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So Beautiful and So Dangerous

The morning is still reasonably early, although people have finished breakfast, and some have moved right into brunch. Bandé appears and smiles politely at the otherworlders, making a pleasant greeting. He murmurs to Sakura, "Do you think I could talk to you privately for a while?"

Sakura nods, "Yes... of course." She stands and excuses herself from the others to follow Bandé.

Bandé smiles and leads Sakura out of the Egg and straight away into the forest, following an easy route but no discernable path, as the wandering foxes tend to do. He says, "You're going to start a new clan. It looks like the ceremony will be tomorrow."

Sakura nods, "Apparently so, yes. I had no idea that would happen." She looks sheepish.

Bandé smiles and says, "I'm very happy to see it, and I'm sure you'll do well. However, I'm sure there's some things you don't know." He continues walking and says, "Remember the fight that we had yesterday over you? As clan leader you'll have to fight for your clan, or things will go badly. I wanted to make sure you knew how we fight, and how to do it." He nudges her at her sheepish grin, "You'll need to stop that."

Sakura smiles, "Well... I know a little bit of how to fight, but I suspect that's not quite the fighting that is done with the Shy Folk, either."

Bandé shakes his head, "No, that's not how we fight. If you drew a sword on someone, you'd terrify them, and they'd run away, probably straight to their clan leadership, who'd have you Outcast for being so dangerous. If you draw a sword, it's gone beyond a fight and into killing someone, which is very different." He stops walking in a bit of a clearing, with early morning sunshine starting to glow into it from the higher branches. "A real fox fight is all about who seems the most fierce and dangerous, irregardless of who really is."

Kawaii looks up and snorts companionably at the foxes from where he's rooting around in a flowerbed. He's got dirt on his short little snout, and he waggles his curly tail cheerfully, then goes back to searching out lunch. Sakura nods a little at Bandé's words. When he mentions fierce and dangerous she can't help but laugh. "Oh, dear... that could be a little awkward. I'm not exactly dangerous... and I'm certainly not fierce."

Bandé laughs, "According to Feina you're pretty dangerous when you wield that big sword you wear, Sakura!" He grins, adding, "Even accounting for her hero-worship and adoration. You knocked out an armed guard! You're the only fox I know of who'd stand up to an armed human like that, when they could run away." He adds, "No fox really feels they're fierce, though. The secret of a fight is to look like you are. It's almost an act, or a lie, or a dance."

Sakura nods, considering. "Well... I didn't really have the choice of running away in that situation."

Bandé gives Sakura a funny look, then says, "Regardless, if you're going to be a clan leader you'll need to be able to stand up for your people. I'll show you how. It's like a dance, where you try to get as close as you can to your partner without touching them. Hopefully they'll move away. The 'winner' is the one who looks most fierce if no one backs down. If you back down, you lose."

Kawaii looks up interestedly, watching and chewing busily, a flower hanging out of the side of his mouth as he does so. Sakura nods, "Well... I suppose that's one thing I have going for me. I tend to be a bit... uhm... stubborn. I don't like to back down. Wouldn't be a Doctor if I did."

Bandé says, "There you go, that's a better way to look at it." He continues, "Now, let's assume I'm challenging you. The challenger usually begins..." Bandé lapses into a brief description of a challenge and response, and in what ways one may increase the intensity. Kawaii plunks his round rear down and continues to watch, with the occasional encouraging snort for his favorite vixen. Sakura listens carefully, trying to commit all of this to memory.

"Now," Bandé says, "-the challenges are usually based on attitude. You have to look angry, like you're an unstoppable force. Like this." So saying, he growls and flicks his ears forward, bares his teeth, and bristles, making as if to lunge at Sakura.

Sakura manages to resist the urge to back up, but just barely... Bandé sees her wince and steps back a little, letting his fierceness vanish, "Okay, you need to respond to that with defiance and an attack, Sakura, or I've won. Try attacking me, and I'll show you."

Sakura says, "Should I actually hit you, or should I just menace and bristle at you?"

Kawaii's ears flick up interestedly at Bandé's bristling, and he looks at Sakura... then sighs gustily. He stands up, shakes himself down, and trots over with great dignity to stand next to her. He grunts once, looking up at her to be sure he has her attention... then takes a deep breath. A moment later his tail curls tightly up, his short bristles raise, his eyes widen, and he squeals shrilly, stomping the ground fiercely with both front feet! -or as fiercely as a tiny piglet can...

Bandé grins, "Yes, Kawaii, like that!" He looks back at Sakura and replies, "Oh! You'll never hit someone. In later phases you might give them a bit of a shove, but rarely. Menace and bristle. You want me to think you're going to tear my throat out and drink my blood, but you never will."

Sakura gasps and looks down at the piglet. "Kawaii! That's not a very nice thing to say about Bandé's mother. I'm sure she was a perfectly wonderful fox. He's just trying to help me, little pig." Then she nods at Bandé, "All right."

Bandé adds, "In fact, if you do strike me you've lost, because you've lost your self control, and resorted to violence. Just be menacing."

Kawaii grunts cheerfully -- he seems utterly unfazed -- and trots around to nudge at Sakura's feet. He seems to think stomping helps in one's fierceness. Bandé also seems more amused than anything else, at Kawaii's shrill commentary. Sakura takes a deep breath... then squares her shoulders, snarls... bares her teeth and bristles her tail and neck-fur at him.

Kawaii squeals encouragingly, bouncing around (a bit distractingly, although it's obvious he really wants to help) waving his tail and tossing his head and making short, fierce rushes at Bandé -- that never get very far from Sakura's feet.

Bandé says, "Better! Glare and look like you mean it. If you're challenged, you have to respond. Like this." He bares his teeth again and growls, leaning forwards and bristling his tail. He squares his shoulders to Sakura's, and glares at her. He hasn't really gotten closer, but it certainly seems like it. Sakura leans her whole body weight forward, growls at him again and squints her eyes like she's trying to get a good close look at whatever part she's going to poke or tear off.

Bandé nods, "That's good! If someone does this to you, get backup from your clan, or if you see someone from your clan being challenged, you go and back them up." He slips back into his former glare, and snarls something about her fur being unsuited for use washing dishes, and takes half a step closer to her, showing teeth and claws.

Sakura nods. When Bandé takes a half-step closer, she does as well, coming as close to him as she can without touching him. "My fur isn't worth washing dishes with? *snarl* At least my fur isn't starting to turn gray already!"

Bandé growls in reply, "At least I've lived long enough to be gray," then snaps at her, although not getting close enough to touch her. She can feel his breath on her whiskers.

Sakura growls and bares her teeth, clicking them together. She bristles and then snorts derisively. "Older isn't wiser. Older is slower..."

Bandé's ears flick back, and he closes his mouth and lips. His tail droops as he backs off a step, at that. He then grins, and steps up to give the fierce looking vixen a hug and kiss, probably confusing her terribly, saying, "That's how it's done, yes!"

Sakura hugs Bandé! "Oh, thank you, Bandé... I think I can do this part..." Kawaii tosses his head happily, his large triangular ears flopping, and dances around the foxes, squealing as proudly as if he'd done all Sakura's training himself. He does pause to magnanimously grunt to Bandé a few times, then continues his triumphal parade about Sakura's paws. Sakura leans down and scritches her little piglet behind one of his ears. "Thank you, Kawaii!"

Kawaii beams up at his favorite vixen and grunts happily at her a few times, then suggests returning for more partying! Bandé, who seems quite content to be as snuggly a fox as Sakura wants, says, "Good. Don't back away from challenge. Put your foot down and hold your ground, or advance. The other foxes won't hurt you; we'd hate to actually hurt another fox. Enough of the humans and others want to, so we tend to protect each other. But when a fox challenges, look like you're going to rip them in half."

Sakura nods, "I'd rather not get hurt... but if no one is going to hurt me, then I'll be much more confident."

Bandé gives the piglet a mildly dirty look for wanting to go back, rather than staying out here and getting all friendly, but doesn't object, saying, "You'll not get attacked, but it will be worse for you if you back off. Be sure of yourself."

Kawaii just griiins lazily at the big tod fox, wriggling his tail cheerfully. Sakura smiles, "I get more sure of myself every day that I'm here, Bandé. Thank you."

Back at the Silver Egg, Annifred has turned up, grinning her toothy and cheerful grin, "Douglas!" picking the cougar up and giving him a big hug, although she'd seen him that night. She says, "Want go?"

Douglas returns the hug cheerfully. "Good morning, Annifred! Go? You mean to the Gather? Oh, sure!" He finishes off the mug of coffee and stands, grinning quietly. "Take care, everyone; talk with you soon!" He heads outside with Annifred, glad that his fur is keeping him from catching most of the chill of the morning.

Annifred says, "Ja, Gather too," with a lascivious grin as she leads Douglas out. She takes his hand and leads him off through the woods, generally in the direction of the Gather, although a bit off to one side. She's apparently looking for a nice bit of sunny privacy, grinning happily at the cougar.

Douglas blinks a bit as he notices that they aren't going exactly in the direction of the Gather. What, in this weather? he thinks, surprised. It's really chilly out, doesn't that deter her? Uh... no, forget I asked that, he adds, at the glare his mental voice gives him. Right, nothing would deter them. He feels his tail flirt a bit behind him as he takes in a nice, chilly breath of the morning air. So different from home-Earth. Dammit, Strander, I don't know what you and your boss Laws have in store for us, but don't even think of trying to take this away from me... from us...

Eventually the leisurely stroll leads to a nice, pleasant area, a small clearing in the forest that's not far enough from the Gather itself so as to be isolated from the sounds and smells of it, but certainly far from any casual glance. Douglas is just finding himself relaxing, when his ears perk, and he looks around quickly, his tail kinking a little, then holding very still, only the tip, such as it is, twitching. "What...?" he murmurs, then tilts his head curiously. What was that? Something in the underbrush... I heard sniffling, too. Something creeping around... oh, wait. Hee, silly piglet! He lets out a breath and chuckles softly. "Kawaii, is that you? What're you doing out here?"

There's a faint shiver in the underbrush -- then complete quiet. The sunshine dapples the grassy clearing floor with uneven patches of silent brilliance. Even the birds aren't singing -- at least, not in this clearing.

Douglas's smile slowly fades. That's not Kawaii. He's too focussed on the bushes that moved to really notice the lack of any sound. Something in him does, though, and his hackles rise a little. His tail flicks a little more agitatedly. He quickly checks to see if he has his little rowan-sprig with him, then glances to Annifred, trying to gauge her reaction to this.

Annifred, too, has heard something, and is looking at the bushes. She says, "Hallo?" and walks slowly over there, saying, "Is Gather, ja? Is okay, come out." When she gets close the bushes tremble again for a moment, and Annifred braces herself, not really looking worried, but now unsure what to expect.

Douglas moves, not so quickly as to startle whatever's in there, but quickly enough that Annifred isn't facing whatever-it-is alone. He's not moving there to protect her -- he thinks she'd be a bit insulted by that idea -- but at the very least to provide something else for whatever's in the brushes to pounce upon. "It's okay, come on out..." he says, unable to keep a cautious tone from his voice.

Annifred nudges Doug and points around the other side of the bush, then shoos him that way, waiting for him to move. She's still talking, "So, who there? Is nice Gather, ja?" She tries to see through the branches.

Douglas nods and moves quietly, reasonably sure that whatever's in the bush is watching him. He tries to circle around it, his footpads crunching softly upon the dry leaves even though he tries to be quiet and careful about that. He keeps his eyes and ears alert, his nose and whiskers quivering faintly, glancing back to Annifred now and then to make sure that whatever's in the brush isn't going to take the chance to... well, do whatever unpleasant thing it might do, if it could do anything unpleasant, which it still- he throws a pillow at his mental voice, then concentrates on the brush he's circling around.

As soon as Douglas has gotten around to the other side of the bush, Annifred moves forward a little bit and says, "Come see us, ja?" in as reassuring a voice as an eight-foot-tall, razor-toothed troll can. The little cry of, "Eek!" from the bush suggests that it isn't that reassuring after all, and a small, dark red form darts away from Annifred, pretty much straight into Douglas.

Douglas is looking at Annifred when she smiles. He opens his mouth to suggest that, well, maybe it might not be reassuring to someone who hasn't seen it before -- when the little sound tells him that whatever it is they've been listening to skitter about the underbrush isn't used to trolls. Then something small, red, and very fast is shooting through the underbrush. He has a moment's indecision, and that's all his instincts need.

Cats like pouncing small fast moving things! It's an instinct that he's sure, even as he moving to try and catch the thing, he's probably going to regret at some point later that day.

The small thing is easily caught, as it's more afraid of Douglas than he is of it. Once it's not moving so very fast it's revealed to be a young fox with dark red and white fur and black at the tips of his ears and tail. He's wearing a little pair of tan knickers and a leather belt. He curls up in as much of a ball as he can, whimpering, "I'msorryI'msorryIgotlostpleasedon'teatme," and trembling. Unlike Feina, who's young but ready to take on the world, this is obviously a baby kit who isn't used to the big world yet, and doesn't want to be away from his family.

Douglas blinks in surprise. A fox? What in the world- He tries to interpret what the fox is saying, and bristles a little at the presumption that he would EAT anything sentient! Well... anything obviously sentient. On purpose. He shakes his head, and remembers his manners. He smiles, without showing his teeth. "It's okay," he says pleasantly, lowering the... uh, fox-ball, to the ground. "Relax, guy, neither of us are going to eat you. Uh, what's your name?"

Annifred comes around, "So, who we got here?" When she does, the little fox says, "Eek!" and leaps to Douglas, clinging to him some more. The tiny kit peeks warily at the big, scary troll, and whispers to Douglas, "I'm Ferol. Please don't be angry. It was dark and I got lost and I'm so sorry." Ferol curls up, and tries to hide in Douglas' fur. The cougar may not be a fox, but he's less scary than Annifred. Doug is, at least, furry.

Douglas blinks at Ferol as the kit tries to burrow into his fur. "Hey... hey! Er, Ferol, don't worry, we're not angry, relax, okay? Don't worry, neither of us are going to hurt you or eat you." He looks to Annifred sheepishly. "I'm not sure, but I think he's one of the Shy Folk," he says wryly. One of the Shy Folk, actually being shy. That's a first. Whoa, Doug, cut the fox some slack; he's probably not nearly as well traveled as Feina and Larrikan and the other foxes. He tries to get the fox to stand up. I wish Sakura-chan was here; she's so much better with kits... wait... this is probably the youngest kit I've ever seen. Odd, I wonder why we've never seen any younger? Oh, well, duh, because the foxes don't want us to. There, that mystery solved. Now for this one. "If you're lost, we can bring you back to the Gather and your fam- er, your clan."

The little fox can't be over half grown, which puts him at far less than three feet tall, with oversized ears and paws. He clings to Douglas, having thrown his arms around the cougar's neck, taking solace from not being alone and not wanting to let go of what might possibly not eat him. He trembles, "Please. I got lost, I couldn't find anyone." Unless Douglas is willing to find a crowbar, it'll be easier to carry the little guy than it is to get him to let go.

Douglas *gnrks* a little as the fox-kit latches on, and does his best to carry him so that he's not wearing the poor guy like a necklace. "Oh, no problem, Ferol," he manages to say pleasantly. Then a thought strikes him. "I'm Douglas, and this is Annifred... er, your folks aren't going to be bothered by us walking in with you, would they?" Even if it's just protectiveness that's kept us from seeing fox-kits before, that's still a very, very strong motivation. I hope they don't get terribly upset about it... Still, he wants to be discrete. "Annifred? Think we can take some time to help the young fox here get back to the Gather?"

Annifred says, "Ja, of course! We take back to foxes." She comes up and says, "Hi, Ferol!" and tries to gain his trust, but he hides his face in Doug's fur. Annifred isn't upset by this, merely saying, "Is okay." She leads Douglas back towards the Gather, humming cheerfully and commenting, "Not see many fox kits. Usually hidden. Saw two once at Wise Woman's."

Douglas asks the kit conversationally, "Which is your clan, Ferol?" He's a bit surprised that Annifred hasn't seen many fox kits either; he gets the impression that the two she saw at the Wise Woman's home was almost a once-in-a-lifetime event. "Really?" he asks the troll. "The clans hide them, or they hide themselves?" He smiles -- again without his teeth showing -- to Ferol at that, hopefully allaying any embarrassment the lad might feel. Besides, he probably at some level wanted to be found.

Once they near the gather, Douglas will stay with Ferol a bit back from the tree line, away from casual glances, and ask Annifred to find someone from Ferol's clan. Partly it's to spare Ferol any further embarrassment, partly just in case the foxes are dangerously protective of their young. And partly because a small, spiteful part of him, remembering the "librarians'" goggle-eyed watching of the fox-fight the other day, doesn't want to give Strander and that other one any glimpse at all of a young kit of the Shy Folk.

Ferol says, "Snake Charmers by the Dark Red Fur." The latter almost seems obvious. He sniffles, then murmurs, "Momma said she was looking for a new one." Annifred nods, "I go find." She pads off through the still thin crowd, looking for some foxes that don't vanish at the sight of her.

Douglas thanks Annifred, and grins softly as she seems to make Shy Folk disappear at her very approach. He somehow manages to hold up Ferol comfortably; the kit's grasp is no longer quite as tight as a #12 industrial electromagnetic vise. Snake Charmers? I don't seem to remember them from the list Larrikan rattled off yesterday. Then again, I wasn't paying good attention, and I don't have nearly his memory. Ferol's mention of his mom looking for a new clan takes him by surprise a bit. "Really?" he asks. "Who's your mom?" No, it wouldn't be Nessa, would it? Nah, there must be many vixens -- and tods -- looking to join other clans. "Did you have a long trip to get to the Gather?"

He mentally rebukes himself even as he plies the kit with questions. You're going to scare him, Doug. Remember, back home we were taught never to talk to strangers, and you're going to give either him or his mom a conniption. Let him relax and not think you're making plans to, I don't know, go and make a light snack of his clan. Or something. "You don't have to answer, Ferol," he says easily. "I'm just being overly curious, that's all."

Ferol shifts a little, peeking out over the Gather clearing, "Momma is Momma?" To the other question he doesn't reply, apparently not sure what the question means. He looks nervous and worried. When Douglas relents on the questions, he relaxes and keeps looking at the crowd. He is watching a group of foxes intently as Annifred goes up to them.

Annifred does go up to some foxes, and smiles, "We found kit lost in woods. You want him back, ja?" The foxes instantly react, most of them bristling and glaring at Annifred, with one of the older women saying indignantly, "What are you doing with our kit? Where did you find him?! Did you hurt him?!" The double handful of angry and fierce looking foxes all around her makes Annifred startled for a moment -- and then she grins, apparently finding all the fierce foxes amusing and not very threatening. She says, "No, he lost, we find. We give back. He from Snake Charmers; you want come get?" The group seems to relax at the news that this isn't anything horrible and the big troll will give him back. A vixen and a tod say, "What? Snake Charmers? We'll take him." Annifred leads them back to Douglas.

Douglas watches the interplay between Annifred and the foxes; the Shy Folks' response is... well, not entirely unexpected, but still a bit surprising. Actually, he realizes, he'd probably be surprised if they didn't react in that way. He holds Ferol for as long as the kit wants, trying to hold him in such a way as to not even suggest he's keeping him restrained -- just more like holding his arms as a seat for the kit to sit on -- and so the kit doesn't inadvertently strangle him. He smiles -- without teeth! even though the foxes would probably be able to read his expressions better than a human from home-Earth could -- pleasantly, and inclines his head to the two foxes, moving closer to them as they enter the forest line.

The cougar glances around and hoping that nobody's paying attention to the group. "Er, hello there. We ran into Ferol out in the brush. I think he's unhurt, just a little bewildered..." He lowers himself a little, so he isn't towering over the Shy Folk, giving Ferol a chance to bounce off of him, or the other foxes to (and this he expects) divest him of the kit and spirit him away before anyone else sees Ferol.

The two foxes come with Annifred, and both thank the troll and Douglas for returning the lost one. Ferol is handed off -- he doesn't leap or scramble -- to his auntie, who strokes him and tells him he's found now, and tries to get him to relax. The tod says, "You're the Hero! No wonder you'd return a lost kit," as he smiles at Douglas. The foxes thank him and then walk off into the forest, fading surprisingly quickly into the trees.

Douglas blinks as the foxes disappear, still smiling but with a quizzical look on his face. "Err..." His ears flicker a bit. Of course I would return him. He was a lost kid. He glances to Annifred. "Err..." he repeats, then shakes his head to clear it. "Annifred... I think missed something there. Is there any reason why we wouldn't return a lost fox kit to his clan?"

Annifred shrugs, "Don't know. Trolls would; children very special. Maybe humans wouldn't. They have lots kits; some not like foxies much. Think they troublemakers. Some not like trolls either, but they usually leave alone. May not like, but not stupid." She shrugs again, "You want go back where we left, or go talk trolls?" She points at the troll corner, where trolls are lounging and talking. She adds, "Kyerno probably play with you some more," and grins at the cougar.

Douglas nods slowly, fretting softly. Odd. Maybe there've been... incidents in the past, between foxes and humans. Well, Doug, you knew more or less early on that Crossroads wasn't a paradise; it's just a lot more preferable to "home"-Earth. He nods to Annifred, then grins cheerfully, if (still) a bit sheepishly. "Kyerno'll be here for a couple more days at least," he says, extending a hand to her. "And that was a really nice spot..."

Kerry watches as his colleagues and friends head back out to the Gather -- or wherever, he thinks, grinning to himself as Annifred heads out with Douglas -- then settles himself to think for a bit. Well, the whole purpose of this mission was trade, and high-value trade if possible -- so the Aztekans look like the folks we need to talk to. He pulls out his datapad and reviews the inventory of trade samples again, trying to memorize it this time. Because I'm not going to get the computer near Xochihualpilli. Not if she routinely uses lightning bolts on recalcitrant servants. He finishes, takes the tech devices back to his room, and returns to the common room to see whom of Xochi's people wander through first.

It's about an hour or so later -- noonish, Kerry would guess, from the thickness of the lunch crowd -- that one of the jaguars ambles down into the common room of the Silver Egg, looking around as if searching for someone. Kerry spreads his wings out and resettles them. What the hey. If he's looking for me, this should attract his attention. For some reason, folks never seem to look up.

The jaguar spots Zildjian and hastens over. He bows neatly, front paws together, then asks her what sounds like a respectful question. Unfortunately his focus on the lamia seems to have precluded his noticing the bat hanging from the high ceiling. Zildjian smiles and nods, then leads the jaguar to the kitchen door, where he stands, waiting with the calm patience of someone who knows better than to urge their betters on.

A moment later Zildjian returns with some leather bags and a huge, heavily carven wooden tray covered in what looks like rather fine, gold-toned flatware. On the flatware is a lot of very savory smelling food, some goblets, some wine bottles... the jaguar carefully slings the leather bags across his shoulders, then accepts the tray. He turns and starts heading for the stairs again, walking very carefully this time so as to not spill anything.

Kerry chuckles to himself as the jaguar doesn't even notice him on the ceiling. Pity he wasn't at the table that night... I have no idea what his name is. He waits for the moment, since the fellow seems to be on an errand, and Zil would know where he was. Ah-hah. He's room service for now. I shan't bother him, he might drop something. The young male disappears up the stairs, his slowly swaying tail-tip rosette the last thing the bat sees of the jaguar.

It's much later -- a leisurely meal indeed -- that the same jaguar trots swiftly downstairs, balancing the tray and flatware, to return it for cleaning. The jaguar's ears flatten slightly when it's the minotaur that leans out of the kitchen to accept the tray, but he hands it over with a nod. When he turns around his ears go back again in surprise as, this time, he notices the hanging bat. He hastily averts his eyes and bows deeply, front paws together.

Kerry has been waiting and wondering when they were going to be done with their meal, and has almost drifted off to sleep when the jaguar finally returns. He watches and is gratified when the fellow notices him this time. Okay... now's as good a time as any... oh, dear. Kualkan didn't tell him I'm not one of the Honored Ones... though to be honest, I'm not sure she really believed it herself. He spreads his wings and glides gently down from his perch. "Get up, please. I'm not one of your Honored Ones."

The jaguar nods once, straightening but still not looking up, "Of course, Honored One."

Kerry suppresses a sigh. Nope. And he doesn't believe it, either. Better put this in terms he'll be able to handle. "I understand that Xochihualpilli is here to trade at the Gather. I represent another group of traders, and we would be interested in discussing things with her. Would you pass that message on, please?" He adds, "I am called Kerry Skydancer."

The jaguar is still for a moment, as if thinking hard. Finally he nods again several times, then says carefully, "Interest pilli lady yes, this way greatly?" He bows again and indicates the stairs with a wave of one paw.

Kerry blinks, thankful that the jaguar isn't looking at him to spot that indecision. Ouch, now what? No one else is here, and if they're interested in talking right now I don't want to insult them. I suppose I can make an initial contact myself... He clears his throat. "Right now?" He looks around for Zil or Hotspur or Aykuh.

The jaguar listens intently again, rosette'd ears flicked forward and eyes downcast, then nods emphatically, "Please greatly?"

Kerry skrees, "I don't wish to interrupt your lady's plans. Perhaps an hour from now would be convenient? Ask your pilli lady when she would like to discuss things, if you would?"

The jaguar looks deeply disappointed, then nods once, with a barely perceptible sigh. He bows again, then takes something small from his belt sash and steps forward, extending his paw out with the palm down, fingers closed loosely around something, so he can drop it into the claw fingers of the bat he's carefully not looking at. "Callings for audience pilli lady, please."

Kerry takes the proffered object. "Well, if you're sure now is a good time... just give me a moment." He looks at it as he walks over to the kitchen, before poking his head in and looking for Hotspur. The bat is holding a very small, heavy piece of what looks like engraved goldwork, shaped like a graceful bat with wings outspread. Emeralds form the eyes and some red stone picks out a fine pattern across the wings, while the ears and mouth shine with another precious stone... lapis lazuli, perhaps?

The big minotaur swings his heavy, horned head around to stare at the bat in the doorway. "Hey?" His powerfully muscled, furred arms are wet and sudsy up to the elbows. He's washing dishes.

Kerry leans in. "Hi, Hotspur. I've just been invited up to visit with Xochihualpilli. If you see Vash or Saki or Douglas before I come back down, could you tell them I'm doing some market research and that I'll be back as soon as possible?"

The minotaur gives the bat a long, slow look, then finally rumbles, "Market... research...?"

Kerry skrees, "Trader stuff, Hotspur." Hotspur just shakes his heavy head slowly, then shrugs and turns back to his washing.

Kerry sighs again, and then squares his shoulders and turns back to the jaguar. "All set. Lead on, umm... what's your name, soldier?" Looks like I'm not going to have the time to call everyone together first. Looks like he's been told to get me as quickly as he can. He's very insistent, which isn't like one of them -- he really didn't like my suggestion of a later meeting. That capybara was practically orgasmic when I told him I didn't need his help. This fellow isn't reacting the same way.

The jaguar blinks, then brightens, his whiskers perking up happily. He holds out his paw towards the stairs again, "Joyous greatly please yes coming!" as he's bowing, beckoning encouragingly, and backing slowly towards the stairs. Kerry shakes his head... The poor fellow is simultaneously afraid to look at me or to turn his back on me. He slips the gold-and-jewel bat into a pocket as he follows the jaguar.

The jaguar speeds up a bit once he realizes the bat is following him, and soon Kerry is on the floor the Aztekan lady has reserved for herself. He's led into a room that's obviously been set up as the first waiting room, where the guards stand. The goat sergeant is there, his head turning swiftly to study the bat surreptitiously over the jaguar's shoulder, as the young cat happily gabbles something to him, then turns and bows repeatedly, still beaming, towards Kerry.

Sergeant Tenotch isn't smiling... perhaps that's due to his being on duty. He just nods to the jaguar, then bows deeply to Kerry. "Honored Guest of the Lady, this worthless one would ask for you to give the offering, so the Gods' Messenger knows honorable is your intent." He speaks in a commanding undertone to the jaguar, who almost scampers hastily off. In the next room startled voices can be heard, then some rushing about. A moment later the male and the female jaguar return, colorful tabards swiftly tossed on, both holding opposite sides of a wide golden dish with water in it. Flower petals float in the basin's clear water.

Kerry blinks behind his dark glasses while he tries to figure that one out. Okay... offering, offering... blood, or does he want the gold thing back? I hope it's the gold bat... here goes nothing. He goes with the formality, not wanting to repeat here what the sergeant already knows. "Certainly, sergeant." He retrieves the golden bat from his pocket and starts to proffer it... then looks questioningly at the basin and the jaguars. He skrees, "...I am not familiar with your customs, sergeant... if you would be so kind as to explain this to me?"

The goat smoothly retrieves the golden icon, then bows again. "Honored one, please to cleanse feel free a moment until better and more graceful escort for you to lady pilli arrive." The male jaguar looks like he's still struggling not to beam, although neither of the jaguars look at the bat. Instead they both kneel, so the basin is at a convenient height for the bat, while the goat slips quietly into the next room.

Kerry looks relieved, and washes his handclaws, keeping an eye on the goat -- and then the sergeant leaves. He sighs, then strips off his goggles, splashing a bit of water on his face to conform to the ritual cleansing. After a bit of thought, he hooks the dark lenses to his belt rather than put them back on.

It is as Kerry is first wondering about a towel or something... that the tall and graceful llama slips into the room. She glances sideways at Kerry, smiling shyly as she kneels and proffers a fine woven cloth. The jaguars carefully rise together, with glances at each other so they're coordinated and don't spill. They nod once, eyes still downcast, then back through the door into the room behind them.

Kerry smiles at the llama and takes the cloth, patting his face and hands dry again with it before offering it back to her... he tries not to mess it up too much in the process. They all seem to treat this as an important ritual, so I'd better not disrupt things by insisting I'm not an Honored One. Tenotch knows that already, and he's not objecting to the whole business. I don't want to risk getting him in trouble at this point.

The llama rises, bowing and gracefully indicating the next room as she backs into it. Kerry can see, if he peeks a bit, a beautiful and embroidered privacy curtain cuts off most of the room. There's a woven carpet leading to another doorway. Kerry would guess these two rooms are mostly storage and... maybe servant quarters? They're certainly not where the lady stays. He also notices the lights are getting lower, the further in he walks... which is very nice on his eyes.

Kerry follows the llama, noting the way the Aztekans have set things up in the suite, and quite pleased that Xochihualpilli seems to have the same disinterest in bright lights as he does. And... it's showtime... The llama bows deeply as she opens the further door and waves the bat on through. Kerry nods to the llama and steps through the doorway.

The llama smiles and quietly shuts the door behind the bat, who takes a moment just to look around in open-mouthed astonishment. This room is... beautiful but alien. Reassuringly dim, barely lit with faint, hidden glows that cast streaks of gorgeous iridescence along the walls, floor -- even the ceiling. The fierce Aztekan figures along the walls seem to almost writhe, they're so artistically woven and shaped. Tapestries, golden objects d'art, crystal skulls of various species, precious metals and stones -- there's a rainbow of shade and tone even to Kerry's colorblind eyes.

Huge, plump pillows with tassels and satiny decorations are comfortably mounded next to low tables of engraved metal. Crystal goblets and a gracefully curved decanter with a sparkling beverage within rest on one. Plates of nibbles rest on others. What looks like a completely unlit crystal chandelier hangs overhead. The llama steps gracefully around the stunned bat to pour drinks into the goblets, then calls out softly, her voice hushed. A mellifluous soprano answers... and Kerry notices movement behind one of the delicately carven screens that block off parts of the room.

Kerry can see the graceful silhouette of the bat lady behind the screen. For a moment she appears nude, reaching up to pull down some feathered, embroidered cloak or wrap... and then she tosses it over her shoulders and steps languidly out from behind the screen. Her voice is the lovely soprano, "So... finally we meet under proper circumstances." She smiles, walking towards the bat, one hand outstretched, "It is a great pleasure." Her accent is soft and pleasing to the ear.

Kerry skrees, "We do indeed, Lady Xochihualpilli. I have looked forward to this moment since I first saw you." He takes her hand in his and bows over it politely -- at least politely for his own culture. He remains hypersensitive to any cues that he's doing something that might be offensive. I do hope that's not pouring it on too thick.

The lady smiles, seeming pleased, then murmurs something to the llama, who bows again and withdraws from sight. The Aztekan lady returns her large-eyed gaze to the foreign bat, gently curling her slender fingers around his, "You are too kind. Come, please... sit with me and we shall speak of many things." She sighs softly, then adds with a faint smile, "You know, I'm sure, how lonely it can be, isolated without the company of one's own kind." If Kerry will walk with her, she draws him to the pillows and curls up next to him.

Kerry lets the Aztekan pull him to a seat. "I do, indeed. It has been months since I set out on my own journey with my companions, and I the only bat of the four." There... I hope that works. Lets her know I don't consider myself the leader of our group if she can handle that concept.

The lady turns, reaching for the two crystal goblets, then hands one to Kerry, seated close next to her, her wing membrane brushing lightly along his as she does so. She smiles, glancing sideways at him with her huge, lovely, dark eyes, and murmurs, "Perhaps... a toast? It is how we begin beautiful friendships. Is that suitable for you also?"

Kerry nods. "Certainly. A toast to friendship, a toast to trade and prosperity for both our peoples. We both have our missions, I suspect. And perhaps they are mutually beneficial ones." He raises his goblet, moving to touch it to hers, returning the brush of wings if she wishes, though leaving her time to pull back if she doesn't. He sighs inwardly. Here goes. I hope she's on the level. If I get drugged, Vash probably will declare me an outcast.

The Aztekan lady's eyes light up with quiet pleasure, and she purrs, "A most suitable toast indeed!" She doesn't pull away at all, clinking her goblet against his with a faint, musical chime, then sipping slowly. Her gaze remains on him, warm and pleased, over the goblet's rim.

The wine smells rich and fruity, and almost glows within the crystal. It is smooth and mellow going down, but has a sharp, almost fiery aftertaste that leaves Kerry coughing for a second, wine slopping over the edge of the goblet. Kerry controls his reaction with an effort, and tries to keep the spill on himself rather than on the fine furnishings. "Ach... ah. That was... unexpected. It's good, but not what I'm used to, I'm afraid. What's in it?"

The Aztekan lady blinks, then gracefully catches Kerry's goblet hand even as she sets her goblet aside behind her. She smiles apologetically, "Oh, dear... I should have warned you. I forgot... you are so obviously one of us. Indeed, seeing you makes me feel quite homesick..." She gently removes the goblet from his fingers, leaning to look and be sure none spilled. "Alas... I see I have caused you some distress..." She gets an almost roguish glint in her eyes, watching him and smiling as she raises his hand to her lips, and kisses the small spill off his fingers.

Kerry smiles gallantly. "It is nothing, milady. I was merely surprised by the bite. It is really excellent, but unlike what my own people make." He retrieves his hand, drawing hers close if she allows, and returning the kiss. After that, he proves his sincerity by taking another sip of the spiced wine.

Kiss follows kiss... and Kerry somehow finds himself, moments later, stretched out comfortably on the pillows, the lovely bat lady curled up languidly against him. There's a lovely fiery tingle in his mouth and down his throat from the drink, as if he really did drink sweet fire -- a tingle matched only by the intoxicating, dizzying sensation of another bat pressing close. In the dimness and warmth and soft scent of interest and desire, time vanishes... and all that remains is the lovely ultrasonic croonings of one bat to another.

It's about an hour later, and the room is a bit warmer and cozier feeling to Kerry. Perhaps this is due to the lovely, relaxed lady lying across him. Perhaps it was the cacao-covered crickets she fed him, giggling softly, one at a time from her slender fingers... or the fiery-sweet wine he shared with her from a single crystalline goblet... or the sweet, intoxicating intimacy they'd shared... or the sheer relief of being able to communicate, however inefficiently, in his favorite ultrasonic tones... but he is definitely more comfortable and relaxed.

The lovely lady is soft and graceful and warm, curled up next to him. She whispers softly, "Tell me of your dreams...?"

Kerry chirrs, nuzzling the priestess' cheek. "My dreams? The word means two different things translated into my language. Sleeping-visions, or aspirations? The translator magic is not always efficient... little aspirations: to complete this mission, perhaps to return home -- though that one gets weaker over time, truly. For grand aspirations, I want to rescue my people -- our kind of people, from my homeland -- and bring them here, but that will be nearly impossible. It is too far, and too expensive without great wealth. Why do you ask?"

The Aztekan lady hmms thoughtfully, her breath warm against his fur, then murmurs, "Interesting... I would swear you were one of us. Do you not dream... of flight?"

Kerry would blush, if he could through the fur. "That one... always and forever, for all of us who call ourselves Keero. Both night-vision and aspiration, that dream. I have been trying to find out if I can learn this here on the world called Crossroads." He grins. "I've even been taking lessons from a drake. She's helped me glide better, but that's about it."

The lady Xochihualpilli laughs delightedly, a soprano trill, hugging him warmly, "Oh! I was right then -- I knew it, you are one of us!" She rises up enough to lean on an elbow, looking down at him with a quiet smile in her large, dark eyes, and languidly traces the edge of one of his ears with a slender fingertip, "To fly... yes, pretty chichimec, this I can give you, for your offering to me this day. Would you like this means of returning thanks?"

Kerry shifts to look deep into the lady's eyes, almost afraid to hope she means what he thinks she does. "As a return of thanks? My lady, I would be forever in your debt. I would do anything for you that I could in return, as long as it would not break oaths and commitments that I have already made. To fly again, on my own wings..."

The Aztekan lady regards the Keero for a long, slow moment, as if she's not sure she really believes him... then finally smiles slowly, leaning down to give him a long, leisurely kiss. Kerry returns the kiss delightedly. When they break for breathing again, he explains. "Our humans are devoted to machines. We are their pilots -- operators of flying machines. But to truly fly, without the noise and stink of metal around you..."

The Aztekan bat smiles warmly, even though Kerry can tell by her eyes that she isn't really sure what he's talking about in regards to flying machines. Instead she slides gracefully to her feet, her wings gently trailing across Kerry's body, and claps her hands once. She speaks firmly to the llama, which has appeared instantly from behind one of the screens. The llama smiles and bows, then slips behind the screen again for a moment. When she emerges again she drapes a loose, fur-lined sort of cloak across first her lady's shoulders, then another across Kerry's, once he's also risen.

The Lady Xochihualpilli spreads her wings as the U-shaped cloak is laid across her back, the arms of the U falling across her shoulders and down the front, and leaving her wings free. Kerry can see the lining fur is soft, very thick, slightly wavy, and pale... perhaps alpaca? Across the back writhe a myriad collection of flying creatures. He'd guess his own cloak is similarly richly embroidered. Once they've both been draped, she turns and takes his hand in hers, leading him towards one end of the room, where a scarlet satiny drape covers what appears to be a long, low, wide table, "Tell me, lovely chichimec, do you have a good memory? That will help."

Kerry lets the llama drape the odd garment over him, admiring the one on his companion as she does so. Interesting. Sympathetic magic, I think they called it? Or congruent? Drat. Should've read more fantasy, I think. It's not fantastic here. "I like to think so. I've got a very good head for numbers, at least."

The llama is setting up, next to the table, a brazier that is smoking gently, giving off a lovely, rich, spicy scent. Something liquid bubbles warmly over it. Smoothly and gracefully, the llama puts out a smaller table, drapes it similarly, and opens a folded, engraved leather satchel sort of thing on it. Well-cared-for instruments gleam within it, and the llama starts laying them out. The Aztekan lady smiles with pleasure to the Earth bat, "Oh, excellent! Yes, this is very good. Please... lay on the altar table, here?" She pats the draped table with her free hand, continuing, "We must paint the ritual symbols on your wings. Do not worry... Tzala will administer the sacred shocolát to help you stay warm. All you must do is lie very still, so we do not smudge."

Kerry has a moment of suspicion about the whole process. She's got tattoos. I do hope they're not planning to do that to me right now. But the tools she is preparing do look like brushes and pens rather than needles and scalpels, so he lies down as directed, spreading his wings out for her. I do hope the translator figures out how to deal with "chichimec" soon.

The Aztekan lady goes to work with a will, carefully preparing paints and brushes with the dedication of a true artist. The llama Tzala moves gracefully around the table, following the lady's quiet orders. She slips a slender hand under Kerry's head, helping him to raise his head up enough that she can hold a mug of something steaming and sweet-smelling to his lips. As she's doing so, the lady carefully starts painting slow, lovely, graceful patterns along Kerry's outstretched wing -- patterns that look like a lot like a simplified version of the scarification along her own wings.

Kerry tries to imagine what the patterns look like from the touches of the brush against his wings. If he remembers her tattoos correctly, they do seem to be similar. He sips the chocolate beverage -- as his reading in Aztec mythology indicated, it's surprisingly bitter to a palate used to milk chocolate. If the congruence holds, this is a sacred beverage to them. I'll drink it and like it, no matter what it tastes like.

Wisps of incense drift languidly past Kerry's eyes in the dimness, bittersweet and lazy and intoxicating as the drink he'd swallowed. Time passes oddly, seeming to drift just as languidly as his thoughts and the soft ultrasonically crooned harmonies of the lady painting his wings. His body feels floaty, and his toes, fingertips, and ears feel tingly, sometimes warm and sometimes cool.

Kerry drifts in and out of his usual rational thought patterns, at times trying to analyze the sensations, and then letting himself go to simply experience them. I'll have to show her Alshain, though. It's only a dozen or two miles... we can fly over that way and look at it from the air...

An indeterminate amount of time later the Aztekan lady straightens and smiles with pleasure, regarding her handiwork. She nods to the llama, which clears away all the painting paraphernalia smoothly and swiftly. A moment later the lady's drape is removed, a basin offered for her to symbolically cleanse her hands in the clear water, a pristine white towel offered to dry her hands... and finally, a new drape is laid across her small form. This one flashes and sparkles with precious gems, iridescent feathers, and metallic embroidery, in a pattern of wildly dancing hummingbirds.

Kerry waits for clearance -- she's obviously done painting now, but it probably needs to dry. Don't want it to smudge or flake off while I'm up there, after all. He does look up and admire the new drape. "That is exquisitely beautiful, Xochihualpilli. Nearly as beautiful as you are."

The two women turn to the almost somnambulant Kerry, although only the llama is looking at him. She smiles when he speaks and holds one finger up to her lips in a shushing gesture. The Aztekan lady is looking upwards, eyes almost closed as she chants, soft and rhythmic, her slender fingers tracing graceful patterns in the air... it must be the incense or something, but Kerry could almost swear there are dancing sparks of light following her fingers.

Kerry lets himself be shushed, and watches as carefully as he still can, noting the sparks and the rhythm of her chant. Sparks... something about electricity. Oh, yes... Sergeant Tenotch said something about that. Poor fellow -- I think he was happy to meet a non-Honored bat. What'll he think of me now?

Almost magically, the two jaguars appear at either side of Kerry, their gorgeous rosettes speckles of shadow in the dimness. They lift him carefully into the air and the llama removes both the drape and the scarlet silk sheet. He's laid back down gently, and the sheet billows once, then falls slowly and softly across his form.

Kerry can feel ridging or something on the surface he's been laid on. It, like the sheet, is warm from his body heat, and not unpleasant. The chanting has risen in volume and harmonics -- how does she do that multi-voiced sound? There's the scent of incense and something else, and a growing feeling of pressure, as if there were a storm coming...

And then the lady shouts something commanding in ultrasonics that only Kerry can hear, but not understand -- an overwhelming *crash* of thunder that deafens him, even as a brilliant, actinic flash of light blinds him even through the sheet -- he feels the most incredible pain he's ever felt across his wings, as if he'd been nailed to the altar -- and horribly, he can't even seem to go unconscious -- the pain just goes on, even as he feels blood start to flow from his pinioned wings.

Kerry screams at the sudden and hideous pain, an ultrasonic note that continues until he has to breathe, which he does rapidly and shallowly. ########! What? By the Makers, what is happening??? His first instinctive attempt to furl his pinned wings up just increases the pain, so he forces himself to try to lie still, though he can't stop his clenched feet from drumming against the table... Not a table. Altar. Blood, they like... at least they don't want bat hearts. And they like bats. Poor humans...

Pain distorts time, for the afflicted... it could be only a few seconds, or several years, that Kerry spends suspended in agony, feeling blood flowing from his wings... but finally he can't stand it any more, and he sinks, with relief, into darkness and oblivion.

Kerry awakens much later, stiff and aching, to the sensation of his face being lightly traced by cool fingers, and a soft, contented ultrasonic humming. He gingerly opens his eyes a tiny slit, then wider as the light turns out to be dim. "That... was unpleasant." He winces as he flexes his wings and decides that perhaps leaving them stretched out is smarter. "How long will it take me to heal? I feel rather -- drained."

The Aztekan priestess-lady smiles down warmly at Kerry, her eyes gleaming in the dimness. She doesn't look like she's heard him at all, her huge eyes widely dilated as she whispers, "Good little chichimec... you have done so well! Terrible Huitzilopochtli has accepted your offering. Now you are his, and one of the Blessed Ones." Her fingers never stop their slow, gentle tracing around his face. Kerry can feel that he's laid out on cushions again, and from her face he'd guess his head is in her lap.

Kerry blanches, or he would if he had enough blood left in him to look anything but pale anyway. Huitzilopochtli. The Hummingbird Wizard-God. One of the warrior gods, if I remember. I think I've just been stealth-inducted into the Aztekan nobility. And she's still calling me "chichimec." I hope that means "lover" and not "idiot." Vashti is going to have a cow. Sideways. He peers at Xochihualpilli more closely. Bozhemoi. She looks like she's high, insane, or both... ouch. Of course she is. She's just seen God. Her God, at least... He fades out again.

Kerry drifts in and out of consciousness, only vaguely aware of gentle hands ministering to him... unguents being rubbed on his wings which cause him a numbly burning sensation, various fluids being carefully but firmly poured down his throat, warm furs being laid over him... the room remains almost dark, and the scent of incense and ozone fade slowly. He awakens finally, feeling remotely alert for the first time.

Kerry comes back to coherency after what seems an eternity of incense and the ozone-tang of summer lightning. His wings are numb and his mouth tastes like he hasn't brushed his teeth for much too long. In spite of the numbed feeling, the wing membranes hurt when he moves, but he forces himself to look. The scars are starting to form, the patterns close if not identical to Xochi's more complicated scarification. "What day is it?" Can't be that long, or Vash would be pounding the door. If he hasn't just written me off. Ouch. Hope I haven't missed all of the Gather...

The Aztekan priestess, reclining relaxedly nearby, smiles, "Ah, you are clear-headed again, good. It is the same day, of course. Now... are you ready for the next stage of training? You must learn the proper invocations and chants." She sits up and holds out a hand, and the llama appears behind her with a drink. She sips while Tzala straightens her lady's drape a bit, then takes the goblet again and offers it to Kerry. The priestess begins immediately to teach Kerry what he must memorize in order to fly.

Kerry suppresses a snort. Of course, she says. This had better be worth it. The Makers alone know if I'll be able to get near Alshain after this treatment. He listens intently, intending to record it later if the magic allows this. For damn sure, though, I'm not going to screw it up by not learning what she's teaching now. He takes a sip from the goblet -- alcohol, theobromine, caffeine, or morphine, he doesn't much care at this point -- as long as it helps dull the pain.

It takes about an hour. The incantations are short, but Kerry's accent needs a bit of work, since to him he's simply mouthing gibberish. Once that's done, the Aztekan lady nods to the llama, who hands her something small. Kerry recognizes the little golden offering bat he'd had earlier. She holds it up and smiles at Kerry, "Now... this is all you need to fly, my dear chichimec."

She presses one of the central gems, and something gleaming and metallic clicks from the bottom of the offering's outstretched wings. "Speak the chants, believe in your heart that you offer with holiness to the Hummingbird Wizard -- and slash yourself wherever you wish with this blade. When the offering blood flows, the Wizard will know you love and cherish Him -- and He will bless you with His Gift of Flight." She presses the button again, the blade *snickt*ing back out of sight, and hands him the small figurine with a smile, "The more you care for Him, the more He will care for you."

Kerry blinks at that. Well... believing isn't that hard, not after meeting the Wild Hunt. Caring might be something else again. And I'm not at all surprised that there's blood involved. This will be... interesting. The Aztekan priestess claps her hands once, and the llama lays a fine cotton tilmatli across his shoulders. It's embroidered, fur-lined, and gorgeously feathered. The llama ties a heavy fringed belt about the bat's hips to hold the cloak-tunic close.

Kerry accepts the token. "This is... all a bit sudden. I originally came up to visit you this afternoon to discuss trading interests, after all. I'm not sure how quickly I will adjust. Can we still discuss trade?" He holds out his wings while Tzala dresses him in the Aztekan costume. "Thank you..."

The Aztekan priestess smiles, rising and gently pulling him to his feet. "Now, look... you are properly caparisoned as an Honored One." In a long mirror the llama holds up, the Priestess Xochihualpilli shows Kerry himself. He looks like a minor version of the priestess. Like her he's wearing Aztekan clothing... and like her (but with slightly less ostentation and wealth) he wears a wide collar of gleaming gold and inlaid tortoise shell around his neck. He also bears a fine golden wire ring in his left ear, and a few more rings of precious stones and gold... on one ankle and a few of his fingers.

Kerry inspects the image in the glass, patting himself here and there to confirm what he sees. Bozhemoi. This is... different. An earring? When did that happen? No wonder things sound a little funny... Ah, well, I'll get used to that. Wait a sec... He reaches down and looks more closely at the new gold anklet. I don't see a clasp here. The darn thing may not come off at all, which is going to be unpleasant as all get-out in a European winter. A few more quick pats confirm that the collar doesn't detach either. Vashti is going to have a whole herd of cows.

The priestess Xochihualpilli looks pleased, running fingers lightly across the new, raised redness of beginning scarification on one of Kerry's wings, and murmurs gently, "So, pretty chichimec, now you are learning the ways of your people. Will you stay with me? Or do you need to return to your people for a while first?"

Kerry nods slowly as he inspects himself in the mirror. "I would love to stay with you, Xochihualpilli, but I should return to them for now. I have obligations to my companions, and to the humans who sent us all here. Until those duties are discharged, I am not free to leave them."

The Aztekan priestess smiles relaxedly, "This is a very suitable attitude for one of the Hummingbird Wizard's Gifted to have, yes. One should always care for one's slaves." She kisses Kerry lightly on the cheek, then murmurs, "But... I shall look forward to your return to me, lovely chichimec..." She chuckles softly, low and throaty, then turns and paces gracefully away. The llama steps into Kerry's view, smiling and gesturing towards the door.

Kerry looks around for his old clothing. "I really shouldn't surprise them by showing up dressed like this, either. Where are my goggles and my flight suit, Tzala?"

The Aztekan bat lady's voice can be heard receding behind the llama, faintly disdainful sounding, "That nasty, unholy thing? I had it burned... it was not worthy of you." There's the sound of a door closing, and the llama smiles and gestures once again to the door out.

Kerry sighs. Damn good thing I didn't bring the data-pad along. She does seem to be just a bit of a fanatic, doesn't she... of course she is. Who else would be sent out? The llama finally murmurs softly, "Honored One? This way, if you please? Unless something is wrong... are you well?"

Kerry sighs and heads back to his room, shaking his head at the llama's question. "I'm just a bit weak yet from the ceremony, Tzala. I'll be fine." I am definitely going to have to go back to Alshain. I don't fancy going around in daylight without the dark goggles, and I don't much care if she thinks they're 'worthy' or not.

The llama follows him towards the front door of the Aztekan suite, her voice a little worried, "If you wish, Honored One, one could accompany you for assistance?"

Kerry pauses as he's about to correct Tzala -- and he realizes that he's now become an Honored One in the llama's culture, even if he doesn't feel like one. "Well... I'd appreciate it, yes. I'm not even sure how to take the collar off. If it comes off at all... I'm just up this way."

Tzala looks a little surprised, even as she waves a hand to the capybara. The capybara's whiskers droop for a second at the preemptory summons -- then he takes a deep breath, lays down the brush he'd been writing with, and patters over to bow deeply to Kerry. The llama says puzzledly, "None remove the mark of the Hummingbird Wizard's favor, Honored One... surely you jest?" She nods at the capybara, which gabbles a bit breathlessly, "How this worthless one may Honored One serve?"

Kerry shakes his head. "Not jesting, Tzala, but ignorance. I'm new to this, remember?" Oh, no... I was afraid of that. If I take the silly things off, I probably lose the ability to make the chant work. That would not be a good thing. They'd just better stay in place while I'm perched, is all I can say. He suppresses another sigh at the capybara. "Just tell me your name, okay? So I don't have to keep saying 'Hey, you.'"

The llama smiles politely at the obvious testing the new Honored One is doing, then bows deeply, "Of course, Honored One." She withdraws, and the capybara, eyes carefully downcast, whispers, "Chichi this worthless one, Gift of Lords."

Kerry nods. "Thank you. What were you doing? If you're busy, I don't really need you at the moment."

The capybara's ears flick in surprise, but he answers hastily, "Honored One greatest to serve pleasure!" He bows again, gesturing to the outer door that leads to the stairways. The tall, stern-faced goat is there, carefully not looking at the bat, standing guard with one of the jaguars.

Kerry chuckles to himself and leads the way back to his usual room. Poor fellow... he won't admit that he was doing anything at all, in case I don't think it's as important as Xochi does. He pauses again for a second at the sergeant's carefully posture. Now he's the one I need to talk with. I'll have to try. I got all distracted by the idea of flying, and let Xochi get me involved in all this. And she thinks she's doing me the biggest favor possible -- by her standards, she did. "Don't worry about it, Chichi. I've got a few things to do. Get back to whatever it was you were doing."

The capybara looks worried, pattering anxiously along, slightly behind and to the side of the bat, "Honored One to room must I caring go, please!" He will, unless Kerry drives him away, make sure he's safely escorted the bat to his own room, then double check if there's anything else -- anything at all? -- the Honored One needs before Chichi withdraws.

Kerry has to repeat himself before he can chase Chichi away. "I just need to rest. The marking was a bit rough, that's all. I'll be fine." The capybara nods, then finally leaves, closing the door quietly behind him. Kerry sighs and sits down. Oh, what an afternoon that was. He flexes his fingers, looking for sparks, and when none appear he pulls out his data-pad.

Kerry slips off his translator and flicks the 'record' switch. "Pilot's log, continuing. Code alpha, append date." He continues with a description of the afternoon's events. "I will try to record the chant piecemeal. I suspect that putting the whole thing in one file would be dangerous." It's as Kerry's about midway through the description of the afternoon's events that his fingers start itching... a lot.

Kerry pauses in his narrative, rubbing his fingers to relieve the itch. Uh-oh. This does not bode well. He toughs it out to the end of the afternoon's entry, then shuts off the machine completely before he tries recording the chant.

As he starts the ritual chant recording, his claw fingers start aching seriously... his wings are itchy, with that unpleasant, skin-tingling sensation tickling up and down them in odd waves of sensation that show him what parts of the membrane are still numb. Kerry stops after the first few lines. "Code alpha, delete file. Code alpha, open log file. I will not be recording the chant. As I feared, whatever energies -- or whatever entities -- are involved do not mesh well with the electronics. Code alpha, close all files. Code alpha, shut down."

The data-pad screen goes quietly dark as per Kerry's command, and sits silently where Kerry has set it down. The unpleasant sensations slowly fade. Kerry picks the data-pad up using one of his tunic-shirts to avoid touching it directly and puts it back in the trunk, muttering imprecations all the while. "Stupid paperless office idea. I'm going to find out who did that if I ever get back..."

    The Silver Egg
    Stepping through the tall, wide doorway into the oak tree, you see a very organically shaped room -- elliptical, high-ceilinged, and well lit with strategically placed mirrors and wall-mounted skylights. The tables and seats are all sturdy and wooden, apparently growing from the smooth wooden ground. A fire crackles warmly in a truly huge stone hearth set directly opposite the front door, set into one wooden wall, and warming benches inside the wide, mosaic-tiled fireplace welcome chilly travelers. The walls have a deceptive shimmer to them; the angle at which they're viewed sometimes makes them look to be just wood, other times swirling with decorative, naturalistic patterns. A glossy, wood-topped bar (with a tall door behind it) extends across one narrow side of the ellipse, and a sort of trapdoor lies at the other end of the ellipse. The delicious scent of cooking food drifts lazily through the room.

The lanterns are starting to make bright, cheery golden sparks of light in the common room of the Silver Egg, and the fire crackles quietly in the hearth. Zildjian is coiled in the inglenook, and her soft, contented humming is one of the few sounds in the room, since the dinner rush hasn't hit yet. The only other sound is the quiet, occasional *thunk* of a beer jack hitting the table... from where Sergeant Tenotch sits alone in a corner, his face stony as he grimly drinks.

Vash strides into the Egg, having collected his clothing again, and waves to Zildjian on his way past. She grins lazily and waves back from her heap of contented, warm coils. He passes near to Tenotch's table. "Hey, hombre. Gettin' started a little early, huh?"

The goat lowers the jack to the table, then turns his head slowly and glares at the armadillo. After studying Vash for a moment, he growls, "Pleasure you get laughing me at? Or wishing just heart mine to in fire flame watch?!"

Vash blinks. "Uh, 'scuse me? I'm not following, Sergeant..."

The goat turns his head to regard his jack again, and says bitterly, "Fool I to not Honored One was you believe."

Vash squints. "What? Tenotch, what are you talking about?" He moves closer to the table. "What did Kerry tell you?!"

For someone who's apparently methodically drunk about half a jack of something alcoholic, Tenotch's voice is clear and unslurred. "Telling not yet. If telling is She of disrespect... I..." he sighs, then looks up suddenly to glare at Vash again, adding in sudden anger, "Who young learning jaguars guard shall if sacrificed I? Who safe them home see, oaths fulfilled safe?"

Vash holds up a hand. "Wait. Tenotch, wait, please. Look... I'm being perfectly honest here. I don't know what's going on. Did Kerry come here and do something? With... with her?"

The goat studies the armadillo with suspicion for a long moment... but then something seems to ring sincere to him, and he sighs, looking down at the table again. Nothing is there but his hard, dark fist clenched around the jack's handle, and a small jug. He sighs again, then pushes the jack over to Vash, and pulls the uncorked jug over to him. He takes a long slug of the jug, then sets it down, wiping his mouth with the back of his free hand... then nods in gloomy silence to the armadillo.

Vash says, "Oh, no." Almost as an afterthought the goat tops off the jack and nods once again, gloomily. Vash's eyes widen a little, "Tenotch... what did he do?"

The goat just looks at the armadillo, then nods once to the jack, his long beard shifting across his chest, "Drink. Needing will be." He thinks about it... then has another pull himself, just in case.

Vash looks at the jack and blinks, not quite comprehending, then at Tenotch. He nods, "Uh... you mind if I sit down?" The goat shakes his head slowly, studying the jug. The light glances off the decorative metallic rings hammered onto his long, twisting horns.

Vash sits down very carefully. He takes a long swig from the jack and swallows, not opening his eyes until he gets the last burning drops down. "Okay, Tenotch... if he came here alone, he defied a direct order. And apparently he didn't get up to any good. What happened?" He pauses, then adds more quietly, "Look, you can tell me. Maybe I can help. Christ, I have to try."

Sergeant Tenotch looks up at that... and weirdly, his eyes hold pity now. "No. Too late. He now claimed. Gifted." He holds an arm out, waving his other hand vaguely below it, as if to indicate something being there, "Marked."

Vash shakes his head, "Claimed? She took..." He pauses, realizing. "No... the wings. She put the same markings on him. What does that mean? He belongs to her now?"

The goat nods, "She, terrible one of Huitzilopochtli, he her Gift." He puts his elbows on the table and wearily leans his forehead into his hands, "Pray I greatly he not staring I mention... or sacrifice I by nightfall."

Vash says, "Her... Gift?"

Softly the sergeant mutters, "Never... never Gifted should one trust! Fool I to believe other."

Vash's eyes widen. "Madre de Dios! She's going to sacrifice him?"

The goat looks up at that, and once again there's pity in his eyes. "Not you understand... he give himself. For Gifting. For flight."

Vash opens his mouth, as if to say something. Then he closes it, "...he sold us out..."

Sergeant Tenotch's eyes are weary as he nods once again. "He now of the Gifted People. He belong to her and Hummingbird Wizard."

Vash murmurs, "That... son of a bitch!" His face twists. "Fine. They can have him!" The goat's lips contort slightly into something that might be a smile if there was any humor on his face... then he looks down again at his jug. Vash looks away, staring at the fire across the room. "Dios mio... Tenotch, I'm sorry. If I've put you in any danger... just forget I was here, okay? You don't have to say anything else."

The goat gives a short, unamused bark of laughter, then growls, "You not I worried of. He. He of staring speak... no more I. Duties, oaths I give, to home bring jaguar children safe. First journey." He sighs, "Who them home safe bring, if sacrificed I?"

Vash looks down at the table. "I keep having the same thought, Tenotch. I thought I was supposed to help bring mine home safe. Maybe I'm wrong."

The tired looking sergeant looks up, then nods slowly in understanding. His voice is a weary rumble, "Never wrong to the faithful keep faith. Wrong to stupid trust... like I, of Honored One lying." He pauses, then tiredly continues, "Kualkan, Nualkan, children good are, well learning." He sighs, then adds, "Tzala, lovely is, but trusting wrong... to She information Tzala told all go. So... praying am... he disrespect staring reports not." The goat stares morosely at the jug... then has another long drink.

Vash sighs. "Don't put yourself in any more danger, Tenotch."

Tenotch chuckles wearily, "Lateness is for that. Already at Honored One yours stared."

Vash says, "He doesn't know what he is, yet. He won't figure it out for awhile."

Tenotch shrugs, "Not matters. Speaking casual he to She, sacrifice me could create. Knowing not how to he that silence agreeing make."

Vash says, "He... might be beyond my reach, now. Anything that I could do would only cause friction with her... even my Company wouldn't back me up if I caused an incident. I'm sorry, Tenotch. I'm..." He takes a deep breath. "Damn it. I'm sorry if one of my crew put you at risk. I wish I could do more."

The goat sighs gustily, then looks at the armadillo and smiles ruefully, "Fault yours not. Fault I for foolish believing of Honored One lie."

Vash says, "I thought maybe if I gave him an order, that he'd stay out of trouble... or at least not go alone. I guess I trusted a little too much, too." He smiles ruefully. "We got a lot in common, Tenotch."

The goat looks up at the armadillo again, studying him... then smiles slowly and wearily. "Aya. Would you ask for children to care if I sacrifice... but not you to Azteka go, too bad. Still... would you trust to them keep safe..."

Vash winces. For some reason, hearing that hurts far worse than being betrayed. "If I could, Tenotch... if I could... absolutely I would. In a heartbeat."

The goat smiles quietly again and shakes his head, "Gratitude, Captain. But dreams not slaves are for. Drink though... pain to dull is drink." He chuckles quietly and humorlessly, topping off Vash's jack, then has another sip himself.

Vash sits back and takes a deep drink, "Yeah," he murmurs. "Not for us. Cheers, Tenotch." He looks into the fire and the edges of Zildjian's silhouette nearby. Not for the likes of us. I don't believe it's happening again.

Last modified: 2002-Jan-27 19:10:46

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