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Denel strolled through Tiforf with her two young sons tugging at her hands and her husband Jerumal smiling indulgently at their antics. Amanel wanted to see all the little shops in this tourist-trap town, eager to pick out a souvenir. His head was full of storybook tales about the Moon Mother's Garden, and he repeated them constantly as they walked. Kivegei, though younger, was more serious. His brother's fanciful tales brought only a skeptical look. Author's Notes
Jerumal paused to chat with shopkeepers, cart vendors, and random bypassers. His fascination with language and cultural sciences had earned them this visit. He'd spent time studying with the Moon Maidens who worshipped the garden here, exploring the beliefs of their tribe; that made it easier to wangle licenses for the whole family to vacation in this distant, exotic place. Denel appreciated the chance to give her boys the advantages of a well-placed family, as she had enjoyed growing up. With all the pressure on her from the City of Lights, she also welcomed a brief respite from the stress.
"I want to see the Pearly Towers now," Kivegei said.
Wardens had sectioned off a few acres of the bizarre landscape for tourists to visit, but the tours wouldn't begin until after sunset. "We have to wait for moonsrise," Denel reminded her son. "Let's look at these nice shops until then."
Predictably, Kivegei began to whine, which set off Amanel too.
"The slugs are busy working right now," Jerumal said diplomatically. "Kivegei, you don't like it when people bother you while you're trying to study. Amanel, you don't like interruptions while playing. We need to wait for the slugs to finish their day's work and go to sleep. Then we can visit the Pearly Towers without bothering them."
"I guess that's all right," Kivegei said.
The threatened temper tantrum was derailed completely by the discovery of a candy shop. It specialized in hard candies made of almost pure sugar, flavored with peppermint, lemon, grapejelly, and a few other options. The shapes ranged from simple spheres to elaborate sculptures depicting the Pearly Towers. Little girls squealed over candy dolls of the tribal shamans with their stupendous headdresses. Amanel and Kivegei both chose the simple spheres, preferring to save most of their Desire tokens for more lasting keepsakes.
"If that doesn't keep them up until the tour begins, nothing will," Denel remarked.
While the boys sampled their purchases, Jerumal drew Denel toward the back of the shop. "Here, try this," he said, offering her something from a counter that clearly catered to romantic couples. He so rarely paid that kind of attention to her anymore, she would take what she could get.
Denel popped the sphere in her mouth and found it to be full of tasty but -- in her opinion -- unnecessarily strong alcohol. "Memorable," she said, determined to stop at one. Jerumal bought himself a second one in a different flavor, then headed after the boys who were already growing restless.
They wandered past a couple of art galleries, a clothier with a display window full of gauzy white silks and cottons, and a store selling pearlized furniture. Denel paused in front of a gaming parlor, then reluctantly concluded that she wouldn't have much fun over a hand of cards with two rambunctious boys in tow. Then Amanel spied the jewelry shop.
"Look, Mama!" Amanel said. He pressed his nose to the window. "You can have a slug make a bracelet right on your arm."
"Absolutely not," Denel said firmly. The very idea made her skin crawl.
"No doubt the shop offers other options as well," said Jerumal. "Let's take a quick peek inside."
"Boys, don't pester the nice jewelrymaker," Denel warned, keeping an eye on the booth where a man was coaxing slugs to create a bracelet for his customer. Half of the booth's door was plastered with licenses for the process. Amanel and Kivegei dutifully put their hands in their pockets and stood still, content to watch.
Denel turned her attention to the nearest display. On a bed of black velvet lay several bracelets: large solid rings, smaller open cuffs, strung beads, and bands made of aligned or overlapping scales. The moonpearl looked lovely, but not that different from the silver or saltwater pearl that she already owned. She moved farther down the counter.
"Allow me to make a suggestion," said Jerumal. He held out a necklace. A delicate flower no bigger than Denel's thumbnail hung from a thread of silver chain.
"It's exquisite, but it would just look silly on me," Denel protested, aware of her rather plain appearance.
"I beg to differ," said Jerumal. He coaxed her into the necklace and in front of a mirror. "Now imagine yourself dressing up for a formal occasion, in your blue silk gown, with your hair all done up in those silver combs." His long fingers deftly scooped up her mousy brown hair and piled it atop her head. The attention was sweet while it lasted.
Just like that, Denel looked beautiful, the necklace a subtle and sophisticated accent at the hollow of her throat. "It's perfect," she said. "How in the world did they make this tiny little flower, though?"
"It's a real flower," said Jerumal. "This shop actually serves as an annex of the factory. They make the shaped pieces like any other sculpture, letting the slugs cover an object with moonpearl." That certainly explained the licenses wallpapering the jewelry booth and parts of the counter. "I thought you would appreciate a flower from the Moon Mother's Garden."
"Yes," Denel agreed, and so they bought the necklace. The salesgirl thoughtfully handed them a schedule for the factory tours. Denel pointed to a line on the colorful page. "Look, boys -- if we stretch our legs a bit, we can catch the next tour." Amanel and Kivegei lost no time in towing their mother down the busy sidewalk.
The public part of the factory consisted of a walkway in front of large windows. Each section showed a brightly lit room in which the slugs coated a different type of product with their slime, which quickly dried into a shimmery substance similar to mother-of-pearl. Denel found herself most intrigued by the furniture, although both boys exclaimed over the toys. A tour guide provided commentary on the factory's history and its inspiration from certain Ancient artifacts.
The tour ended, inevitably, in the factory gift shop. Denel wistfully trailed her fingers over a fine pearlized rocking chair, but decided against it because the shipping cost would be ruinous. Besides, she already had her souvenir.
"I want to get a bag of marbles," Amanel said.
"Pearl marbles?" Kivegei said dubiously. "That tour guide said the stuff is fraggle. Won't they break?"
"Fragile, Kivegei," Denel corrected gently.
"The label says these are plain glass marbles, made with special coating so they look pearly," said Jerumal, reading the label. "They're no more breakable than the ones you have at home."
"Oh, that's no fun if they're fake," Amanel declared, drifting to a different rack.
"Kivegei? Do you see anything you like here?" Denel asked.
"It's all junk," said Kivegei.
"Shh, that's not a very nice thing to say," Denel said. Then she saw the basket of horrid little sculptures that Amanel was pawing through, blobby dogs and skycats that looked more like frogs run over by a cart. "Even if it's true."
Amanel reached a similar conclusion and moved on again. Eventually he found something more to his liking: a shelf of famous landmarks pearlized to represent winterscapes. "Look, Mama, it's the Judge's Oak!" said Amanel, holding out a little round plaque crowned with a spreading tree. "It has the Ancient 'scription from the monument by the tree, too."
"Really?" said Jerumal. He turned the knickknack upside down, and sure enough, the bottom held the familiar lines. Jerumal traced them with a fingertip, murmuring the Ancient words.
Amanel reclaimed his souvenir. "I want this one, Papa. It reminds me of you and Mama and the pearl slugs all together."
After making that purchase, they left the factory in search of supper. Jerumal deftly steered them away from the tourist strip, down a narrow side street, and into a cozy restaurant lit by bare candles instead of expensive time crystal lamps. "Now I know what you were up to this afternoon, chatting up all the locals," Denel said to her husband.
Jerumal just smiled. "According to the residents, this place serves the best of the regional cuisine," he said.
They ordered a family platter so that everyone could sample different things. Jerumal favored the three moon sauces, each made from a different cheese, into which he dipped cubes of bread and roasted vegetables. As usual, Kivegei wanted a meatroll off the kiddie menu, preferring familiar food. Denel insisted that he at least try one new thing, which he did, but she let him return to his meatroll after he made a face. Amanel stuffed himself on firebell roots, fruit cubes, and something called "crackling pigs" that Denel was horrified to learn came from fried marsh-pig skin. She sympathized a bit more with Kivegei's choice after that, but the dessert of sponge cake soaked in sugar syrup reminded her of the rewards of culinary exploration.
Dusk smudged the sky as they left the restaurant. Back on the main street, Denel proposed, "Let's catch a pedalcab so we can all rest our legs before we tour the Pearly Towers." So Jerumal flagged down a pedalcab and they rode in comfort to their destination.
The brightly lit visitor center had shades drawn to keep the light from spoiling the show outside. Signs directed the tourists through special changing rooms. Denel quickly stripped out of her clothes and dressed in coveralls treated to repel the pearl slugs. Then she stepped into the courtyard, looking for her family. Several other tourists were already waiting.
"Are the slugs really that dangerous, Papa?" asked Kivegei, clearly absorbed in an ongoing investigation.
"Well, they don't hurt people," said Jerumal, "but they eat all kinds of plants and things that used to be
alive. If they got loose, they could eat up all our food. Then people would go hungry."
"So that's why we have to wear these stinky clothes," Kivegei said.
"Yes, that's why," said Denel. The coveralls did have a sharp scent, rather like the botanical oils used in insect repellent. "In a little while, we'll get to see where the pearl slugs live. Imagine if the whole world looked like that."
Kivegei ran to the fence and tried to peek through, but the barrier proved quite solid. "I want to see!"
Denel collected him, and pulled Amanel away from the outside gate. "Let's wait over here for the nice tour guide to arrive," she said.
The tour guide turned out to be a graceful young woman in blue robes. "Greetings, citizens," she said. "I'm Assistant Yoreil, serving a term here as part of my Fifth Form studies into invasive species. I'll be your tour guide tonight." She unlocked the outer gate, a complicated process, and led the small crowd through it. "Welcome to the Pearly Towers, also known as the Moon Mother's Garden."
Denel stopped and stared. Everyone stopped and stared. Even the children quit their chatter.
A landscape of eerie, alien beauty spread out before them. Low boulders of moonpearl dotted the ground. The ground itself was a blend of small rocks, bare earth, but mostly moonpearl crushed to gravel or sand. Above this base rose the Pearly Towers that gave the place its name. They began as large spheres and ovals and blobs near the ground. Then they rose up, each nodule growing smaller than the one below it, stacked upon each other in curving spires that seemed to sway before the eyes. Sometimes they met, joined, or parted to form arches and forks high overhead. They looked like clouds, like foam, like a child's bubbles blown and then somehow frozen in place.
In the sky, the Child Moon shone with a clear white light, bracketed by the Mother Moon and the Father Moon. The moonslight spilled down over the towers, waking their subtle colors of pink and lavender and palest blue. The spires stretched up and up, as if reaching for the distant moons. The shimmering radiance contributed to the illusion of motion. Yet in all that space, nothing lived except for a few scraggly plants, and the pearl slugs themselves.
Denel shivered and hugged herself. She had no trouble imagining what would happen if the pearl slugs escaped.
"Are those things solid or hollow? Can I see? I want to touch one!" said Kivegei, reaching for the nearest tower.
"No, Kivegei," said Denel. She caught her son and pulled him back. "You might damage something."
"Come this way, citizens; we have one tower that you may touch," said Assistant Yoreil. She pointed to a large segment inside the railed path. "This piece broke off, so we moved it here for people to explore. The Pearly Towers are tougher than the soap bubbles they resemble, but still not very strong -- about like fine ceramic."
Kivegei and Amanel ran their hands over the spheres, and more carefully, the rough edge at the bottom. Then they stepped back politely to let other citizens have a turn. Denel nodded her approval of this. The moonpearl felt cool and smooth under her fingers, like the inside of a seashell.
Assistant Yoreil led them down the path, explaining the history as she went. "Explorers discovered the Pearly Towers after a barrier fell. Of course we don't know exactly what happened here, but the evidence suggests that the Ancients used the pearl slugs much as we do today, for making pearlized decorations," she said. "During the Sundered Times, this tiny piece of the world was too small to stay healthy. Most plants and animals would have died out. By the time the explorers came, the slugs had eaten or coated almost everything. Only a few of them survived -- they can stay dormant for quite a long time. Today the barriers have fallen, but this remains a dramatic example of what can happen when the environment goes out of balance."
Denel felt a small hand slip into hers. "Mama, this place is a little scary," whispered Kivegei.
"I agree," said Denel. "It's pretty, though, so let's hold hands as we walk. Then we can enjoy the tour and not feel scared." As if sharing the sentiment, Jerumal and Amanel drew closer.
"Now, follow me and I'll show you some of our most striking formations. We'll stop at each one so you can look at them and discuss your observations," said Assistant Yoreil. She pointed out the Dog And His Bone, the Courting Couple, the Swingset, the Drunken Sailors, the Bridge, the Four Math Symbols, the Deathfin's Head, and the Spiral Staircase. In front of each stood a plaque with the formation's name and description.
Denel leaned on the rail and gazed at the Spiral Staircase. Indeed, two swirling towers rose and twined around each other, linked by thin flat strands. She looked beyond the named formation to a set of unnamed arches. Something stirred in the back of her mind, a whisper of numbers and equations, lines and force and load-bearing structures. The towers called to her, the engineer stirring within the woman on vacation. Her fingers moved through the air, tracing the invisible slope of a graph that would not quite coalesce.
A warm chuckle in her ear made Denel start in surprise. "I know that look, my dear architect," murmured Jerumal. "You're figuring again. I can see it in your face."
Denel nodded. "It's hard to build towers that stand up, especially through earthquakes. Look at this place, Jerumal. It should be a jumble of shards smashed like eggshells, but it's not. They're just slugs, by all that is licensed! I want to know how they do that."
"You mean you want to know how you can do that, since the pearl slugs can hardly file a complaint against you for stealing their plans," Jerumal teased.
Denel swatted him lightly on the arm. "I do my own research," she said.
"Of course you do, and I'm sure the inspiration from tonight's tour will winkle its way into next year's blueprints, one way or another," said Jerumal.
"There's an architectural contest I want to enter about designing buildings for earthquake-prone areas. Maybe I'll give the pearl slugs a credit in the footnotes," said Denel. "That would certainly raise Emeroma's eyebrows." Jerumal threw back his head and laughed, free and easy, his golden hair shining in the moonslight. It reminded Denel all over again why she had fallen in love with him.
Assistant Yoreil continued to talk intermittently through the tour, filling in more bits of historical detail and the local ecology, such as it was. Once she found a pearl slug in the middle of the path. "Watch out, please, citizens!" she called. "It looks like this fellow fell asleep before he got home. Now I'm going to pick him up by the dry green part of his body--" she suited action to words "--and set him down on this tower here, out of the way. As you can see, pearl slugs only produce slime on their lower parts. That upper part lets them use light for energy, the way plants do. That's why they are active during the day, and mostly still through the night so we can do these tours."
"Oh! The lights in the factory!" exclaimed Amanel.
"Yes, citizen, the factory workers use lights to keep the pearl slugs active and guide them to certain parts of an object for decoration," said Assistant Yoreil. "That was very observant of you."
Amanel beamed at this official approval.
By that time, their path had led them back to the visitor center. They changed back into their regular clothes. Then they stepped into the small museum section of the building.
Assistant Yoreil delivered a lecture on the Empire's discovery of this unique landscape. "Of course, we weren't the first people to find it," she admitted. "Do you why this place is called the Moon Mother's Garden? That's because it fits a legend from the people who worship the Moon Mother. They told stories about a place like this during the Sundered Times, when nobody could cross the boundaries that divided the world into isolated shards." She directed the audience's attention to a map that showed the tribe's homeland and the Moon Mother's Garden some distance away.
"Then one day, the barrier fell," said Assistant Yoreil. "When the people went exploring, they found this place that looked exactly like the legendary garden. What do you think happened then?"
"They'd think it was special," Amanel guessed. "I sure would!"
"They did indeed," said Assistant Yoreil. "They felt that it belonged to their goddess and could give people a powerful connection with her. They brought their novices here to complete their shamanic training."
"That's superstition," Kivegei muttered.
"Well, they didn't know that at the time. They only had stories to teach them, not good public schools with verified textbooks," Assistant Yoreil said. She led everyone to a glass case. "So these people used the slugs in their ritual practices, because the moonpearl made by the slugs reminded them of the moons and the Moon Mother. The bodice in this case is an example of their vestments."
Denel inched forward to look at the bodice. It gleamed under the lights, shimmering with faint swirls of pink and yellow. Denel thought about how difficult it was to breathe in an ordinary bodice, when those came into fashion, not to mention the horrid season when hard leather ones had been all the rage. She couldn't imagine how anyone would manage a moonpearl bodice, even though she saw where it had been carefully sawn into sections with holes drilled to take lacings so that it could be adjusted at need.
"Now in this case, you can see a sacred headdress," Assistant Yoreil said, urging the audience to the next display. "A novice would shave her head and sit perfectly still while the slugs created the headdress. You can imagine how difficult that must be! She was allowed a helper to guide the slugs, but she could not eat or sleep in all that time. So the longer she could endure, the larger her headdress would get, and the more respect she would earn from her people."
"That seems like a very important and very personal item," Jerumal murmured. "Rather difficult to acquire."
"Yes, of course, but that's part of the story," Assistant Yoreil said as she tapped the certificate of verification beside the glass case. "You see, if the headdress ever ceased to fit, the priestess would have to return to the Moon Mother's Garden and make a new one. In that instance, the old headdress might be given away, or left in the garden, or more often destroyed. This one was bestowed on one of the first scientists to work here, back when it was still a cultural interface office and not a visitor center for tourists. We've kept it ever since."
Assistant Yoreil opened the door to the gift shop. "This concludes our tour, citizens," she said. "Thank you for joining us here tonight to further your understanding of the Empire's marvels! We invite you browse the souvenirs and reading material on your way out."
Denel noted that the visitor center offered a more sophisticated selection of souvenirs. Oh, there were still toys for children, but many of those were educational in some way. Above the dolls intended for play stood a row of historic dolls intended for collectors. Each of those represented a specific historic personage. Denel recognized Mother Sarafforla the shaman and Scientist Embrethel, who had negotiated arrangements between their peoples.
Jerumal gazed thoughtfully at the Mother Sarafforla doll. His long fingers flipped through the booklet chained to the shelf, several pages of which were written in the Moon Maiden dialect.
Denel nudged him. "Go on, buy her; she's a cultural figure," she told her husband. They could afford to be a little lavish on vacation. "You know you want to."
"It's an old collection," he said. "I don't really need to add to it..."
"But you want to, and it makes you happy, so do it," Denel insisted. Jerumal grinned and gave in.
The boys had found an addition to a collection of their own, Slugs and Bugs: Invasive Species for Boys and Girls, a book in the Eww, Gross! series of science books for young readers. Usually the family rule was one souvenir per attraction, but technically the factory and the visitor center were different locations even if they both featured the same slugs. Denel smiled and nodded at her sons.
She flipped idly through the adult offerings. One oversized art book particularly caught her attention with its beautiful colorplates of all the named towers. A few plain text pages in the back described the monument and the slugs.
"If I may make a suggestion, citizen?" Assistant Yoreil said softly. "I heard you mention your interest in architecture." She held out a scholarly paper entitled Towering Math. "This just came out last year. It lists measurements and analysis for all the named towers and some of the minor ones as well. For your purposes, it should make an ideal companion piece to Moon Memories there."
"Oh, but the art books are so expensive --" Denel protested.
"We'll take them, thank you, Assistant," Jerumal said, plucking both books from their respective hands. "Denel, if you can buy me dolls, I can buy you books. We'll be practical when we get home. On vacation, let's try to enjoy ourselves."
They paid for their purchases, then headed back to the hotel. Denel yawned hugely, tired from the long exciting day. Then Amanel yawned, and Kivegei tried to fight it off but ultimately succumbed as well.
"We should get these two to bed," Denel said.
"Agreed," Jerumal said. Then he turned to Denel with a mischievous sparkle in his eye. "For tonight, that will do. For tomorrow ... I hear the hotel offers a children's program for parents who want to spend a little of their vacation alone together."
Denel tugged Jerumal close. "That is a very," she said as she kissed him, "very good idea."
This story came out of the July 17, 2011 Muse Fusion. It was inspired by a prompt from Ellen Million.