(Show/Hide Browsing Column ->)
Note: Torn World's language does not use gendered pronouns, and their names are also not marked as one gender or another. Author's Notes
Rai-Kunabei looked out of the window as the train rumbled into Affamarg. The thing was noisy and smelly, but she had to admit it was more biddable than a goat. It also moved faster than she could walk, and saved her the trouble of carrying her bag of divination disks and her bulkier, but lighter bag of clothing. The attendant had also helped her improvise a way to secure her staff, with its dangling bells and wraith-scarred spinning balls, so that she didn't have to hold it all day to prevent it from falling and hitting some poor citizen in the head.
The city was all straight lines and crisp 90 degree angles, and none of the buildings had a fringe of bells strung over the roof. It looked so strange to her mountain-bred eyes. Her people built homes in low, sheltered spots or on gentle hillocks that had good views of the surrounding mountains. Buildings might have four corners, like the ones here, or five or seven. But the biggest difference was the roads -- mountain roads curved with the hills and valleys; these each ran straight from the rail line to the edge of the city. There must be many hundreds of people living in this lowland city, none of whom would understand her sacred role as priestess. Once again, and despite her long-standing desire to see the world, she wondered, what was she doing here?
It was an emotional response, of course, not a logical one. Logically, she knew that the lowland scientists had invited her to this far northern city to learn what she knew of the mysterious danger that haunted her world's heights. She glanced away from the window to the letter she clutched, like a talisman, in her hand. It had been delivered to her home, high in the Affabreidalam mountains, in a fat envelope filled with special licenses.
The licenses were tucked into her pouch; this Oranaan had promised to meet her train, and she certainly hoped he would do so, or at least would send someone. She had no idea whatsoever how to find her way around that huge city without assistance -- all the streets looked identical to her eyes, and she imagined herself wandering for months down the identical straight streets, wasting away into a wraith herself.
Kunabei laughed at her own fancy, drawing cautious looks from the people in the same train car. Logically, she knew she could ask for directions, and any Monitor would take a look at the letter and licenses, and help her on her way. You'd think she was a crochety great-grandmother, lost a bit in her age and incapable of dealing with the slightest challenge.
In reality, she was a young woman, though she was definitely old enough to be past letting nerves make her fanciful. But then, she was restless and bored from sitting in the train car. For days, she'd been whizzed along, passing the countryside so fast she couldn't examine the wildlife and plants, much less enjoy their beauty or see how they differed from the ones she was used to. And though there was plenty of time, not a single person had asked for a reading or requested more mundane advice.
She looked again at the letter and wondered who this Oranaan was, besides an important, brilliant, and, by people's reactions, eccentric scientist. She imagined someone like her grandmother, vibrant despite age and experience, with a sassy sense of humor. Or maybe someone like her grandfather, who compensated for his wife's fame as a priestess by dressing in the gaudy, bright-colored clothing and jewelry, and flirting with all the old people. She remembered the tales of Oraaan blowing up things and setting his workplace on fire, and decided the scientist must be more like her grandmother.
The train started to slow, and Kunabei checked to be sure her bags were tied securely shut. The people running the trains had little tolerance for people who weren't ready to disembark promptly. Travel was a privilege and required special licenses, so travelers were expected to be prepared for the normal events of a train trip.
The train pulled into Affamarg Station and lurched to a stop. Kunabei stood and untied her staff from the wall of the train. She slung her clothes onto her back and lifted the divination disks. They made a satisfying weight for her hand. She followed the other passengers to the door and into a room where a Monitor checked licenses.
The Monitor, a tall, very pale man, read her personal and travel licenses carefully, glanced at her priestess license and stopped, looking up at her. "Rai?"
Kunabei nodded, using every bit of calm authority she had learned since killing the wraith. "It's a traditional title."
He started to leaf through the multiple pages dubiously.
Kunabei smiled, and offered her letter. "I was asked here to meet with Scientist Oranaan."
"Oranaan, huh? What does the Scientist need with a--a Priestess?"
Rai Kunabei was pretty sure he had a different word in mind. "I do not believe he wants to consult me in that capacity. I believe he has questions about certain phenomena I witnessed in the mountains."
The Monitor apparently found her answer dull, which didn't disappoint Kunabei at all. He folded her licenses together and tucked them back in her pouch. "Here you go, Citizen." He handed her the pouch and then a small booklet of local rules and regulations. "Be careful, Citizen. Oranaan had a fire in the laboratory again just last week. My sister's kid said Oranaan was tasked with teaching safety in second form."
She laughed at that. "Teaching is a good way to learn, actually."
But the Monitor had already turned to the next person in line, so Kunabei strode toward the door.
At the far end of the waiting room, she saw two people in Indigo scientists' robes. One was a demure-looking woman, and the other was a very young man with tousled hair. The man was waving his arms, talking animatedly, and barely missed knocking a hat off of a passing matron. Though she couldn't hear them, from the look on her face it was clear that the woman started scolding him, and he dropped his hands to his sides. Then the woman saw Kunabei and gestured, stepping past the man to walk toward her.
Kunabei smiled with relief, and walked forward to greet the woman. "Scientist Oranaan. It is good to meet you and your assistant."
The woman blushed and dimpled. "Rai Kunabei?"
"Welcome to Affamarg. I am Science Master Denel, and this," she gestured to the young man, who was gaping at her, "is Science Master Oranaan. How was your trip?"
Up close, Oranaan looked a little less like a scatterbrained teenager, though it was clear he'd never been mistaken for his own assistant before.
"I'm sorry, Science Master Oranaan, no one ever told me what you look like."
He suddenly grinned, an expression that didn't exactly make him handsome, but was so very alive and genuine, Kunabei grinned back at him. He turned to the other scientist. "You see, Denel, you should have more faith in your ability to impress people. She thought you were me!" He turned back to Rai Kunabei. "Here, let me help you!" He reached forward and grabbed the bag of divination disks, just under where Kunabei held it, swinging it toward him before getting her permission.
Kunabei let go of the bag -- he was a lowlander, after all, and didn't know he was being disrespectful.
The bag swung into Oranaan's shins. "Ow!" He gave Kunabei a measuring look. "What's in here?"
Kunabei smiled, deciding that she liked this impulsive young man. Despite giving himself what would doubtless be substantial bruises, he had not dropped the bag. "Those are my divination disks."
Denel laid her hand on Kunabei's arm. "Are you hungry? There's a restaurant near here that claims to serve Affabreidalam-style food, or we can go get some traditional Mojeveterk specialties if you prefer."
Oranaan's stomach rumbled. "Oh, yes! Can we get you some food?"
Kunabei nodded. "I'd like to try the local food, if that's all right. I've never been further than Affabreidalam before."
They guided her across the street and Oranaan was greeted by name at the restaurant. Soon, they had a good-sized table and Oranaan presented a credit license and ordered a sampler plate.
When the server left, Oranaan started to untie the bag of disks.
Denel put her hand over his. "Oranaan, even my boys know better than to open someone else's luggage."
He blushed. "Ah, I apologize, Rai Kunabei. It's just I've never seen divination disks before."
"I could do a reading for you, but our tradition is that the Rai should not do readings for the disrespectful. And as Rai, it is my job to uphold the traditions."
Oranaan's face fell. "But I didn't mean to be disrespectful."
"That's all right. You can ask again tomorrow."
He looked woefully at the bag, and then back at her face. "Wait -- Denel wasn't disrespectful, was she?"
"Then you could do a reading for Denel!"
"I only do readings for people who ask for them."
The server arrived with a large platter of food, and set it in the middle of the table, placing small plates in front of each of them. Oranaan turned to Denel, "You will ask for a reading, won't you?"
Denel thanked the server and shifted the topic to the different foods on the sampler plate.
Oranaan sighed, "Denel? Will you?"
Denel smiled at him fondly. "I might ask after lunch." She pointedly turned to Kunabei and asked, "What would you like to try first?"
Lunch was pleasant, and most of the foods were very good, if a little sweeter than Kunabei was used to. Oranaan threw himself into the role of host with evident enjoyment of the food, but his eyes darted back to the leather bag holding the disks even while he related hilarious stories about his mostly-failed first attempts to cook the dishes she was tasting.
Kunabei started to wonder how much of Oranaan's reputation for carelessness was really a reflection of his joy in being outrageous. Did this reputation let him achieve more leeway to do unconventional experiments than he would otherwise get?
The server brought out some after-meal pastries, which proved to be even sweeter than the lunch itself.
Finally, when the server had cleared away all the food and left them with hot drinks (Kunabei was able to order an unsweetened tea, to her relief), Denel asked Kunabei about the divining disks.
"It would take too long, I think, to try to talk about all of them now. But I could give you a reading, if you like."
Denel paused just long enough to see Oranaan biting his lower lip, and then responded, "Yes, please. I would like that."
Rai Kunabei untied the bag. "Do you have a particular question?"
"I -- do I need to?"
"No. But you can choose to."
Denel thought for a minute, but then shook her head. "No particular question -- no, wait -- tell us about our research, if you can."
Kunabei nodded. "All right then. The simplest reading is three disks. The first one shows you the nature of the situation the reading is about." She started to reach in to the bag, then paused, glancing rom Denel to Oranaan. "You do have the right to privacy if you want it."
Oranaan opened his mouth, holding up a hand.
Denel laughed. "No, no. It's fine for Oranaan to watch."
He sat back in his chair.
"That's what I thought you wanted, but you can't learn the traditions unless I share, since you did not grow up in the mountains."
Denel nodded. "That makes sense."
"All right, I shall begin." Kunabei reached into the bag and pulled out a disk. It was big enough to cover her entire palm, and was made of soft, shiny bronze. She turned it over to show an enameled image of a hammer smashing some piece of wooden furniture.
"The nature of the problem is Destruction, the embodiment of human-made endings. Whatever you are studying, human actions have made the situation worse, or perhaps caused the situation, either recently or in the distant past."
Oranaan held out his hand. "May I look at the disk, please?"
Kunabei let it slide gently from her own hand to his. Most people, faced with the image of destruction, didn't want to touch it, but this young scientist was fearless. He turned it over and over, running his fingers over the metal and enameled sides of the disk.
Kunabei turned to Denel. "The second disk has to do with the tools that are involved in the situation, which, in this case could be either the tools that were or are used to bring about this situation, or it could be the tools you need to address the problem."
Denel nodded politely, a thoughtful look on her face. Clearly, like most scientists, she was skeptical about divination; Kunabei appreciated her willingness to set that aside and try to understand the experience.
Kunabei reached into the bag and drew out another disk. This one was gold, and showed an elder seated on the ground, a bag by her knee and holding scorched ball whistles in her hands. It was a tolerable likeness of Kunabei's grandmother, though the artist who made it had never met the old priestess. "This is the Shaman, who is the embodiment of abstract knowledge. From this, I would say that physical tools are of limited use in addressing the problem you are studying. Human perception, intelligence and the knowledge handed down from our ancestors will be vital to understanding what is going on. That is interesting, because usually the knowledge and attitudes that shed light on the topic at hand shows up as the third disk."
She passed the Shaman to Oranaan, then reached in a final time and brought out an iron disk. The image enameled on one side was a sheer cliff, with a tiny figure clinging precariously to the rock. "The Cliff, which is the dangerous aspect of borders." Kunabei fell silent, considering the disk. "It might be that the knowledge you need has been passed down by people in very different parts of the world, so that the social divisions remaining from the old borders are a barrier to obtaining the information you need. Or perhaps this is more literal, and the old borders have something to do with the problem. Or maybe," she looked over at Oranaan, "it could simply be a warning that pushing your licenses to their limits is perilous in and of itself, and the chaos you cause could be threatening your effectiveness to obtain the information you need."
Oranaan frowned at that. "You've heard stories about me. Is that all this is, stories?" He gestured at the disks.
Kunabei shrugged. "Stories are an effective way to teach, and to get people thinking about their problems in a new way. If you are asking me is there some science behind which disk is drawn when, all I can say is that if there is, I don't know it. All I can offer is my personal observations that people who ask for readings do get some benefit from the experience."
She placed the final disk into Oranaan's hand, and unhooked her own scorched ball whistle from her staff, which was leaning in a corner. "It's similar to this -- I didn't see what scorched this whistle, but something did. It's not very satisfactory that I cannot tell you what a wraith looks like or why it attacks people in the highlands, but I take comfort from knowing that the whistle protected me."
Oranaan dropped the disks into Denel's hands and reached for the ball. "This -- this came into contact with an anomaly? And you were there? You survived? You're not mad?" He stopped short of touching it. "May I hold it?"
Kunabei nodded. "I met a wraith in the mountains and survived. That is how I came to be the shaman for my people." She put the ball into his hands. "Certainly you can look at it. But remember it is sacred to me. You may not subject it to explosions or laboratory fires or do anything else to it without letting me know exactly what you plan and getting my prior approval."
Reluctantly, he nodded, but still, Kunabei watched him carefully as she took the disks from Denel and returned them to her bag. As she tied it up, the server walked up and bowed to the scientists. "If you are finished with your lunch, we would like to clean this area and get set up for the dinner crowd."
"Oh, of course. I apologize, we didn't realize how late it has gotten." Denel took the ball from Oranaan and handed it back to Kunabei, who tied it securely to her staff.
Oranaan smiled at the young woman and reached into a pocket, taking out a thin sliver of metal that shone with swirls of bright color, almost like the mystery disk in Kunabei's bag. Standing, he pulled out a pen and signed the rectangular bit of metal, then handed it to the server. "I'm not much of an artist, but this is part of a plate that was damaged in the last laboratory fire. It is, if nothing else, unique."
The server's eyes grew round, and he took the slip of metal. "Thank you, Science Master. You are welcome to return any time."
Oranaan and Denel guided Kunabei back outside into the sunlight, and turned left. Denel started laughing as soon as the door closed behind them. "You turned your -- your slag -- into tip cards? Oranaan, you are incorrigible!"
Oranaan smiled, and offered his free arm to Kunabei. "Let us take you to the room we reserved for you, and then we can go find an Assistant to take notes while you tell us all about your encounter with the wraith."
This was written for the January 2015 Muse Fusion, in response to a request by Ellen for a reading for Denel.