. A cautious touch of his tongue sparked a delightful pungent taste, and he licked the rest of the powder off without thinking, moving it to the back of his mouth.
It was strong, very strong, but mixed in the right stew or sauce would definitely appeal to ship-bound Rownt grown weary of the same varieties of flavors. He set down the spoon, which Matei whisked out of sight, and took a swig of water as if to clear out an unpleasant taste. No need to show his interest so soon, when the young one was not allowed trade for the spice in any case.
To Aven’s surprise, Matei reached out for the label in front of the turmeric and flipped it over. On the back was a history of the spice, which had been used in ancient human times as not only a flavoring, but also a dye and medicinal ingredient. Its use had become widespread in dishes call curries from the nineteenth to the early twenty-first human centuries, but then fell out of favor after the conflicts that destroyed the major cultivation areas.
Hmmm, interesting. Just enough information to pique his interest and highlight the (possible) rarity of the spice, but no information on its current use and cultivation locations. These Vaijori were truly clever traders.
They repeated the process for the ginger and cinnamon, which tasted like the varieties he was familiar with, and then for douglah and curcain, which proved to be closely related to the chili powder that tuk-palteia Zach so favored. But these varieties were stronger, much stronger. Aven personally had no interest in eating food that bit him back, but some of the food preparers might trade for them, if only because it would take much less spice to get the same effect as the chili powder.
Aven expected Matei to move on to the last spice, but instead he resumed trading with the carvings. Aven obliged by adding a token for an hour of his programming expertise. He had no idea of the humans had any need of it, but if they did accept the trade it would benefit him by lengthening his interactions with the humans.
Matei picked up the token and scanned it with his reader, and then placed it back on the exact spot Aven had put it. Then nothing more. Not a rejection, but not enough for trade to be completed. That was fine. The older human would no doubt return soon and bring trading additional opportunities. To signal his willingness to wait for better goods, Aven touched a finger to the label that said Carvings by Master Carver Mara.
Matei stared at the label a moment, and for the first time Aven could scent nervousness rolling off the young one. Then Matei reached behind his neck and lifted the wooden bead necklace over his head, placing it on the table above the label for Master Carver Mara.
Aven picked up the necklace and examined it closely. It was a different wood than the other carvings, with a pleasant scent that mingled well with the young human’s own personal scent. There were twenty-four wooden beads, each separated by a gold colored metal bead. And each of the wooden beads was carved in the same style as the spheres currently in the trading circle.
Except as Aven peered even more closely, he saw that each bead, no bigger than the first segment of his thumb, had not one, not two, but at least three layers of carvings, much more intricate than those of the larger spheres. The skill required to achieve such detail in such a small area was amazing. This piece was truly the work of a master carver, and would be a suitable gift to the temple on board the Calti. He set it back down on the table, slightly closer to the trading circle.
Matei handed him a small spoon that was in front of the last spice, a dark brown powder labeled cacao . Aven touched it to his tongue and froze. The marvelous amaroidial bite was underlain with an indescribable richness. This, this was the spice he was looking for, something unknown to the Rownt but perfectly suited to their tastebuds. This was a spice worth trading his wealth for. Even if supplies were common among the humans, it would still be worth investing in because there would never be enough for the appetite this would bring forth from the Rownt. As Aven continued to contemplate the flavor dancing across his tongue, Matei flipped over the label.
Aven was unsurprised that this marvelous cacao was once known as the “Food of the Gods,” and was a mainstay of human trade for a thousand year, which translated as a very long time by human standards. It’s geographical range was limited on the human homeworld Earth, and its production was devastated by conflict and a change in the planet’s climate. Difficult to grow off-world, it remained a luxury item among humans.
It was also an essential ingredient in something called “chocolate birthday cake,” a dessert decorated with candles used to celebrate the anniversary of a human’s live birth. A memory clicked with Aven, from some years ago when he was logged onto one of the human unofficial trade networks. One of the participants had announced it was their birthday, and Aven had echoed the congratulatory messages of the others without really understanding. The celebrant had been asked “how many candles on your cake” and replied thirty-two. Thus this custom was still followed among some humans.
Yet Aven had never seen the human palteia Liam or Zach celebrate a birthday on board the Calti . Since the ship did not have this essential ingredient for the chocolate cake, that was not surprising. But if tuk-Ondry or the eldest Grandmother were to learn that their palteia had been deprived of beloved human celebration, they would gladly pay any price Aven dared to ask for the information and the cacao.
Aven had to obtain all the cacao spice, and more importantly the secret of the chocolate birthday cake , before any other Rownt attempted trade with these humans. Since the smallest human was not allowed to trade anything but the carvings, the trade could not be completed before Alek returned, but Aven could manipulate things in his favor in the meantime.
He moved the necklace to the center of the trading circle, and added the label from the cacao. With a Rownt trader this would be a dangerous signal of his true interest, but hopefully the young human would not understand. He added the label from the turmeric to the circle as well, for camouflage. Then he reached into a satchel and pulled out a token fabricator and typed in Imshee Standard Dictionary.
Aven repressed a feeling of guilt. He had originally being trying to help protect the humans, who had been careless and revealed their greatest desire. But in the end, it was not his role to let them know how little worth it had. All Rownt who traded with the Imshee had free access to this dictionary, and it had also been traded to the humans at Earth Command years ago. Moreover, the Imshee had decided sixty years ago to have nothing to do with the humans, having learned that they had practiced hunting-without-rest in the past. Thus the dictionary was essentially worthless.
If he were a nutu trader, Aven would be able to figure out a way to warn the humans of their error while still gaining a favorable trade for them both. But for now, he had to keep an eye out for his own profit first. He placed the token on the table, close to the trading circle.
If he had any doubt of the human’s interest in the dictionary, the sharp smell of excitement and the hastily smothered smile would’ve dispeled it. Matei was wiggling again, so much that Aven fear he might fall from his stool. Matei moved the dictionary token next to the ones for tuthaha, gold, palladium, and Aven’s time, and then looked at Aven expectantly. His eyes appeared very large relative to the small face.
Aven hated to crush that hopeful look, but he could not allow the trade to complete before the older human had returned. He moved all the tokens for the cacao into the circle, next to the three carvings, the carved wooden bead necklace, and the two spice labels. Now Matei would be forced to wait for Alek before finishing the trade.
Or so Aven thought. Because Matei, with a tooth-baring grin, flipped over the marker that signaled a completed trade. Aven stared in stunned silence, trying to fathom what had just happened.
Matei quickly covered his mouth with his hands, and then lowered them to apologize. “I am sorry, ye-Aven, I did not intend threat with my teeth.”
The sharp trill of amusement from the Rownt by the electronics table did nothing to settle Aven’s feeling of being pushed off center. He gave a warning look at the Rownt before speaking to Matei.
“You did not threaten me, youngling. But I’m afraid I’ve stolen all your meat, leaving nothing but vegetables.” The small human might be young, but he’d been brave enough to trade with a ye-ranked Rownt and deserved the honor of being insulted.
“It is a foolish trader that seeks to trade meat to an herbivore,” said a voice behind him. Alek had returned. He walked over to look at the trading table, and then froze. A heavy stench of human anger and pain filled Aven’s nose.
“Matei, what is your necklace doing in the trading circle?” Alek snapped out in English.
“You said I could trade the carvings,” said Matei in the same language, his voice wavering. Now his scent was changing, his anxiety plain.
“I didn’t mean the necklace mother made you! How could you, Matei. She died giving birth to you. That necklace was her last work, and she made it to protect you!”
Matei’s eyes started to water. “But I got the Imshee dictionary!”
“And what worth is a file of alien words as compared to a final symbol of a mother’s love?!”
The shouted words were answered by a pained wail from Matei and a grief-stained stench that Aven had not scented in over a decade flooded the air. The palteia Zach had smelled like this, when his pet carnivore Duke had died. The eldest Grandmother had whisked the grieving human to their nest and not come out for three days. Aven wished he could do the same for this distressed youngling.
But now the older human was taking action, hurrying over to the youngling and gathering him into his arms. Matei wrapped his arms and legs around the taller human’s body, burying his face against a shoulder. Alek rocked him back and forth, making shushing noises.
“It’s okay, Matei. I am sorry I yelled, it’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have left you so long, but you did well, you were so brave.”
“Mama, mama!” cried the youngling, and Aven could not stay there, but he could not leave either. He found himself gurbling, as he would do to soothe an upset eggling. Other Rownt had arrived at the plaza, drawn by the sounds of distress. It felt like all eyes were accusing him.
“Shhh, mama would be so proud of you. You are a good son and a good brother. Don’t worry, I will fix this.”
“You will?” said Matei shakily. “How?”
Aven was wondering the same thing. The trade was complete. He stared at the necklace in the center with distaste. He could not give it to the temple now. Nor could he keep it. But he also could not insult the trading circle by simply giving it back.
“By another trade, of course. Now I must set you down. Watch me.”
Alek carefully placed Makei on the ground, waiting for a moment to make sure he was steady. Then he climbed the step ladder until he could took Aven straight in the eye. He slowly pushed the goods in the circle towards Aven, and collected the tokens for himself.
“Ye-Aven, it was kind of you to indulge Makei in his first trade outside our mother trip,” he said in Rownt, loud enough for all the gathered Rownt to hear him. Aven winced at the compliment. “But I’m afraid he has cheated you terribly. The strajari necklace of an orphaned twelve year old eggling is worth nothing. It is only the necklace of a master trader that has value.”
With that proclamation, he removed his own necklace and set it on the trading table.
Aven was hit with a series of shocks, barely registering Alek’s improved command of the Rownt language. He knew that Matei was young, but a twelve-year-old eggling should still be clinging to a parent’s leg when taken outside the nest, or restrained by the nictel. He would’ve never had attempted trade if he understood how young Matei was. And an orphan . After what happened with the Desga sixty years past, the idea of causing emotional distress to an orphaned human was particularly unthinkable to a Rownt.
And finally, there was the realization that Alek had just called himself master trader, when before he had introduced himself as journeyman. He was using this encounter with Aven to claim a higher rank. Some part of Aven wanted to admire the human for such ruthlessness, but his immediate dismay left no space for admiration.
Aven was well and truly trapped now. He could not walk away, not past all the Rownt who had come to help the distressed human eggling. He could not defend himself, not without breaking the silence of the plaza and looking weak, despite the fact that he was not the one who left an eggling alone with a stranger. But any trade he made with Alek now would gain him no honor. He would be very lucky to hang on to his ye-rank. He might not deserve to hang on to his ye-rank.
Still, he would not be rushed into this. He carefully stowed away the carvings and the labels and the tokens for the cacao. Those actions helped settle him - at least with the cacao he had clear profit, no matter what else happened. He left Matei’s necklace on the table, and picked up Alek’s.
Alek’s necklace was clearly made by the same artist, using the same pleasantly-scented wood. It carried a stronger human scent than the first necklace, but that was not a bad thing. The wooden beads were separated by copper colored beads, not gold, but the craftsmanship of the carving was just as impressive. It was a fair trade. He placed the older necklace in the trading circle, and added the one he’d just gotten from Matei.
Alek stared at him, impassive. With a sinking feeling Aven fully realized his doom. Alek had said that the eggling’s necklace was worth nothing. Thus Aven would have to add the full value of Alek’s necklace before the human could acknowledge the trade.
Aven tried to salvage something for himself, moving tokens for the other spices, and the silks, to the trading circle. Each time Alek moved them back to their original places and simply stared. Aven was tempted to walk away, but Matei was still there, eyes beseeching him over the table edge, clinging to his brother’s leg just as a Rownt eggling might.
Finally, he had added back the three original carvings, all his tokens for gold, rhodium, palladium, and osmium, all his tuthaha tokens, the turmeric label, and tokens for one hundred-twenty hours of his computer expertise. The only trade goods he stubbornly held onto were the cacao tokens and label. If he gave that up, then he may as well give up adult status altogether. He took a half step back from the table to signal the finality of his position.
For a long moment, Aven feared that Alek would not accept the trade. Then there would be no path left except to walk away, and if Aven walked away now he may as well keep walking into the wilderness rather than return the the Calti. But finally Alek flipped over the marker, and the most harrowing trade of Aven’s life was done.
Aven lifted Matei’s necklace from the table and looped it over the young one’s head with a smile. He then bowed to Aven, who bowed more deeply back. There could be no argument who got the better of this trade. He picked up his own necklace, pondering what to do with it. It was not as tainted as the necklace of an orphaned eggling, but he could not imagine presenting it at the temple with pride.
Matei’s high voice interrupted his thoughts. He had moved around to his side of the table. “You shouldn’t wear it as a necklace, since you are not Vaijori, but it would make a nice bracelet.”
Aven looped the beads over his wrist. The dark wood and copper accents did look well against his purplish skin. More importantly, it would be an important reminder not to be overconfident in the future. He looped it several more times until it was secure against his skin. The necklace cord had a bit of give to it, so it was not too tight.
Once more Matei interrupted his thoughts, this time by throwing his arms around Aven’s waist and squeezing tight.
“Thank you, Ye-Aven,” he said. “You helped me more than you can ever know.”
Aven froze. Rownt did not touch anyone with compassion, except for their children, and palteia. But then this small human was truly a child, despite his earlier skill in trading, which meant he deserved compassion and protection and all the support an adult like Aven could give. His sense of embarrassment and anger resulting from this stressful trade drained away. He gently stroked the child’s thick hair as he’d seen Alek do.
“It was a good trade for us both, eggling,” he said, and knew it to be true.
If nothing else, he owed a hundred twenty-one hours of his expertise to these two humans, which meant continued interaction.. Who knows what other lessons they had to teach him?