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This story © Keenan Cross, 2022
[eastern plains, 5afm, 21 years old]
“Yes, they are friends,” the full-human woman said, sourly. She stood in her doorway with a solidness that suggested there was no chance the demihuman would be welcome inside.
“Have you seen her?” Dandec asked. He was being more direct now, after several hours on his search. “Or has your daughter?”
“My daughter lives with the children.”
Dandec could not see the woman’s face. His eyes turned everywhere else, to the frame of the door in her plaster-walled house, to the grass and the path on which he stood, to the sky. It was inappropriate to crane his neck strangely to keep up them aimed where he needed to see, acting in his official capacity as he was. In the brief impressions he was able to catch of her expression, what he saw in the woman was boredom. Irritation that she should be bothered with something it would be impossible for her to care about. Dandec thanked the woman for her trouble, whatever trouble it was, and withdrew from her home.
The town was a sprawl, as were most in the Great Common Plains. Small hamlets here and there, spreading out from a central crossroads and market square. It had been a good walk to reach the home of Err-igsa’s mother, the friend Ippe mentioned sometimes. Now Dandec was near the outskirts of the town, where there were maybe nine or ten houses within view of each other, connected only by a dirt footpath in the knee-high grass. Any farther out and there would only be either farmland or uninterrupted Plains. A long way from the demifold.
Dandec rested on a rock a minute’s walk back down the path from the house. A favorite in the eastern Plains, where in his old home people would have put out a more hospitable bench. He scratched around his prosthetic ears, which always irritated his skin on hot days. Rubbed his bulging eyes under the dark glasses that he feared did not allay the disconcerting effect his gaze had on people. Rested his elbows on his knees and head on his hands.
After a few minutes’ meager rest, he returned along the dirt from the hamlet to the town center. There were others he could ask about the girl along the way, but he both lacked the energy to address them, and did not want to expose his failure.
He reached the demifold at the start of the evening. In the last stretch, the sun shone in his eyes and he could not turn them away from it. Off the center of the prairie town, the demifold was a small building, not much larger than a family’s home, simple, square, and painted a deep brown to imitate the imported wood that comprised the Children’s Home on the other end of town. Dandec strafed a full circle around its wrought-iron fence, checking in case Ippe had returned in his absence, before going inside.
When he had first come to this town, the demifold had been fenced with rough wood, like most he had passed. Recently the Children’s Home had replaced its iron fence with a newer and firmer one, decorated along its full length with images of children and animals and heroes, and its older, simpler one had been given generously to the demifold. Not without modifications, of course; the top had been worked into an inward arc to discourage demihuman children from climbing over it, and the symbol of the World Heart on its gate had been beaten out of shape. That last may have been vandalism, but it was nonetheless what the demifold received.
The bunks inside were empty—except for Orrtat, who was always ill. Dandec sighed long and loudly, embarrassed that he had forgotten Orrtat. He felt the boy’s forehead for fever, turned him over and checked him for sores of the kind he developed. There were none, so he let the boy sleep, but the shock of realizing he hadn’t thought about his illness lingered.
Ippe was not in the yard, not in the bunks. Dandec looked in his own quarters, in the demiherd’s, in the kitchen. She was not a shy child prone to hiding, but neither had he been, once.
Dandec counted the children in the yard one more time, verified that all nine of the town’s recent demihumans were accounted for aside from Ippe, asked them if they had seen their foldmate—thy shook their heads fervently—and left again. He could not come back until he found her.
The dirt floor of the town center was dry and picked up in clouds that lingered in the still air. Dandec willed the clouds to be thick enough to conceal his quarry and excuse his failure to find her, but they only hung thinly at shin height. Still air had never ceased to feel alien to him. There was the everpresent fear in Alu Hechak that the wind would one day cease, the sails would no longer hold the city against the shore, and the acid would creep in to the ocean. Dandec had never given it credence as a child, but he’d heard the alarmist prediction often enough that he thought of it whenever he felt no breeze.
His rogue eyes stared into the sky and the earth, glanced at full-humans who he could see were distressed by them. In swinging its gaze between clouds, one showed him the narrow wooden spire of the office of the Plains Listener, but did not rattle the doorskin for entry. That was a foolish chance to take, but knowing so did not prevent Dandec from lingering at the Listener’s door.
After a while the doorskin parted, but it was not the old geopath who emerged. Rather Loam Ravine Who Assists the Plains Listener, the lepidopteran custodian, unfolded himself.
“Dandeck,” the moth said, emphasizing the last sound of the name in a way the demihuman had always been sure was meant to tease him. Despite the reedy monotone, Loam Ravine’s voice could somehow betray his mirth.
“Loam,” Dandec replied in kind, knowing a moth’s binome couldn’t be shortened.
“Do you need to see the Listener?”
Loam Ravine stood to his full height, significantly taller and wider than the door. So close to the Moth Cup mountains, it puddled Dandec that the builders of this town had not taken their insectile neighbors’ size into account. This moth joked that he had taken to working for the Plains Listener simply because of the high ceiling in the needle-shaped office. He hefted a pack over one shoulder, petitions to the Listener left by the townspeople over several days.
“I suppose I must,” Dandec admitted softly.
“The old man’s not in, I must bring these to him. Come with me, we will talk on the way.”
Dandec glanced about him, at the meeting hall and the Children’s Home and the other places he knew Ippe was not, and acceded. He liked Loam Ravine. Quite a bit, even if the moth’s love of talk made him quite tired. Moreover he was grateful to be talk with another foreigner settled in this place. Whether going along with him constituted a dereliction of his search, he could not decide before he had already followed out past the town center.
“Do you drink wine?” Loam River asked when they were out again in the grass, walking each in one of the two wagon-wheel tracks that made this road. “I have finally liberated my old stores from home in Goldenhill and they are on their way.”
“Sometimes,” Dandec said. His right eye was straining to study Loam Ravine’s loping gait to one side of him, while his left would not look away from a distant single tree out in the prairie.
“The vintners of Goldenhill make the best in the world. If you’ve only had Hechaki and Plains wine you’ve lived in deprivation.”
“I have certainly lived in deprivation.”
“Oh—my apologies. I mean nothing by it.”
“I meant only the wine.” Dandec smiled wanly. To talk of wine with Ippe missing was absurd, but it seemed worse to burden Loam River.”
“I forget that aliens think of one another differently here. It was rude of me.”
“I thought nothing of it. But I would not object to some of your wine.”
“It will be some time yet before it is here! It is coming by wagon over the mountains. More opportunity to age. The porters are bringing my fine furniture as well. I will need a new home built before they arrive.”
“What did you do, that you had fine furniture yet you fled?”
“I was an assistant in the agrarian council’s archives. It was very fine work. I traveled all around the Cup to take in records, and I still know how they were organized.”
“I am more concerned with the leaving.”
“Ha, next to you I’ve not left my door. Let alone walked the length of the Plains.” Loam Ravine sobered. “Goldenhill is a miraculous city. The seven towers are in the shapes of lifelike trees, and the tallest is a quarter-mile high. And the canopy you cannot fathom without seeing firsthand. I realized that I had become used to it. It did not awe me to return from far away and see the towers rise over the horizon, nor even to stand at their feet and look up. It was necessary that I live far away until it did again.”
Dandec nodded. He had seen drawings and tintypes of the famous moth city, and it was hard to imagine being in the presence of its towers and not being awed. Though he tried not to think of trees.
“I have very impressive stores. I will send an entire cask with you if you ever try the Quiet Grasslands again.”
Mention of the site struck Dandec like a blow to his middle. He had put the Quiet Grasslands, with their impenetrable floral mysteries, out of his head. He did not respond, but instead scratched at his ears until the prosthetics came loose, and he did not bother to replace them. Loam Ravine was unperturbed by his demiformities anyway.
The Plains Listener lived in an isolated house within a stand of trees far from the town center. Dandec had never been there. He had always imagined the old man must live in something mirroring the needle-office, but instead it was a humble shack. Attached to it was what looked like a wallow for one or two lungers, but thankfully it was empty.
Loam Ravine rattled the door, which was solid wood and not a hanging skin. When the Listener opened it, his tired eyes went straight to Dandec.
“Thirty petitions for this beat,” the moth offered his pack.
“You’ve brought someone,” the old man interrupted. “These are my days of rest.”
“Dandeck is my friend, he will be quick.”
“I know him. He is the junior demiherd. Being quick does not mean you didn’t bring him on my days of rest.”
Though he did not step back from where he had stopped, Dandec shrank inwardly. The Plains Listener, an aged nigh-human of a species from far to the north, had a square, wrinkled face that communicated disdain with the nuance of an Esor Asel novel. Thick spectacles pinched to a nose that was thin at the bridge and wide at the tip magnified eyes that were much more than bored with this intrusion, and Dandec could not stop his own eyes from meeting them.
“Tell me, what is your question for the Plains,” the old man waved a gnarled, six-fingered hand as if inviting him in, though he did not move from the door.
Dandec hesitated for a long moment, all hope for a fruitful petition drained from him as through the cracks in his skin.
“I have lost one of the children. Does the Plains know…where she is?”
His eyes remained fixed on the Listener long enough to see his derisive shock before they began to wander again.
“Boy, do you know nothing of the Plains, or of my work? Of all asinine queries—the Plains has feelings and opinions, one asks whether the Plains will approve of an enterprise, one asks whether the nature of someone’s death is such that it will arouse the Plains’s ire. The location of a child? Do you imagine the Plains feels everyone walking on it and knows them by their weight?”
He threw his hands up, before taking the pack from his custodian and retreating inside without another word. Dandec felt hollowed out.
“You should have told me what you meant to ask,” Loam Ravine buzzed. His expressionless face, little more than a ball flanked by compound eyes and nestled in his soft ruff, peered down harshly; his voice was strangely gentle.
“I have to find her,” Dandec managed.
“And you have looked everywhere.”
“I have looked everywhere and I have asked everyone. The children dislike me, if the demiherd weren’t away she would deride me, everyone else looks…totally unsurprised that I lost one.”
“Her parents aren’t worried. They have other full-human children. They wished me luck, at least.”
They had begun to drift back towards the town. Away from the accursed old nigh-human. Dandec’s eyes wheeled, glancing at the darkening sky in the distance, at his and the moth’s feet.
“You do not sound concerned for her,” Loam Ravine noted. “You only talk about being humiliated yourself.”
“That isn’t fair.”
“I mean no criticism by it. Where have you not searched?”
“I have looked everywhere. Except in people’s homes. I cannot ask anyone more. I am emptied out.”
“You know I can’t approach the stables…”
Dandec stopped and closed his eyes, realizing what he was saying.
Loam Ravine approached the stables in his stead, and returned with the missing child, sleeping peacefully in his giant arms. Dandec thanked his friend, awash with relief but mostly embarrassment. The girl was unharmed. She had apparently run off to visit the lungers: the moth had found her asleep amongst them in their wallow.
It seemed obvious now; Ippe particularly liked lungers and spoke of them often. But Dandec always ignored mention of them and horses both.
With Ippe safely returned and the sun down, Dandec gathered the other children and put them to sleep in their bunks. With them accounted for and the demifold locked for the night, he came back outside to breathe.
“You are a good demiherd,” Loam Ravine had not left.
“No,” Dandec shook his head, shocked that the other world say so. “No, I’m not.”
“The one you lost was safe.”
Dandec shrugged. He was glad of that, to be sure, but it hardly seemed relevant. He could clean bunks and prepare the meals, but he dreaded his duties. He could not make himself discipline the children, and even despite his laxity they hated him. It was his responsibility to observe their reactions to food and determine what they could and could not digest; to be cognizant of those maturing faster than would a full-human, and those slower; to teach them to read and write. When he succeeded the senior demiherd he would have to argue defense of their allotments of food and firewood and space. Communicate with his counterparts in other towns, report to the Plains government. Intake children when a full-human pairing produced a demihuman.
He opened his mouth to enumerate these concerns to Loam Ravine, but shut it upon the realization that, perhaps more than the doing of these things, it was doing them under the many, many eyes that would see him.
“It is too much,” he said, resigned.
“It is noble work. You will learn.”
“Defending myself, arguing on the children’s behalf. Never faltering, because it will hurt the children.”
“These are things to learn.”
Dandec sneered at that. The moons were low and both crescents; the moth wouldn’t have seen.
“You came here to learn, after all,” Loam Ravine continued. “I have wondered why you took to the demifold instead of the flora. We have it in abundance, even if it is mostly grass.”
“I came here for food and water because I was dying in the Quiet Grasslands,” Dandec muttered. “Because I thought I could study them, when many others have tried and also failed. I nearly killed myself with botanical philosophy.”
“But you’ve still not given up your Who.”
No he hadn’t; officially he was Dandec Who Studies Plants, as GCP records offices reckoned names. Maybe he had spent much of his life in the Plains, but he was no Plainsman, to obsess over the accuracy of names and titles. Maybe he would seek a new name relative to demiherdship, if the demiherd did not cast him out for his failure today.
He leaned against the fence outside for a long time, looking at the oppressive blanket of stars overhead. He thought about all those things he would need to do, and how much he feared them, and imagined himself capable of carrying them out. And he also thought about the towers of Goldenhill, the great moth-made trees.