Science Fiction

The Spear Carrier

By A.M. Dellamonica
7,820 words · 29-minute reading time
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Flesh wounds mixed badly with formalwear.

Opal's dueling master had caught her with his spear barb an hour earlier, slicing a line from her left underarm to her shoulderblade. A minor wound as such things were rated, but he'd never cut her before. Worse, she suspected he'd done it deliberately. And she had given him no reason.

Accident or no, Mete's timing could not have been worse. Getting bandaged and showered had left Opal with little time to don the full-length gown she now wore. Shimmering in mauve silk and silver beads, she burst into the preparation chamber. Haste got her entangled in the saffron-colored curtain at the cave entrance. She almost popped stitches catching herself on the rock wall.

The dress had been fitted for her remotely, back on Earth. It was too tight in the chest. The matching high heels Home Office had sent made the light green cobblestones of the Path--the sanctified walkway that led through the underground caverns of the alien shrine to the sunlit ledge atop the mountain that housed it--treacherous.

And now the crowning irritation: Masao was only half-dressed.

He was singing to his Earthbeast--she had been among the Budj so long that calling it a cat felt peculiar--an ancient queen with long black fur and white belly. It was too creaky to groom itself, so Masao brushed it all the time. He was too soft-hearted to yank on the mats in its coat. The beast, therefore, smelled of litterbox.

Masao seemed oblivious to its stench. Even now he had it cradled in his arms like a baby. Nose deep in its filthy stomach fur, he crooned a song about a hangman.

She stared, all but hating him. Being displaced by someone who'd earned the promotion Masao was taking from her was one thing... but the old man had simply capitalized on an accident. There'd been no competition; she'd never had a chance.

Opal pried the cat free, declining to return the glare it threw her as it scooted under Masao's bench. "Skaa, you're not ready."

"I'll just be a minute."

"Do you know if the Seye... the crafter's here? I didn't have time to check."

"He's here."

"She. You've got to learn to tell male from female, Masao."

"You're pale." Catching her hand, he peered into her face. His grip drew her arm forward. The wound twinged, and she gasped.

"I'm fine." Pulling free, Opal took two hot towels from a red-glazed urn. She thrust one at him. With the other, she wiped her hands. "Wipe up, hurry."

"They can't fire us for being late."

"They can fire me," she muttered. The cat had left black and white hairs all over the legs of Masao's exquisitely tailored slacks.

"Wouldn't dare. I'd throw you on the payroll as my mistress--" At his words, Opal's head snapped around, and Masao amended, "My nanny?"

Forcing a brittle smile, she handed him his shirt. Six months ago she was going to be the youngest offworld Ambassador in human history.

Now she was a nanny.

Masao was a relic, just like his beast, but he didn't look it. His skin was the color of half-steeped tea, thin and tight, more papery than wrinkled. Years of hard work had knotted his muscles to cords. He had retained most of his hair, but, contrary to fashion, he'd shaved it. The layer of bristles against his skin revealed more white than black.

When they'd met, he was wearing bright orange workalls, and getting him into a tailored suit had been a surprise. How sharp he'd looked suddenly, the broad shoulders and shine of his head making him handsome. Even--Opal had hated admitting it--impressive.

But a monkey in a penguin suit was still a monkey. Masao was an overdressed repairman who'd agreed, for mercenary reasons, to become Earth's ambassador to the Budj.

She asked, "You remember my briefing on the ceremony?"

"Yeah, sure."

"You don't need a review?"

"Review why I'm here again?" Shrugging the shirt on, he buttoned it gracefully, apparently untroubled by the heat.

"Ambassador's salary?"

He chuckled. "Honey, this gig pays less than I made fixing the hydraulics on cruise ships."

"Maybe on paper." Opal snatched up a lint brush, sending pain across her back. Kneeling carefully, she swiped his slacks. "You negotiated substantial value in perks."

"Perks. Sounds like dancing girls and fine wine everywhere I go, doesn't it?"

"What did you ask for?"

He shrugged. "Mostly tuition for the grandkids."

"All nine?"

"What, I was going to pick a couple favorites? Yes, all nine. Wherever they want to go, whatever they want to study, however long they want to study it."

He was talking about a staggering amount of money.

"Get one of them at least out of the shipyards and slaughterhouses, I'll be happy," he muttered. The cat meeped from its hiding place under the stone bench, and he reached down to stroke its ears.

"I didn't know you'd--that you'd asked for that." Opal's family was scattered, a collection of genetically related but emotionally remote acquaintances. What had they given her that could compare with such a gift? Her father had sent her off to college with nothing more than a handshake. They'd argued, she remembered, over whether her suitcase was too heavy for her plane.

Automatically, she put her hands out to her sides, elbows bent--a pose of respect. Then she remembered Masao hadn't learned any of the Budj bodyspeak, and her irritation flared, stronger after the moment of respite.

"They weren't offering much I wanted. Oh, I asked for a couple belly-dancing secretaries, don't get me wrong--"

Opal sighed. "Where's your jacket?"

He reached for it. "Soon as I'm officially Ambassador Masao..."

"Nobody is ever going to call you that, including you. Even in private."

"Once I'm your boss, you're going to a training seminar on goofing off and perking up. I'd have an easier time getting a laugh out of my youngest boy."

"I thought he was dead."

"My point exactly."

"This isn't a comedy review, Masao, so please answer my question. Do you remember how the ceremony goes?"

His lips thinned. "Speech, name, gift, speech, name, gift... and... let me see if I can remember what's next... Ah! Speech, name, gift. They stick a clunky nametag--"

"It's called a nohec--"

"--in my belly button, we go to the reception and chances are I piss off some scarecrow in the first ten minutes."

"I told you, they're not that volatile."

"They spear me, I bleed to death in this overpriced pile of rags and you tell Home Office 'I told you it would never work.'" His imitation of her voice was uncanny. "I forget anything?"

Brushing off the last of the cat hair, Opal stood. Five years she had worked to get to where Masao was now. She accepted this post when everyone above her in the offworld service demurred. They'd been scared off by the citizenship requirement, the risks of Budj dueling culture. A middling chance of being impaled seemed too much to pay for a fast-tracked career.

But Opal had been ready. Eager, even. An Ambassador's post offworld--one nobody in the service would ever covet. How could anyone turn it down?

She had given up everything to assimilate into Budj culture. She had filled her head with the landscape and language, taken the strange customs and people into her heart. She had flown with them, screaming along the updrafts within their cliff cities on her custom-made glider.

Arune had become home.

Now Masao was taking her place, her title, even her immigration sponsor. Opal would be expected to do his job and shield him from the Budj... all without the leap up to full pay, without the prestige and perks.

And here he was whining about the risks!

"Nobody coming to the reception wants to duel you," she told him, hating the small voice of conscience--her soul's voice, the Budj would say--as it reminded her that yet again she was berating an old man out of his depth.

She strangled the qualms. He shouldn't have agreed to do this.

"You saved their kids, Masao. The Budj upPath have been waiting months to meet you as equals, to thank you. There's no threat here."

"That's why you had me signing waivers yesterday."

"You're a foreign dignitary. Nobody's--"

"No?" He yanked a scarf loose from the gift table, and a rotten bloatfruit dropped out. Green fluid splatted onto the cobbles of the Path as it hit the floor. Gelatinous parasites consumed the fruit's innards through cracks in its bruised skin.

"Is that thing supposed to be wishing me luck?"

Opal drew a deep breath, regretting it as her dress tightened around the bandage. "Anyone could have sent it. Smuggling a gift onto the Path is easier than crashing the party."

"Come on, hon. There's a scarecrow up there polishing his spear for me."

Gritting her teeth as she bent, she scooped the fruit into her towel. "Masao, Budj don't stain their spearbarbs with offworlder blood."

"After the ceremony I'm no offworlder, just another citizen scarecrow. Isn't that the point? Masao, Budjman, lofty enough on the social register to do meaningful business. Earth can have its embassy, you and Paryul can hook up, write treaties, whatever it is you do..."

Opal searched his face, hoping her own didn't show anything. "I know what your citizenship papers say; I drew them up. But nobody will risk--"

"A diplomatic incident? Who cares what happens to an Earthman?"

"Lots of Budj owe you. Your death would cause a feud."

"I'd still be dead." He glared at the ruined towel, stained with strange fruitjuice and thready black hairs.

"Just put on your tie, and let me worry--" A tootle at the curtain interrupted her. Masao flinched, and Opal felt guilty all over again.

"May I enter?" Paryul swept inside with a flourish, the better to show off his black ceremonial jacket and exquisitely waxed thatches of hair. The formal attire made the scarecrow epithet more apt than usual. The garment was long and tattered at its hems, held together at the navel by Paryul's golden, gem-encrusted nohec.

Opal's breath hitched, irrationally, at the sight of him. An inconvenient mix of emotions--desire, affection, even tenderness--almost made her forget she was angry at Paryul too.

The tiny mass of the Budjman's body was at odds, aesthetically, with his reedy golden limbs. His facial skin was coarse, like burlap, and his hair had a definite strawlike quality. A thin membrane of flesh flowed between each long arm and corresponding leg--gliders that allowed the Budj to ride the winds up and down to each others' estates on the cliffs. Paryul's gliders had been newly shaved, and light shone through the places where the skin had been laid bare. The barbers created intricate patterns of golden thatch and translucent, vein-traced flesh.

Like every other adult Budj, Paryul wore a spear in a sling upon his back.

"Opal is right, fali," he said now. "Today's gathering holds no danger."

Masao touched his throat, and Opal guessed he was remembering the spaceship accident that had, indirectly, brought him here. He'd saved seventeen juvenile Budj from a decompressing passenger compartment on a cruise liner.

After the rescue, he'd been assaulted by a haughty child scarecrow that couldn't bear the idea of owing her life to a primitive. The Budjmaiden almost strangled him. There were plenty of full-grown Budj who wished she'd succeeded.

"No danger," Masao murmured. "Hope you're right."

"Why would I be right? Skaa, I've only spent years learning the protocol," Opal said. "Perhaps you'd like to consult a tourist download. Check my facts?"

Paryul twittered amusement, a sound like wind whistling through a bamboo flute. "'Ware, Masao. You'll be dueling your Earthmaid."

"Don't call me that: I'm not one of his perks." Opal reeled her anger in. It's the heat in the tunnels, she told herself. The humidity, this straitjacket of a dress...

"I heard there was a mishap," Paryul toned, speaking Aruna now. As always, his song sent a thrill through Opal's body. The lust was too much today: another plait of sensation which braided with the pain of her injury, tightening her nerves.

She let her hands waft out in a gesture of unconcern. "A ripened bloatfruit--"

"At practice. You were barbed?"

"Accidents happen."

"In Mete's arena? And now there's a threat?" He was across the room in a blink, whiffing deeply at the parasites. "Perhaps we should postpone..."

"That's ridiculous."

"There was no reason to cut you." Paryul's eyes flared a furious red. The protective bodyspeak was a more honest 'I love you' than anyone on Earth had offered her. Desire shocked through her again. "If there is danger..."

"It was your choices that brought us here, Minister," Opal said, using the formal verb case and whistling between her teeth coldly.

"I won't throw your life away, junne." His tone was almost a screech.

"What're you two scrapping about?" Masao demanded.

Blushing, Opal lied. "The Minister feels I've been inconsiderate of the strain you're facing."

"You're doing okay," Masao said, dropping the compliment like trash as he knotted his tie. "We ready?"

"We are," Opal said firmly. Delaying wouldn't change anything: if someone was after Masao today, they'd be after him tomorrow. It would only be a matter of time...

Masao shifted, uneasily. "Do we really have to--"

"I have been training, Earthman, have no fear." With a peculiar-sounding wheeze, Paryul slipped his arms around Masao, lifting him as though he were a child. Opal pulled the curtain aside and the scarecrow staggered upPath--the ceremonial route through the mountain caves was on a sharp incline. He struggled heroically under Masao's weight, Opal following behind, picking every step in the damn heels as they climbed. Slowly, Paryul bore the old man through a stone corridor floored by the slickly polished cobblestones.

The color of the Path faded from dark green to light as the tunnel opened into a great hollowed-out cavern.

The only illumination here came from two shafts that had been chiseled up to the surface of the mountain. The channels were angled so that two beams of light met in the center of the room: one from the greater of the Budj suns, Weib, one from the lesser sun, Lennel. Hot springs within the labyrinth of caves filled the chamber with steam. The beams were sharply defined within the heated murk.

Around the edges of the room were carefully selected Budj witnesses. In the darkness and haze Opal couldn't make out their faces.

She almost fell again, catching herself with difficulty. The fabric of her slip stuck to her chest and tugged on her bandage. Sweat carved itchy pathways down her face.

"Les yowec fali; bown itaczi ammoc ezila sker ol," Paryul sang, dumping Masao in the light. Struggling for breath, he straightened and finished. "Tun feel baleff, rool fallin zo wey."

"This is my child," Opal translated softly. She knew the words by heart in both tongues; she had expected to hear them said for her. Tears warmed her eyes. "I release him from the bonds of family and the past."

"Nana nogero asaxet, fali, ob vuno."

A tiny rivulet of moisture ran down the back of Masao's head, sparkling in the light from the sister suns.

"Declare yourself, child, before your people and to yourself."

A spear flew out of the darkness.

Masao lurched back but Opal caught him, pressing a hand between his shoulderblades. If he stepped out of the light the ceremony was over. Her cut throbbed as she strained against his weight; the bandage felt wet and heavy.

The spear whisked back into blackness, passing harmlessly. It struck cushion on the other side of the cavern with a quiet harmless thud.

"Testing your nerve," she whispered. "Traditional, remember?"

His only reply was a grunt.

A Budjman stepped out of the darkness to join them in the spotlight: a government official, robed in tattered black. He twittered his speech rudely. Not all Budj approved of adopting offworlders, no matter how much alien-born citizens smoothed the way for trade with their etiquette-conscious culture.

Fingers curled, the scarecrow extended a gold half-circle across the beam of light to Masao.

"Your third name will henceforth be Huin, which means Speaker. This befits your profession, Ambassador," Opal translated.

Masao affixed the broach to his tie. The piece was made of two wires of gold, upon which were strung an occasional gem. The wires formed a curved track, and between them were carved stone figures, Aruna letters spelling out the name Huin. They matched the letters on the top third of the nohec worn by the resentful scarecrow before them.

Letting his hands drop to his sides, Masao slowly tilted in the peculiar sideways bow of the Budj. With a pause--again barely showing courtesy--the bureaucrat reciprocated. Then Masao reached back to claim a small packet from Opal.

"My thanks," he said, and Opal translated the ritual phrase. The bureaucrat tilted and accepted the gift, offering rote thanks with the barest insulting hint of acid on his breath before retreating.

"Move on and kneel now, right?" Masao whispered.

"Yes." He had forgotten the briefing. After all the times she'd tried to get him to go over it again...

Maybe he's just nervous, chided the nagging inner voice.

UpPath, a new pair of lightshafts appeared, this time separated by a space the width of a hand. Masao walked forward into the first beam and bent gracefully, again seeming younger than his sixty-plus years as he settled back on his knees and heels. The circle of Lennellight before him illuminated a low altar, an anvil-shaped blue stone covered by a sheet of paper. The light was intensely focused: within seconds of the skylight's opening, the sheet crisped and burst into flame.

Opal handed him a wrapped bundle of papers representing his past--his childhood, in Budj eyes. It contained a hardcopy of his birth certificate as well as documents attesting that Paryul had adopted and was now releasing him, a Budj adult with full citizenship privileges, into society. There were also photographs of Masao, both with Paryul and with his human kin.

The Budj believed families were things to be escaped from. That an adult had to formally break ties with the parents who had misnamed them when they were too young to establish identities of their own. The idea was that each Budj, once renamed, could approach all relationships equally. They could meet their parents as peers, without reference to prior obligation or genetic ties.

Opal found this philosophy utterly sensible. Her mother had been an oddly immature woman; she'd looked to her eldest daughter to act as junior Mom to her younger siblings. Over time she had all but resigned her maternal responsibilities, virtually becoming another kid Opal was expected to care for.

As for Daddy... he had adored her as a child. Somehow--right around the time Opal started dating--the affection hadn't lasted. They'd begun fighting, and he took to treating her with the same troubling contempt he used on Mama.

Masao unwrapped the packet and set the papers from Paryul on the altar. He slipped the birth certificate onto the pyre, eyes averted as flames licked the paper. He fingered the picture of his mother and father.

Opal fought a twinge of irritation. It was only a copy; he'd complained about having to burn it until she finally volunteered to help hide the original.

She gave him a small smile, hoping it was encouraging. It must have been, because Masao set the photograph face-down on the pyre. After it had burned to ash he stood, holding out his hand stiffly to accept a silk-wrapped second component of nohec jewelry from Opal. The gold wires on this one were straight. The chosen name fit within the circle of the other two--representing the self, orbited by two suns.

"The past is behind me, the future ahead," he said, and Opal translated the words. She had wanted to teach him the Budj phrases, with their deeper meanings and subtleties. His interest--in that, in any of the intricate aspects of Budj culture she had tried to share--had been nil. "My chosen name, spoken for the first time among this company, is Zamsun."

He pinned the straight nohec below the curved one and claimed another packet from her, handing it to Paryul. "This is for your care of me through childhood."

The gift contained ten high-grade rubies. Back when she'd been Ambassador in everything but name, Opal had imported them from Earth, knowing full well that Paryul would see the paperwork when they passed through their go-between's trade office.

Red gems were rare and much coveted here on Arune. Importing the rubies been a flirtatious way of hinting that Paryul should push forward her immigration. She'd been getting impatient. The rubies would make a splendid naming gift. No Budjwoman could have given him more.

Paryul's response had been swift... and unexpected. He'd made a cause of Masao--Zamsun, now--maneuvering Opal into coughing up the intended present on the old Earthman's behalf.

Had she offended him by seeming to offer a bribe? Was it too grand a gift for a supposed child to offer an adoptive parent? Opal still didn't know; Budj custom kept them from discussing it. She couldn't very well tell her etiquette tutor that she was in love with a Budjman. Not even when that Budjman was a widower known for his liberal tendencies and exotic tastes.

The burning light winked out and the altar all but vanished, lit only by a few fading embers of paper whose smoke thickened the already fog-dense air. When the glow was fully extinguished, a Budjwoman stepped forward.

Kasej Velida Glorets was one of the most impressive individuals Opal had encountered. Deep of voice, long both of spear and of cloak, her intense orange eyes glowed like banked coals. When she spoke, her tone was at once majestic and conversational. Everyone on the planet, it seemed, could hear her. Yet her words were for Masao alone.

"After a child grows to adulthood," Opal translated, "He shines his inner nature to his people by revealing his common name. Your profession's name, Speaker, tells us where you soar. Your choice of name, Zamsun, shows how you will fly, both in gale and calm wind."

Actually, Opal thought, all it illuminated was that Masao's given middle name had been Samson. Zamsun, translated, stood for 'fortress,' but that meant nothing to him; he'd just wanted something reminiscent of the human name he'd been so loathe to change.

"How you are seen by others is also critical to your nature," Velida continued. "We, the Budj who know you best have met in secrecy and in public. We have met in sober counsel and in affectionate appreciation of your life, your deeds, and your soul. We have chosen your first name. Henceforth, know yourself to be Levai Zamsun Huin."

Opal gasped; then as the towering Budjwoman produced the final component of the broach, the hemisphere that would complete the circle, she recovered enough to say: "It's a great honor, Zamsun. The name has been bestowed only nine thousand times since the beginning of the Beyoo dynasty. Tilt left and then right. Circle your arms very slowly when you give Velida her gift."

"I feel like an idiot," he muttered, as he tilted imperfectly and finally fixed the pin under the middle section of his nohec.

Opal registered his grumbles only distantly. Levai was so rarely bestowed... how could they? She'd given them a perfectly good list of suggestions. She was still fuming when Masao reached for the old Budjwoman's gift. Sweating and angry, she slapped it into his hands. Behind her in the dark, Paryul was probably baring his teeth in disapproval.

Masao made his final gift offering and Opal followed him out of the lightshafts, moving upPath in her treacherous heels. It was cooler in the darkness--if only just. She let her face relax out of its expressionless mask. The honor they'd paid him. And he didn't know. He wouldn't even learn the language.

The enormity of everything she had given up caved in on her. She had learned this world outside and in, fed herself on the prospect of being a full ambassador in a matter of years instead of decades. She'd taken pride in challenging a world that terrified her colleagues. She had drawn Arune into her thoughts and heart--had become so alien in her soul that she had taken a Budjman first into her bed, then into her heart.

Now instead of finally meeting Paryul on equal terms she would remain a foreigner, an underling in the eyes of both their people. Little more than a tool, furniture.

Skylights above slid shut, giving Opal just enough time in blackness to wipe her face. Then a curtain opened at floor level. Light--artificial this time, no stars now--spilled through it, bright enough so that they could finally make out the shadows of the solemnly watching Budj encircling the great chamber.

"Go," she whispered, composing herself as Masao began a slow walk to the light. The Path led to another furnished underground chamber where a Budj crafter would solder the three separate nohec broaches into a single piece of jewelry. After that was done, Masao could walk up out of the caverns, a full citizen of Arune and Earth's Ambassador too, at least on paper.

He was appropriately straight-backed and majestic until they got inside; then, as the curtain fell, he sighed gustily and pulled the broaches off his tie.

"So it's over. I'm a grownup."

"Congratulations," she said drily.

He held the pieces out to Opal but she shook her head, arranging them on his palm and straightening his tie before gesturing at a jade-colored curtain that hung in heavy folds on one side of the room.

"Anyone who wants can skewer me now?" He stood before it stiffly.

"Once you're named and armed," she said, pulling the curtain aside.

A tense little Budjman glared at her from behind the ceremonial workbench.

Weeks ago Opal had arranged for a young crafter to come to Masao's ceremony, a Budjwoman with liberal views on offworld-born citizens. Now, briefly stupefied, she blinked, trying to make this furious old male into that tolerant Budjwoman.

Whisking the pins from Masao's grasp as if he was afraid he'd catch an infection, the crafter dropped the curtain haughtily.

"Told you it was a man," Masao said.

"Quiet." Closing her eyes, Opal drew letters with her finger in the air, replicating the crafter's intensely jeweled nohec until she had it memorized. Only then did she translate all three names: Fruge Nallamun Seye. Yes, she knew of him. Conservative, radical, combative, a master of many duels.

And no family either. If Nallamun started a feud, he was risking no life but his own. Few of his friends would stand with him...

"Friends," she whispered, heart sinking. Her dueling master's sister owed an honor debt to Nallamun. Mete must have been obliged to barb Opal to make her late, to keep her from discovering the switch of crafters.

A whistle made her turn. Masao was seated on the stone bench, patting the cushion beside him.

Opal stared in consternation--briefly thinking he was leering, that his off-color jokes had been sincere after all. Was he inviting her to cozy up to him like some kind of geisha?

Then the cat emerged from under the bench and snuggled into his lap.

Masao looked up, caught her expression, and fought back a tiny smirk. Reading her perfectly, she suspected, and not for the first time. One of the chief attractions of living offworld was that most everyone Opal met found her exotic and inscrutable.

"I asked that assistant of yours--"

"Your assistant," she said coldly, crossing her arms.

"Asked him to collect my baby and bring her through the back tunnel."

"You don't have to explain your beast's presence. You're my boss, remember?"

He crooned into the cat's whiskered face. "Did you see the spear on that old scarecrow, baby?"

"Velida's reach is very long; she's killed four Budj," Opal said, her mind returning to the crafter, Nallamun, behind the curtain.

"Her reach?"

"They add four centimeters to your spearshaft for every righteous death."

"On top of everything else I have the shortest stick on the planet. You make a man feel inadequate, Opal."

"Want to lengthen it? Pick a fight--and win." She touched the jade curtain, feeling the rough weave of its fabric. She hadn't expected trouble so soon.

Masao buried his fingers in the cat's coat, gently working small knots of hair out of the white ruff at its neck. Opal could hear the Earthbeast purring from where she stood.

"She'll kill me now, won't she?"

"She?"

"The old lady. Velida."

"Are you joking?" Opal took Masao's spear from the plain sheath that hung on the cave wall. "Velida adores you."

"So everyone keeps saying--don't put that thing on me yet. I need to--" He didn't finish, just bent to his animal again. Wide-eyed, it bumped his chin with its forehead. "Kisses," he whispered, and it answered with a soft meow.

I could put this on him, Opal realized. She had only drawn the spear to examine it before the hostile crafter got a look. Now she imagined betraying everyone: slinging it across Masao's back and letting Nallamun see the human armed and unnamed. The old Earthman would be dead before he ever learned it was a dueling offense for a citizen to wear a weapon without a nohec.

She turned the spear over in her hands, checking to see that the point was clean, the barbs sharp. Masao could duel now: Opal's knowledge of etiquette was his only shield against disaster. "You saved Velida's nephew. She won't--"

"Saved." Masao shuddered. "What if she knew I just saved myself?"

"Pardon?"

"Opal, sweetie." He laughed roughly. "I didn't know anyone was trapped in that passenger compartment."

"But... you stayed to repair the bulkhead." Opal had watched the video feed more than once. Bitterly she'd listened, as a panic-frenzied trainee engineer shouted repair instructions over the comm.

"Nobody told me there was a lifepod on deck."

"They did. I heard. The tech asked you to help the kids. You said 'just tell me what to do.'"

"It was noisy. I thought the whole ship was going up. She gave me instructions, I followed them. Opal, this is the sort of thing they care about, isn't it? Reality versus appearance?"

"Don't pretend to understand Arune culture. You never made the effort before..." She tried to raise the spear into challenge stance, lowering her left arm when her wound shrieked.

Shaking his head, Masao nudged the cat aside and got to his feet, taking her elbow then pressing it against her body.

"Stop that--"

"Shush," he said. He slid his finger into the collar of her dress, peering down her back at the bandage. "This is a mess--who patched you up?"

"Mete."

"Same damned scarecrow who stuck you?"

"Yes, but--"

"Didn't you see the Earth medic?"

"There wasn't time," she said, surprised that it hadn't occurred to her.

"You got fibers caught in the zipper here..." He tugged the back of the dress open, shifted the bandage, dabbed at her with a hot towel. Pain flared as he pulled the tape away from her skin; then it eased. She was intensely aware of the strength in his fingers, of how wide and warm and normal they were as he laid the bandage flat and smoothed the tape down again.

When had another human touched her last... six years ago? Seven?

Masao slid the zipper back up, pushing the errant hairs at the back of her neck aside so they couldn't catch.

"Better?" he asked.

She turned to face him, strangely annoyed. "The Budj parents won't care what you knew, or when."

"Because in the end the kids lived?"

"Because you would have saved them, no matter what."

Masao opened his mouth to argue, but Opal interrupted. "Pretend what you like, but if you had known about the lifepod and the Budj kids, you'd have saved them. You wouldn't have let somebody's child die--"

She broke off, surprised at herself, and a silence pooled between them. Her outburst had seemed very human, somehow; it was as uncomfortable as the dress, and she didn't know how to make it fit.

"Never mind." Masao coughed, and the brown skin of his cheeks darkened. "Uh... Opal. I got you something."

"What?"

With a jerk of his chin he indicated a small gold satchel on the cut stone bench. "Got your assistant to bring that too. Didn't figure I could give it to you during the ceremony."

"You didn't have to--"

"I owe you more'n anyone else here."

"Paryul hauled your body a hundred feet." She bent gingerly to touch the bag. It was soft, real Earth velvet. Rich fabrics meant a lot here on Arune; she wondered if Masao knew that the satchel itself was a treasure.

"Paryul had something to prove, and not to me. He loves you--that's why he doesn't want to be your legally registered daddy."

So he did know. "That's not the sort of thing that matters to a Budjman."

"Maybe he knows it would matter on Earth," he suggested quietly. "Can you imagine going home and explaining to the press that you're sleeping with your adoptive father?"

"I have no plans to go home," she said automatically, even as she tasted an uncomfortable truth lurking in his words: Paryul had always been obnoxiously curious about Earth.

"Never? That's a long damn time, sweetheart," Masao said. She didn't answer, and finally he gestured at the gold satchel. "Will someone get punctured if you accept that?"

"Of course not." Setting the spear aside, Opal tugged on the satchel's drawstrings. It had been years since anyone gave her a present that wasn't data. Shipping hard objects from Earth was too expensive. And the Budj did not give gifts to outsiders.

She slid out a fan, a delicate construction of iridescent diamondwire and emeralds, covered in green silk. Dark embroidery stitched a pattern of leaves--ivy, she remembered--across its curved fabric.

"Another of my perks," Masao said, as Opal ran a finger up the length of it, closing it smoothly and then opening it again. "Worth enough you can stick your foster parent with it... when your turn for a name comes, I mean. Damn. What I'm saying is that if you don't like it, it's still some use."

"I do like it," Opal said. Her throat was tight, her teeth locked together. A minute ago she'd been idly thinking of killing this man, or at any rate letting him die. Now he was tending her cuts and giving her presents, acting like somebody's dad.

Who did he think he was?

"Thank you," she said, working hard to control her voice. She flailed to find her anger. Zamsun has taken everything I want away, she reminded herself. In its place I get an Earthtrinket? So what if he's old and sweet? He's doomed, he shouldn't have come to Arune...

And that was the problem, wasn't it? She was supposed to keep him out of duels, to protect him with her knowledge of Budj culture. But she couldn't succeed indefinitely. Risking her own life had been one thing. Agreeing to stand by and watch an old man getting slaughtered...

The cat wormed its way between them and set one paw tentatively on her leg, eyes wide.

"Don't bother Opal, baby," Masao said, reaching for it.

"It's okay," she said, extending a finger for the cat to sniff. Its cool nose bumped her knuckle, and she wondered: did you ask for anything for yourself, old man, any perks at all?

Then the crafter trilled from behind the jade curtain, indicating the nohec was completed.

"Ah," Masao said, suddenly awkward. Picking up the lint brush, he attempted to tidy himself. "Opal?"

"Yes?"

"What does it mean?"

"Pardon?" The cat tucked its head under her finger and she stroked it absently, still staring at the fan. Ivy leaves--the stuff had grown wild where she'd grown up. She hadn't seen any--hadn't even thought of ivy in years. Parasitic nasty stuff. Her father'd had to cut it back ruthlessly or it took over their whole garden. Yet it was beautiful too.

"That name they gave me... you didn't translate it. Levee."

"Levai," she corrected, and waved the fan. A front of coolish air washed over the heated skin of her face. It was a thoughtful gift. Earthtrinket it might be, but it would fascinate Paryul--windmills and sails and anything that moved with air went straight to the airborne Budj soul. "Levai means someone who is very patient with others."

"Hah. They never saw me with my sons."

"They saw you hold off the Budjmaiden who attacked you, without once striking back."

He shrugged. "They should've held onto the name. Given it to you."

"Don't be silly," She thought of Masao working through the frenzied instructions of the trainee engineer, asking questions, pausing--even as he shivered with chill--to ensure he had the right tool, the right wire. Remembered him restraining the infuriated young Budjmaiden. Remembered him bearing with all the times she had snapped at him. "What would I do with your soul's name, Masao?"

"It's Zamsun now," he sighed, reaching for the spear.

"Zamsun." She scooped it out of reach. "Nohec first, weapon second. Always. Go tilt with the crafter. Carefully. He sent the fruit."

Zamsun studied her, expression suddenly bland, then nodded and squared off.

Opal pulled the curtain aside and he faced the enraged crafter, making the necessary gestures with appropriate flourishes and receiving the finished broach. The crafter examined him minutely as he pinned it, low, onto his tie.

She let out a breath. For once, Zamsun's performance had been flawless. Maybe the two of them could make this work.

But before she could release the curtain the Budj crafter began piping, raising his hands high into challenge stance.

Opal moved. The spear was already in her right hand, waiting for the handover. Now, even as Zamsun reached for it, moving calmly but with dread on his old face, she made a perfect thrust-forward, bringing barbs into the corner of the Budjman's gliding membrane before the challenge was complete.

The three of them froze, the crafter eyeing her haughtily.

"Give the weapon to your master, savage," Nallamun sang.

Opal sidled left, putting herself between the crafter and Masao.

"Will you let her dishonor you?" he demanded, voice piping so loudly that it echoed in the chamber.

"He doesn't speak Aruna," Opal told him. "He doesn't know what's going on."

Nallamun's hand whickered back toward his spear haft, and Opal turned her wrist, making the smallest of barb cuts in his gliding membrane. She was afraid to take a proper stance. Afraid her arm wouldn't bear it. Afraid of falling in her slippy, traitorous shoes.

Just afraid.

"Here are the branches of this path," Opal said as Nallamun froze. "You draw and I rake you."

"You will die."

He was right about that. Even if she stole first stroke... Opal swallowed. "You'd never fly again. It would come out that you were maimed by a nameless foreigner, by chaff..."

"Your death will mean nothing to my people!"

"--and Zamson Huin will get first stroke against you in any duel to avenge me."

The strange eyes dimmed to green. Gauging her. Opal put the will to strike into her face, as Mete had taught. She wished she'd had the nerve to insist that an Earthborn Budj should carry an Earthbuilt weapon. A sawed-off shotgun would even the odds here greatly.

No. Defeatist thought. She brushed it away. Imagine how you'll strike, she admonished herself. Think of the spearpoint passing through his body. Veins and glider sinews tearing, blood spraying when you jerk the barb out...

The crafter hadn't moved.

"On the other branch," Opal said, "You can look for an honorable opportunity to attack this Budjman, sometime when the offense isn't imaginary. When there are witnesses who can bear out your grudge."

Nallamun whistled high and long, deafening sound of extreme umbrage, a noise she had never expected to hear unless she was in an honorable fight.

"You thought to take him alone," she sang, undertone, and suddenly she was furious. "To kill him and tell falsehoods about your wounded honor."

The Budjman's body tensed against her spearpoint and Opal readied herself to push.

"Enough," Masao said. "Opal, just let him have me..."

"Hush." With extreme care, without breaking gaze with Nallamun, Opal stepped out of one high heel, then the next. No point in fighting if she was just going to slip. Her lips peeled back from her teeth.

If she was going to die, she would hurt Nallamun badly enough to give this sweet old man a chance in the grudge fight.

Lowering his arms, Nallamun blew a gust of reeking acidic breath at her, an insult equivalent to spitting.

"Your notice honors me," Opal sang. The formal sarcasm in her tone was imperfect, because her teeth were clenched. She couldn't loosen them. But it was enough: the Budjman took one step back and then stalked out of the cavern, hurling the ceremonial workbench to the floor as he retreated.

Shaking, Opal dropped the spear, backing up to the wall and then sliding onto the bench. She was panting, and her whole body hurt now, not just the barbed shoulder. This was what she'd wanted for herself?

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Masao--Zamsun--demanded in a whisper.

There was no answer she could think of. Numbly, she took stock of herself. The shoulder didn't seem to be bleeding. "Is my dress all right?"

"You look gorgeous. What were you thinking?"

"He'd have killed you, Zamsun."

He took her hand, scowling. "I don't have a deathwish, hon, but I don't want to bury you either."

"I wasn't in danger."

"Could have fooled me."

"I'm--beneath him. Furniture." As she said it, she realized it was true. But she wasn't furniture to Paryul. There had to be a reason he'd held off her immigration. Was it just that she wasn't ready? She had been too angry to try to find out.

They'd have to talk, she supposed, hash it out Earthstyle. Paryul was so perverse he'd probably enjoy it.

"There's no harm done, really," she said, and suddenly the dress didn't feel quite so binding. "Nallamun's gone, everyone's okay."

"He'll try again," he grunted.

"I'll stop him again," she promised. She tried not to wonder how long she could shield him. "All part of my contract, Zamsun."

"Do my job, sign my papers, keep me alive."

"Exactly."

"Just remember you can't keep me breathing if you don't keep yourself that way too." He put his hand on her forehead, feeling for fever, and she had a sudden vivid memory of her father doing the same thing, of being cradled in his lap. Of feeling safe. "You're burning up."

She had to turn away to hide a sudden rush of tears and homesickness. How old was Dad now? Had she answered his last letter? "I'll be fine once we're out of this heat."

"Let's go, then. Is this on right?" The old man extended the nohec. The welded-together circle of gold enclosed his chosen name within the two given ones. A single piece now, it made quite a heavy ornament. For the first time in months, Opal saw how odd the thing looked by the standards of her homeworld--too heavy, too low on his body, the letters making it asymmetrical despite its roundness.

She repinned the piece slightly higher than where he'd placed it. Masao straightened up, standing almost at attention as she draped the spear over his back.

"Am I supposed to feel like a new man?"

"If you were Budj you'd feel like you were finally yourself. There's a tale about gliding in strong winds until they blow away the chaff--your impurities."

"Hope that doesn't include impure thoughts," he said, waggling his eyebrows in a mock leer.

She shook her head. "They're waiting for you."

Nodding, he offered her his arm, like an old-time gentleman from a long-vanished era. "Come on. You'll break an ankle in those shoes."

After the barest of pauses, Opal slipped back into her heels and then tucked her right hand in the crook of his elbow. With her left she twisted the fan through the molten air, holding her arm close to her body. Thus positioned, she found her wound barely ached at all.

"So," Masao said. "Is there a pool going on how long I stay alive?"

"Budj don't gamble," she said, and through the layers of his suit she felt him stiffen. Speaking more lightly, she added: "Since humans do... I asked Home Office to approve a bonus for me if you make it to New Year's."

"Ah, so that's why you risked becoming shish kebab just now."

"Skaa, if I was really smart I'd take out insurance on your life." She spoke lightly; the fan hid the pang of sadness that she knew was crossing her face. Too late now to harden her heart. Against her will, Opal had come to care for him. She'd ridden his soul's wind, Paryul would say, seen his strength, his commitment to others, his quiet competence. His endless patience.

Zamsun chuckled. "I'm not sure insurance would be worth the premiums."

"You are a bad risk," she agreed.

"Plus, my kids checked it out. You have to be a family member to take out a policy."

"That won't be a problem," Opal said, and when his eyebrows went up, inquiring, she said, "If things work out between me and Paryul, I'll be your stepmother."

Zamzun paused. Looked her up and down. Ran his tongue over his lips lecherously. "Oh, Mommy," he purred at last, and she giggled.

Then their eyes met, and suddenly Opal was laughing wildly, gasping for air, bending at the waist despite the twinges from her back. Beside her, Masao was whooping too-she could feel his arm shaking through his clothes. Their voices rang off the cavern roof, echoing. Tears of mirth were running down her face. Every breath hurt. One of her stitches stretched, popped.

Shaking a handkerchief out of his pocket, Masao offered it. Opal daubed her eyes, moaning a little as she smothered the last gulps of laughter and reached over his shoulder to straighten out his spear.

The great red curtains that led to the surface parted before them.

Still chuckling, the two humans walked up the last of the Path, heading for the clifftop where Zamsun could bask in the gratitude of the anxious scarecrow parents, in cool air and the mingled light of faraway suns.

This story originally appeared in SciFiction.


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