Another very rough first draft, this time finally coming back to the unnamed second focal character of the novel I started this blog with. I still don’t have a name for him, but I got around that with first-person this time.

After Dandec, this one came out especially gloomy.

This story © Keenan Cross 2023

I should like to believe that I am more efficient in my work than a birdling would be, however many my patron could send.  For one, my handling of a briefcase is notably gentler.  Perhaps there is no need to justify my role, but one has one’s habits.

I lug the heavy case with me through the terraced and walled streets of Has Asel’s ancient royal center, on foot once the going becomes too convoluted for carriage.  I am stopped more than once along the way by university gendarmes, who unroll my armband to verify the embroidered seal that states that I have, in fact, been claimed by a fullkind.  I have papers at the ready, in an inside pocket of my peacoat, to show that I am on my patron’s business and have not in fact stolen the case I carry, nor the clothes I wear, nor—every god forbid it—my spectacles.  None challenge me today, though.

I have learned to say and to volunteer nothing, and only to stand still while the gendarmes scrutinize me.  This took me some time; my years in Goldenhill made me reckless with my words.

I am quite tired by the time I reach the room within the citadel to which I have been sent.  My arms are weak and the wedges that support my hooves bite into my heels.  The Lord Professor Minark, gathered with his committee, greets me with a stony glower.  The look is not for me, of course, but for the argument I have brought with me.  Or, rather, the look is not only for me.  I know the effect my appearance has on other demihumans, let alone a respective full-human such as Minark.

When I set the briefcase on the desk beside his seat, the Lord Professor waves me away from it and undoes its clasps himself.  I know well the argument contained in the rolls and stacks of parchment inside, as I was the scribe who typed it.  Minark would rather read it all to himself than ask my summary.

“The Lord Professor Advocate Rouan Hai has more for us to consider,” Minark announces to the committee, whose members kneel in a neat circle across from his seat of honor.  “It seems we are not decided.”

He seems subtly to enjoy their annoyance.  That isn’t my concern.  I have crossed half the city to be here and am anxious to be back out.

“Will you stay and read your master’s objections to our proceedings?” Minark teases me.  He sees my discomfort, he knows I am not native to his home, and therefore unused to servitude.

I have given him the briefcase, and it is therefore no longer permitted for me to touch it.  I cannot meet his eyes but I direct my spectacles to them and lower my chin to indicate the case, and invite him to hand me the topmost page. He might be impressed, but not so much that he calls my bluff.  He knows about my stammer.

Minark dismisses me, so I am free to return to my patron.  His committee will have an infuriating evening of reading the Lord Advocate Rouan Hai’s thorough repudiation of its proposed decision, which I do not envy after having transcribed the diatribe as which it originated.

The gendarmes are much rougher and more attentive when I am headed away from the university.  While they hate a demihuman’s presence in their sacred place, they are much more defensive against one attempting to be free of it.  I have my papers ready to prove the errand I am on.  Nevermind that they are written in my own hand.  Nonetheless it is not wise to attempt leaving the city through its gates. I go instead to the maritime quarter, where the tiered and terraced city becomes flat and reaches out into the sea, to the old cistern that is the entrance to the sewers.

Fishmongers and longshoremen eye me with disdain, but as long as I am making no move to board a boat none assume I am trying to escape.  Though if I were unclaimed they might let me be; I am small, too fragile to be of any use to the sailors and fishers, and visibly so.  Even sand blown in the ocean air is enough to pierce my skin.  I am an insect, scuttling through their territory with little on my mind but avoiding being crushed.

The cistern is a concrete cylinder that once collected fresh water for the city.  Outmoded, it is now the negative of a tower, punched into the earth several stories deep, and riddled through with entrances to the sewer.  I take one of the many stairways that spiral down its walls, and select a dry tunnel to walk.

My patron’s lair is well past the city gate, a long mile of trudging down the web of capillary tunnels that empty from the city out into septic ponds in the countryside.  There are many vennsh living in the sewers, just as there are many in the caves out beyond.  The university cities are a draw for them.  My old home is as well, but conditions are far better for them here, where it is always hot and wet.

The coming and going of birdlings lets me know when I am near Rouan Hai’s lair.  The tiny bird-mimics are everpresent in the sewers, bringing food and correspondence to and from vennsh, but they swarm the entrance to a lair itself.  They are unperturbed by my presence, though some test at me when I pass with their proboscis-tongues before flitting on.

Rouan Hai lays in its wallow, reclined on one side and facing away from me.  The tub that houses it sloshes with brackish water which runs between the stones of the floor before it can pool too deeply.  From the entrance in the dim light, Rouan Hai is only a great mottled lump, like the head of an enormous mushroom, twice my height and more in length.

“You did not stay to hear what they said?” Rouan Hai moans.  Its smooth and deep voice booms.  “There is no way you have had time to stay and hear what they said.”

When the vennsh turns to face me, the motion displaces most of the water in its wallow.  I shift my hooves uselessly to avoid it.  My patron’s froglike head, larger than my entire body, is a mournful protrusion from the body, with huge, sad eyes and a wide mouth, downturned at the sides, that splits it end to end.  It looks no different when enthusiastic, or overjoyed.

I shrug apologetically.  My instructions had not included staying.  I take those out from my peacoat and allow a birdling to take them away to dispose of.  Rouan Hai may be kind enough to insist I am no slave, but that does not change Has Asel’s laws.

“We will hear from them,” the vennsh says.  It heaves itself to a seated position, wasting arms rested on its belly.  It is more mobile than most of its kind I have known.  “Was Minark annoyed?”

“He was,” I stammer a little.

“Speak up, please.”

“Very annoyed,” I shout as best I can, over the sounds of water and crustacean squabbles.  It dries my throat out.

“That is some small comfort, then.  I don’t hate Minark—don’t think I hate Minark—but the man is oblivious, completely oblivious, to the results of his judgments.  He would like to think it is only a matter of bookkeeping for the university, but it affects the lives of everyone, especially the lay and the poor—”

I let him go on, though he says nothing he has not many times prior.  Much of it, in fact, I heard and removed from the very arguments I have just delivered.  Some days it asks me to type these accusations, suggesting it may secretly publish the document.  Inevitably it commands me to destroy what I have typed.  To date I have done so.  They may be the free vennsh’s words, but it is my hands on the autoscribe.

“Take a letter for me, please,” Rouan Hai says suddenly, halting its speech.  By now it has rolled to its side, huge sad eyes facing away from me.  Its mottled shape is a heavy oval, like the soft egg of an unthinkable reptile.

I sit at the desk where I left my autoscribe, light its heated mechanism and transcribe the letter my patron dictates.  It goes to another of the many vennsh in the hills outside the city, one with whom it regularly

collaborates to write its arguments. It has nothing to do with the work of Minark’s committee, but is mostly social.  Rouan Hai asks after its fellow’s work, and the state of the search for its family.  Many vennsh become curious in their old age as to their lineage, it being particularly hard to trace given the frantic, pre-sapient nature of their independent childhoods.  Rouan Hai has sent me on errands to this effect, to no avail. I take the words down, but I do not listen to them.  When the letter is finished, a birdling takes it from me and darts down the sewer tunnel to deliver it. 

I have my own quarters in Rouan Hai’s lair.  A simple cube of finished sewer walls furnished with a bed and desk, as nice of ones as the scholar could provide a slave without looking unseemly to its peers.  I return to it as I have every night of my servitude.  It is well lit and Rouan Hai provides me with both paper and dayrope, but its simple door does not protect me from the odor that pervades the lair.

I spend some hours, as I often do, with pen and paper, trying to reconstruct the client’s memoir that I lost.  I remember fragments, individual moments, but they amount to a fraction of the three-thousand-year span the client dictated to me.  And I cannot say if I remember them accurately, or their order.  My little desk is a mess of loose papers filled with scribblings of what I have recalled, and even further notes trying to reassemble them properly, far from the tidy quarters I kept at home.

I might have remembered more easily if I had my own autoscribe still, the one on which I had transcribed many moth government meetings in addition to this memoir.  It was built for typing in the Goldenhill dialect of Plainstongue, and its keys are still the ones my fingers seek.  The partner with whom I came to Has Asel took it when he abandoned me here, I assume to pawn for his return journey.

My fingers, lacking pads and even skin at their tips, are not suited for writing with a pen.


The city of Has Asel has three parts.  In the northwest is the university, an ancient knotwork of ziggurats, palaces, and citadels that stand foreboding above the rest.  In the south and stretching around to the east is the Lay, where those unaffiliated with the university live and operate.  Between the two, sprawled along the shore of the Safe Sea, is the maritime district.  Where the king rules all of Has Asel and it’s surrounding lands (and, supposedly, Esor as well), the maritime district has its own governor and holds itself independent wherever possible.  It is not separate; shipping and fishing captains study in the university, as do their engineers and navigators and weatherers.  They dislike any reminder that they are beholden, however.

Another of my duties is to see to the maintenance of my patron’s subterranean home.  Where most vennsh keep to natural caves, and program their birdlings to keep up a mud divider and a source of clean water, settling in the urban sewers makes Rouan Hai’s a much different operation.  It falls to me to see that the plumbing is maintained, and to replace the lair’s few fixtures when they fail, and to feed myself and the other slaves.  Today I meet with a representative of one of many companies operating on the shore, a harbor chief, to negotiate for it.

He is a stone-faced ptericeryne, one of the largest I have seen, with a barrel chest and a rack of antlers decorated with bronze tips and inscriptions in blue ink.  Rested upright on a cushion in his office, he is as tall as I am, and draped in a well-cut maroon coat he is especially imposing.  He is not pleased with my presence; he expected only a representative of a lord scholar, not a sickly-looking slave.

I negotiate for a shipment of fish (by far the cheapest and most plentiful meat in Has Asel), of a few grains and vegetables, and for a few barrels of pipe leaf for my patron’s daily idle smoking.  Also for a shipment of lumber to replace the supports in the lower caverns, and the tools to install them.

In payment, I offer a certain sum of money in bank chits, certain titles from Rouan Hai’s stockpile of books that may sell on the subcontinent, and promises of favor that are meaningless but necessary in Has Asel trade.  I write the bill of sale myself and stamp it with Rouan Hai’s seal.  In this negotiation my word is as good as its.

The ptericeryne does not agree.  He shifts his weight to one shoulder, waiting for me to offer a more valuable proof.  There will be none and he knows it, but he has to show me his disrespect first, even though no one can see.

His kind are plentiful in Has Asel, taking so well to the university, but they are uncommon to find in the maritime district, where most work requires hands.  As managers, bookkeepers, sometimes administrators aboard ships.   They are fiercely jealous of their positions, as there is little labor they can do if they lose them.

There is not much more pitiful I can look to accommodate him.  I glare through my opaque spectacles, and only wait.

When he is prepared, he stamps the bill with his dewclaw, into which his own seal is carved.  I return the bill to my case, to bring back to my owner.

Maintaining my poise—it is all I have—I introduce now my patron’s survey.  The deer’s eyes narrow: not only do I sully his office with my own presence, I also bring university business.  But as I have said, and as he knows, he is beholden.

I ask him: Within and without his profession, how does he reckon the start of the year?

When he needs to cite an incident in the past, and it is necessary to know when it occurred relative to other incidents, how does he name it?

What historical events are so momentous that everyone should know of them, and be able to speak on them?

And some twenty more.

Per Rouan Hai’s command, I ask these questions of everyone with whom I do business.  I have asked them so often that I no longer even stammer when I recite them.

The ptericeryne answers them as most sailors and traders have.  The year begins when the sun’s transit is at its southernmost angle in the west.  No event in recent centuries has been more significant than the death of the World Heart ten years hence, but closest to that would be the closure of the straits at the northwest and southeast of the Safe Sea, when the acid encroached upon them, some two centuries earlier.  One learns how long ago an event was from the present, nothing else is needed.

I take the order with me and leave to make my next appointment.  I will arrange for transportation for the goods exchanged, and speak with a bookkeeper to formalize the favors owed.  Each other meeting will be another set of answers to Rouan Hai’s survey.  Otherwise, most of them could be handled by birdlings carrying messages.


The messenger who brings Rouan Hai the news does not stay.  Another demihuman slave, she watches me warily through slit-pupiled eyes as she rushes back out after leaving the notice for my patron.  First because she knows I will be the one to read it to the vennsh, and then because she has seen my skin and my nose and she wants away.

“What is this?” Rouan Hai had been asleep on its side in its tub, facing away from the entrance.  It turns its head to glance as best it can over its bulk without putting forth the great energy to turn over.

Birdlings swarm the table at the entrance, but I brush them away to take the scroll.  It bears the seal of the office of the king.

“Well?” there is dismay in the vennsh’s booming voice, always prepared for the worst.

“In light of objections…objections from the faculty,” I paraphrase.  “The committees on standard measurements have been halted in order to hold.  To hold hearings.”

“This is wonderful,” no less dismay, but Rouan Hai rolls to its back, splashing the floor with murky water that chills my hooves.  “I shall have my case heard.  Minark will have to accept it.  Accept his committee hearing it, at least.”

I read the times listed, when objectors are to appear.  Rouan Hai needs no schedule, its capacious memory maintains its calendar perfectly.  Rather, my calendar.

“It was unnecessary to halt all of the committees,” the vennsh admits.  “I only objected to the standard of years.”

“That was to punish you,” I assert.

“Draw everyone’s ire onto me, yes.  I am not concerned.  Bring your autoscribe, we have data to collate.”

I bring the device to my seat at the vennsh’s side and load it with scratch paper.  I have records of the surveys, but Rouan Hai knows their results precisely, and will dictate.

“Did you imagine having such easy work when you were found on the street?” Rouan Hai says with a hint of joviality.

I have heard similar many times, especially in the Great Common Plains.  My good fortune that, if I should be demihuman, I should be demihuman where I would be treated somewhat well.  There, at least, I was nominally free.  True that I am fortunate to be enslaved as a scribe and assistant, when I could as easily have been claimed by a dock overseer, put to work loading ships and discarded in a few weeks when my frail body crumpled and ruptured under the strain.  But it was in the vennsh’s power to ensure I had to endure neither.


Again I come to a citadel in the heart of the university, Rouan Hai’s arguments in hand.  This time I am to present them.  I have protested that the university will be displeased that it is a demihuman speaking, that the Lord Professor Advocate should instead send a free and fullkind guild surrogate to argue.  I have protested this for days, and Rouan Hai has responded thoughtfully but made no move to enact it.  I often act in my owner’s stead, but such a move in this case would be far too visible. 

Rouan Hai assured me: “You speak for me, and everyone knows it.  You will command the floor.”

It is not only Minark’s committee today, but an assembly of scholars and administrators from across the university, as well as professionals from the Lay, and even the maritime.  I am surrounded by birdlings—clearly a representative of a vennsh—and dressed in as much finery as is appropriate, so the gendarmes say nothing when I enter.  When I take the seat reserved for Rouan Hai’s speaker, though, there is a pall of consternation and confusion across the crowd.

“It sent its maggot?” I can hear among the many layered voices.

I sit behind the simple desk, and arrange my papers on it.  An audiomage takes her place at the back of the crowd to draw my voice forward, and that of the university speaker who announces the proceedings.

“I call to order a hearing for the Lord Professor Advocate Rouan Hai,” the speaker says.  He is a full-human dressed in the dull blue robes of support staff, long chestnut hair in a simple braid over his right shoulder—an indication that his words are to be disregarded as evidence for decision making.  “The Lord Professor Advocate wishes to add concerns to the decision being made by the Committee on the Measurement of Years.”

There is murmuring.  Certainly many members of other halted committees have converged to hear my owner’s objection.  The audiomage silences the room.  She should have before.

“The Lord Professor Advocate is homebound,” the speaker continued.  “It has sent a representative.”

Many eyes are upon me.  I know I am far from poised; small and hunched, gaunt, my spectacles obscuring much of my face.  Hardly a spectacle, but a spectacle nonetheless.  When it is time for me to speak, I fumble with the papers in front of me, though I know the words.

“I am surrogate for the Lord Professor Advocate Rouan Hai.  In this chamber I do not exist, you see the Lord Professor Advocate.  My words are its.”

At “I do not exist,” someone’s comment escapes the dullening the audiomage has set over the room, enough that I can hear their amusement.

“The Committee on the Measurement of Years has forwarded the decision that the standard for the numbering of years should be based on a set of historical events, or Dates of Reference, to be chosen by the same committee.  By their decision, all documents and historical incidents would be stated in relation to one of those events.  The Lord Advocate has…I have registered my objection to this decision.”

I breathe a moment.  I would remove my spectacles to avoid seeing the listeners’ reaction to my taking a fullkind professor’s place, but that reaction would be much worse if faced with the naked skin behind them.  Besides, I am here to read the argument.

“I have assembled six reasons for my objection.

“My first objection: This reckoning of years will be useless for record keeping.  It may require the listing of multiple unrelated dates to pinpoint the timing of an event.

“My second objection: The committee is composed of historians and mathematicians, where I believe, should this system go forward, a number of fields must collaborate to develop it.

“My third objection: The university risks creating what in the east they call vovruk, an item of such worth that people cease their important work to compete over it, and cause great chaos.  The vovruk in this case is the creation of a new Date of Reference.  I submit that every…”

I swallow, because Rouan Hai names professors and administrators as the potential culprits here. 

“…every shipmaster and lay senator will argue to create a new Date of Reference each year, in honor of their own achievements.

“My fourth objection: This system favors the…educated, and the lettered nobility worldwide.  Meaningful knowledge of the past will be restricted to those able to learn a potentially complex set of dates, and memorize their relations to one another.”

There is unrest now, beyond seeing a demihuman slave in my seat.  I can say all I want that my words are those of a respected vennsh, but that is no guarantee they will listen.  Only the speaker stands quietly by.

“My fifth objection: The Dates of Reference that the committee will choose will be dates significant to Has Asel, its university, and its royalty.  If lands beyond our territories do not outright reject these, then the dates will be meaningless to them.  It would furthermore…”

I do not finish, because I could not possibly say to the gathered academics that “it would be immoral to impose these dates upon them.”  I look at the papers before me for an interminable length.  Each objection is corroborated by several pages of logic, to which I may refer if asked questions.  I am already too nervous to consider that; I cannot even state the sixth objective.

The speaker moves closer and places a hand on my seat.  He says something, but it is blocked by the audiomage, who is curiously stolid far in the back.

“…halting this hearing,” he shouts, as he enters the space from which the audiomage is bolstering the sound.

I accept this silently, though I should make an official statement rescinding my surrogate status.  I try to gather my papers, but the speaker urges me out of the chair so I leave them.

The audiomage releases her control over the room, and there is immediately a din of voices and shuffling and footsteps.  The crowd is leaving, and arguing in several metastatic clusters.  There are indignant eyes pointed my direction, reflecting shock and offense.

A guild surrogate avoids being blamed for their client’s words.  To the listeners, am a demihuman spewing invective against the city and its self-evident exceptionalism.

I shuffle clumsily for the door, one arm gripped tightly by the blue-clad university gendarme, ankles failing me.  As the crowd passes me, shoulders strike me hips brush past with calculated force.  I remove my spectacles to keep them safe, pass them to the crustacean pincers at my neck to hold securely under my peacoat.

“This is unacceptable,” someone else says, maybe to me, or to the gendarme, or to someone else.  “The professor sends a slave to contradict the university’s work.”

“To denigrate Has Asel!” another agrees, forcefully.

I hear myself accused of many things.  Of sabotaging the committee, of committing espionage on behalf of Esor, of worming my way to a professor’s ear to poison perfect scholarship with contorted demihuman logic.  No one attempts to actually harm me, however.

Until someone grabs at my armband.  I am blind without my spectacles, so I know only that someone has taken hold of the fold bearing Rouan Hai’s seal, and is pulling.  That person is being pushed along by the movement of the crowd just as I am, their grip jostled this way and that.  I lean away, supported by the gendarme, and the armband digs into my flesh.  It does not take much to make me bleed, and my arm is already warm and wet.  I nearly cry out, before the fabric tears away.

The noise dies significantly then.  I nearly lose my footing, hooves clattering on the brick walkway outside the citadel.  When I catch myself I stand still, blind and abandoned by my gendarme.  I am now a demihuman in Has Asel bearing no documentation that I am owned by a fullkind civilian.  My writ from Rouan Hai is abandoned on the desk with everything else.  Everyone here knows my ownership, but anyone here could also be crafty enough to find a way to profit.

The gendarme shouts, thankfully not at me.  There is murmuring.  People are not crowding me so closely.

The full-human barks at someone, and lets go of me.  I stumble a few steps away and retrieve my spectacles from my pincers, look through them long enough to gain my bearings.  The gendarme is holding someone’s wrist far behind their back, a knife held near the detainee’s carotid artery.  Others are giving him space.

“…assault against the property of a professor of the university,” I hear him say, amidst more hushed voices.

I am left to carry the torn armband in my hands as the only proof that I am neither unclaimed nor hiding my ownership.  I slink away as best I can.  My arm is bleeding, my spine sore from the gendarme’s tugging.


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