It was night, dark over the island of Highjade. The sea shifted in the blackness, more felt than heard.
Flickering torches marked the walls and towers of the College of Animists, riding a ridge above the jungles and the sea. On the slowly rising slopes, the thick rustling night marked the forests of the Lemyri. Here and there, the canopy glowed with fireflies, or the lamps of a crownhome. Beyond the College, along the coast, were the brighter and wider lights of Humani dwellings. On the border of Humani and Lemyri lands, a downhill walk from the College, was a sprawl of particularly bright lights, and noise, and music.
The tents spread out like skirts around the trunks of the massive trees, to protect the revellers from anything dropped by the Lemyri in the branches above. They also served to concentrate the smoke and smells of the cooking fires, and the noise, and the people. Humani and Lemyri and even a few Rodeni moved from tent to tent, talking, drinking, bartering, shouting. It was Trade-Meet, a festival held to celebratethe many differing species of the Archipelago, and to encourage them to work for their mutual benefit.
Right, thought Alex wearily, as he watched a small but spry Lemyri artisan proceed to deliver a thorough and painful beating to a Human who'd been too drunk to avoid crashing into the Lemyr's display of dried fruits. Other Humani came into the fray, and then more Lemyri, and soon a mass brawl of fur and skin and profanity was raging in the ruins of the stall. Meanwhile, a Roden hopped cautiously up and started shoveling the spilled fruits into a sack. Maybe Trade-Meet meant something on other islands, where it was held with religious significance, but here on Highjade it was only a tradition, along with such other traditions as insults, prejudice, and blood feuds. Alex wished he'd stayed at home, at the College.
"Whaaoo! Party!!" shouted Jocin, right in his ear. She was walking along next to him. On his other side, his other friend, Phyl, laughed as Jocin flung her drinking gourd. It splashed somewhere into the melee, but went unnoticed. All three of them were already very drunk. Alex, being the cause of the other two's celebration, was even more so. Jocin and Phyl had to help him stagger along to the next drinking-tent. Since they were fairly tall, and Alex quite short for a Human, they looked like an unsteady W as they wove through the crowds.
"T'kren, I think we ought to go back now," Alex managed to protest as he was dragged along. "I've got a lot to do t'morrow ..."
"Ah bisht you do," snorted Jocin, dragging him into a tent. "Listen to some babble, get your pendant, and then off you go, and we'll never see our favorite takre again."
"He's graduating, not being executed," Phyl protested gently, helping Alex to collapse onto a smooth wood bench, while waving a hand at the frazzled Lemyri drinkseller. "He'll come back after his spirit quest, won't you, Alex?"
"I'll have to," mumbled Alex. He wasn't feeling well.Even though he was sitting down now, the room still seemed to be staggering around him.
"Even so, he'll never have another chance to get drunk with us, his bestest takren," Jocin insisted. Graduated Animists were forbidden to drink alcohol or, indeed, take intoxicants of any form. Alex felt he'd already had enough for a lifetime. "Takren" meant "siblings" in the Lemyri language; but these three were not related, as a casual glance revealed. All three had their hair cut short, as was the tradition for students, but there the resemblance ended. Phyl was tall and graceful, older than Alex by a decade. Jocin was a year younger than Alex and seemed to bristle with wild energy. Alex himself was barely five feet high, almost frail-looking, with the pale skin (tanned now from Highjade's endless summers) and the dark eyes and hair of a northern clime. He was sixteen, and despite the difference in their ages, he was graduating tomorrow, and his two friends would still have some years to go.
"Drinking contest!" Jocin shouted, grabbing a ceramic mug and pounding it so hard against their table that it shattered. She threw out a string of polished bone beads in trade-payment. "Run a tab! Drinking contest! Get out the hard stuff, m'tosho tak-takuni! Tik!" she added in slurred and rather rude Lemyri to the proprietor. The Lemyri pinned his ears back angrily, but turned to fill new mugs from the casks.
"Hard stuff it is, then, pestilent Human," he grumbled in his own language to himself, as he poured.
Another Lemyr dropped down from the branches above and landed lightly on their table. Phyl and Jocin drew back warily, even as the smirking proprietor set a tray of mugs on their table, in front of the furry spiderlike toes of the newcomer.
"Drinking contest, is it?" purred the Lemyr, its golden eyes set in the black foxlike mask of its face, giving it an air of menace. The thick fur was piebald in black and white and brown, and the long, erect furry tail waved like a cat's. TheLemyr was the same size as Alex. Its hands and feet had long, thin fingers, without claws, but a lift of its lip showed the sharp white teeth in a parody of a Humani smile. Most fearsome of all was the thick ruff of fur around its neck and shoulders that indicated it was a female, the dominant and more aggressive gender of the species.
She sat on their table, a breach of etiquette asking for trouble, and grabbed one of the mugs while she stared fixedly at them. "Apprentices, by your shorn pelts. Does Kataka know you are here?"
"Well, furrfu, why should the Head Animist care? We're not from that dumb College, are we, takren?" Jocin lied quickly. Alex and Phyl shook their heads. Alex fell off the bench and had to climb back up.
"No students allowed to sneak off. 'Specially me," he explained drunkenly, as he clung to the table.
"Only because you try to run away at least twice a year, takre," Jocin chided him. "Anyway, we're not from there."
"I should hope not," rumbled the Lemyr. "To have some of her students involved in a disgraceful drunken incident at Trade-Meet would cause a great dishonor to Kataka."
"We're just travelers," put in Phyl.
"Musicians," suggested Alex.
"Idiots, is what you are," snorted Jocin, giving them a shove, as she grabbed her mug. "You can drink, too, fuzzbutt," she invited the Lemyr. "Us Humani can outdrink our throwback primate cousins anytime." Alex almost threw up in fear as Jocin thereby likely bought herself an instant death-duel for her insubordination, but the Lemyr seemed more amused than offended and, with no more than a restrained twitch of her tail, raised a mug, and they all drank.
Alex was rather thirsty, despite his already drunken state, and the new drink was actually very good, with a fruit-juice tang to it. It couldn't be very strong; he couldn't taste any alcohol in it, and it was much better than the palm wine andfermented coconut milk they had been drinking. He had another taste.
The female Lemyr's name turned out to be Hashana, and it turned out that she didn't much like Kataka any more than the three students--erm, travelers--did. Despite their earlier attempts at deception, they found themselves chatting with Hashana like old friends, even telling her about Alex's upcoming graduation.
"Well, congratulations, then," Hashana said, tipping her mug to him. They'd all been matching each other drink for drink, though Alex, who had been talking less than the other two, noticed blearily that the proprietor seemed to be using a different pitcher to refill the Lemyr's glass. Probably giving her better stuff than this fruit juice, he thought to himself, but since Hashana had offered to pay for the rounds he didn't say anything. He realized he'd had more than enough to drink already, and was glad to be slacking off now. He still felt really drunk, even worse than before, really. It must be sitting down that was doing it.
"Yeah, not bad for a slave-boy, huh?" Jocin said, punching Alex on the arm and knocking him over again.
"Jocin!" cried Phyl reproachfully. "Come on, we weren't going to mention that, remember?" Alex climbed back onto the bench, his face in odd shades of white and crimson and green.
"Aw, blow, I'm sorry," Jocin swore. "Here, have another drink." Alex took it and took a big gulp, to hide from the fixed yellow stare of Hashana.
"A slave, really? At the College?" she asked, her tail waving. Alex nodded wearily, too drunk to care. Reality seemed to be fading in and out anyway, so it probably didn't matter.
"Yeah, his parents were so poor they had to sell him," explained Jocin, waving her mug around. "But a talent scout for the College spotted him and bought him. Once he graduates, see, then he'll go on his spirit quest."
"And then once I've got my Anim, then I come back here," Alex added, bunking one finger on the tabletop for emphasis. "Here. Finish my training."
"And then he'll get bought," Phyl said, giving Alex a chummy pat on the back that made him bang his head on the table.
"Hired!" protested Alex from face-down on the table.
"Hired, right, to pay off his slave-debt ..."
"Lemyri do not keep slaves," Hashana said coolly. "I am surprised that Kataka allows it."
"Shhh! It'sa sssseeecret," Jocin hissed, winking broadly. "He's the only one. My father paid my way in."
"Mine, too," added Phyl.
"What do you think about it, boy?" Hashana asked, her thin furry fingers gripping the short wool of Alex's hair and lifting his head off the table so she could look at him. "What is it like, to be bought and sold so?"
"Don' like it," Alex grumbled. "All this time and I'm a thing. Six years of shit and work and sweat and lessons and getting bit by things, and at the end of it all I'm still a ... a thing."
"You're a thing worth a lot more now, though," Phyl pointed out to him.
"Not so much," Alex argued, finishing his drink and attempting to get to his feet. "Look at me. Short. Scrawny. Human. I'd have to bond a fanglion or something to get any respect. Ha!" he shouted, and passed out, falling over backwards into a party of Lemyri, who did not take his intrusion kindly. Jocin and Phyl attempted to pull him out and found themselves embroiled in a screaming brawl, in which the rest of the bar quickly joined, except for Hashana, who retreated quietly back up into the rafters, and Alex, who regained enough consciousness to crawl away blindly.
Something was very wrong, he realized dimly. Obviously the fruit juice he'd been sucking down was indeed alcoholic, and very much so. He couldn't walk, could only crawl. Hefumbled through the tent fabric, and out into the mud and loam. People of all races stumbled over him, swore, kicked him, and he fell, and rolled, and threw up. It didn't seem to help. He kept crawling, but everything was dark.
"You gave tilka to Humani?" Kintoku asked incredulously. The Lemyri Animist had been summoned from the College when Jocin and Phyl had at last been pulled from the brawl by the Lemyri police. Both were unconscious and breathing hard.
"They asked for strong drink," shrugged the proprietor. "It was the strongest I had."
"Were there any others? I know these two. There would have been another."
"Another, a male I think. Small. I do not see it now," the proprietor replied.
Kintoku swore. "Alex. Curse you, if you've cost us ..." He pulled a leathery bundle from the fur of his back, and it unfurled itself into a small fruit bat. The other Lemyri drew back, muttering and flattening their ears against this display of the Animist's power. The Animists were the only type of magic the Lemyri would tolerate, but they still remained wary.
Kintoku exchanged a glance with his Anim, stroking the soft fur with a fingertip, and the bat chirped softly in response. "Miska, go, find Alex." He sighed. "Again." The bat launched itself with a flapping storm of wings, barely clearing the door opening.
It was all a blur for Alex; crawling through something stinking and then falling down a gully. He had suddenly realized he was alone, and for a moment then, free. Even through his drunken sickness the feeling was intoxicating. He thought he could hear the sea; if he could find the shore, maybe he couldfind a boat, maybe he could find his way away, off the island, away. The thought that tomorrow he would have been allowed to leave anyway didn't stop him.
He'd run away before, as Phyl had said. It was futile, always futile. The Animists could always find him--with their Anims, animals of all species that could run faster and see farther and track him by smell and sound. And the people of the College would come and collect him, trying to be understanding but never quite managing. The Humani seemed to think he was ungrateful, that since they'd given him shelter and food and education and care, he had no right even to want to escape. He'd never been any more harshly dealt with than any other student. And yet he wasn't free.
He made it to the beach this time, before the chittering squeal of a bat sounded overhead, and furry shadows materialized out of the palm trees. As Kintoku stepped up, eyes almost glowing with anger, Alex managed to throw up over him and then passed out.
The sky was growing lighter, and with it came the noise. Usually the singing tree-apes started it, with short hoots that peaked rapidly into high-low screams of such volume that they carried for miles and effectively woke up everything else. The great cats would break in, with great hollow, sawing roars in round chorus, and the hyenas would begin to whoop. The canines began then, as though in protest at the noise, barking, yapping, yowling, with the wolves howling low and deep below it all. Shrill whistling came from the mustelid pens, and roaring barks from the pinniped colony down on the beach below. The cockerels in the feeder pens crowed loudly and repeatedly, and the striches gave their hissing honks, and the native parrots either imitated one of the other beasts or else did their own free-form raucous screaming. Some of the hoof stock gave belches or bleats or barks or brays or bellows in general contribution, while myriadsmaller creatures stayed silent through the cacophony, in response to their secretive instincts. Finally, as the sun at last broke over the horizon, burning gold over the sea, the College's Lemyri population gave their eerie, structured chorus of chattering ululation in ritual salute to the dawn.
Alex moaned and tried to wrap a pillow around his head to shut out the sound. It didn't work. It hadn't worked in all of six years, but the fact that today he might have actually slept in--at long, long last--made him try. The hangover wasn't too bad, at least; the College's allopathist had forced him to down a lot of purging draughts, in preparation for today.
His two roommates had already abandoned their hammocks and were shrugging into clothes with the sleepwalking air of long practice. Phyl, also wincing from his hangover, had a black eye. The other roommate, Mikel, grabbed hold of Alex's hammock rope and started swinging it back and forth. (Jocin, of course, was in the girl's dormitory ... unless she'd already sneaked out again on some other mischief.)
Mikel swung the hammock harder and harder. It would have made Alex throw up again, if he'd anything left to do it with.
"Aaaalex, get uuuup," sang Mikel.
"M'graduating. I don' hafto," Alex mumbled through his pillow.
"Smug little puppy," Mikel snorted, and spun the hammock. Alex was used to this, though, and didn't fall out, though he ended up hanging upside-down from the hammock, like a sloth. "If you were a real student, they'd have expelled you after that stunt last night. They'd have done it years ago." On the woven roof above their heads, a series of thuds marked the leaping progress of the Lemyri, moving from their dawn-worshipping perches to the day's work.
"Leave him alone, Mikel," said Phyl, wincing. "None of us got expelled. Even the Director was young once."
"Kataka was plenty upset, though. And Kintoku lookedlike he wanted your hide on the wall, after what you did to his. You'd better get out there before he comes looking for you." Mikel started pulling on his boots. "Or are you just going to make another run for it? Furrfu, Alex, the least you could do is learn to escape successfully."
Alex swung underneath the hammock, trying to right himself, but not quite managing. "I'm getting out of here today, Mikel, and that's more than you'll do for a looong time, you clean-shirted first-year," Alex muttered. Mikel pretended not to hear.
"You might as well get an early start, Alex," Phyl suggested, not unkindly. "If I don't see you again before you go, good luck."
"Yeah, don't get killed or something," Mikel added, pulling on his oiled-canvas coveralls for the morning cleaning. Phyl had already dressed in simple, loose cotton robes, for his meditation classes. Mikel still had many long months of hard work, cleaning out and watching over the animal pens of the College's menagerie, while Phyl had advanced into the more metaphysical aspects of Animist training, though still continuing to work with some of the species on the campus.
The College of Animists was not prestigious, nor was it easy. Many students left after having to deal with the hard, filthy, endless work. Others were expelled for failure to adhere to the strict rules, or failure to live up to the expectations of the instructors. Some left for other reasons ... but that was their choice, as free persons. Alex didn't have that option. He was property, and couldn't leave. Failure meant punishment, sometimes very strict--he still bore scars from being caned by a Humani professor. The Lemyri hadn't bothered last night, or else were saving something else up for him. Alex didn't realize that the Lemyri, who prized their own freedom above all else, secretly admired his spirit.
He let go his failing grip on the hammock, and thudded gracelessly to the basalt floor. Mikel rolled his eyes and Phylgave him a friendly pat on the head as they left the small dorm room, the wicker door banging behind them.
Alex grumbled mentally as he dressed and packed. Technically, as a graduate, he should have been entitled to respect from the underclassmen, even though they happened to be older, and taller, than himself. In practice, though, it probably wouldn't happen until he returned to the College with his Anim. Hopefully, it would be some particularly impressive and exotic creature, and they would all feel very sorry that they'd acted this way. And all the girls, too, would be impressed--the College's Humani students were female in the majority, which should have meant improved chances for the few males. But again, in practice, the girls tended to see Alex as a "friend," as in, "let's just be friends." It didn't matter much, anyway; you tended to lose romantic infatuation with someone when you saw them every day, frequently covered in dirt and feces.
Alex packed everything he owned; it wasn't much. A cloth satchel held a pair of pants, socks, undershorts, and shirt. His own work shirts were faded, and stained, and the stains faded, as was the mark of a sixth-year student. He wore the other set of clothes, and good leather boots, waterproofed though weathered with the dung of many species. Over that he wore a coat, of llama's wool patched with leather at the collar and sleeves and hems; it was warm but light. All his clothes were undyed, remaining the grey or white or brown or green of nature. A wooden whistle he'd made for his passing test in woodcarving, a piece of cord with the Knots tied in it, a little box with a rawhide membrane that made a sharp clicking noise when pressed with the thumb, and a leather strap with a few rooster spurs on it. His lucky rock went in a pocket; it was almost completely round, and grey-green, and he'd picked it up from the beach while waiting with his father for the slave-trader. From that point on, things had tended to improve, so maybe it was a little bit magic; the kind of quiet magic that Animists couldn't detect.
A leather trinket pouch went around his neck. Within were a few small items of value that might be worth something in trade: a tirg's tooth, a couple of obsidian scalpel blades wrapped in a bit of wool, a matched pair of bright kestrel primary feathers folded into a scrap of paper, a tiny clay pot that contained two ounces of civet scent. Also in the pouch was a recipe for a salve for treating botflies, and a tiny irregular pearl. With thousands of islands and many races with many different cultures and standards of value, the way of the Archipelago was trade; what might be worthless to one person could be a worthy curiosity to another, or a rare prize to yet someone else. Only metal, rare and precious, had any absolute value. Bronze was the best for tools, but silver and gold were rare enough to be used only for jewelry.
Also around his neck went the necklace of beads, each with its cartouche that signified classes taken, levels of training passed. The largest one, a flat disk of hard clay imprinted with his thumbprint and a few symbols, had been handed to him last night by Kataka, headmaster of the College.
He'd been sitting there in bleary sickness, drinking yet another disgusting sickly-sweet potion mixed by Doctor Ped-dae, the College's resident allopathist and veterinarian. Kataka arrived from above, as Lemyri usually did, bouncing down from a walkway on her long, limber legs. Kataka was grey, with a white ruff around her neck and shoulders, symmetrical black patches on her chest and hips, and a black tail. Her eyes were bright orange, the pupils tiny slits in the bright light. No Humani expression could fit that face, but Alex knew well enough, from the set of her tail and ears, that she was furious, though controlling it well, as all Lemyri could.
The Lemyri race looked down on Humani, in more ways than one. The College's student population was almost half Lemyri, but there were only a few of them that Alex would count as friends. The rest wanted nothing to do with him.
"You. Immature. Foolish. Careless, headstrong, and stupid. It galls me to send out such a student as yourself, butanything to be rid of you, if only for a time." She'd thrown the ceramic token at Alex; it hit him in the face, and stung, but he caught it as it bounced. Alex, unsure, dipped his head in respect and stammered, "Thank you, mirr'tika shi shinta ..."
"See the Director Humani before you go," Kataka had said coldly, interrupting Alex's long formal expression of respect and thanks. "There is something he will have to explain to you." With a leap, then, the Lemyri had vanished back into the maze of scaffolding that crawled over the basalt stones of the College.
Alex finished packing his meager belongings, and took a last look around the room that had been his home for so long. Then he turned, and let the door bang shut behind him, forever.
Then he remembered something, and went back in. The hammock was his, too; he'd made it in Nets and Snares class. He unhooked it and folded it up, and stuffed it in his pack. Then he left the room for the last time.
The Director Humani was in charge of supervising the Humani students of the College. At about this time, he'd be making his way through the menagerie, checking that everything was alive and that the students, Humani and Lemyri both, were slogging away with buckets and shovels. Alex went down to find him, through the buildings of the College itself, composed of hexagonal basalt blocks (the building had once been an ancient temple of some kind, now long abandoned, and built over now with timber, bamboo, and woven wicker Lemyri construction). He left the dark walls and set off down the twisting paths along the ridge of the hill, with the animal pens sloping away to either side, all sectioned off into walled compounds by species type: herbivores, large carnivores, small carnivores, etc. Some were actually stone buildings, divided inside into glass-fronted or stonewood-barredcages. Some of these had their own heating fires built in, to warm the floors for the delicate species that could not tolerate even the mild winters of Highjade. Some were open corrals or wooden barns and stalls, or stone enclosures with bars of rare and precious bronze, the only material strong enough to hold some of the animals. Complex mazes of one-way gates and guillotine doors led from pen to pen. There were animals from all over the Archipelago; some were the descendants of Animulae past, others had been imported and bred when possible, in hopes that they might someday provide an Anim for someone.
The Animists generally believed that all things, animals and even plants and stones and weather, had spirits, souls. Sometimes they could see them, through the eyes of an Anim. And of course there were many greater gods and spirits, not usually embodied in an earthly form. But only the spirits of animals, and only mammals among those, shared enough metaphysical ground with the mammalian Animists to become the bonded spirits known as Animulae. Not every Anim could bond with every Animist. In fact, it was suspected that an Animist's likelihood of bonding with any given Anim was slim indeed. Somewhere out there was a compatible Anim, and the spirit quest was taken to find it.
Professor Cynde had explained it by showing them some glass whistles, used in training. "If I blow this one," she'd said, demonstrating, "you all can hear it?" The class had nodded. She'd selected another, and blown. "Hear that?" The Humani students had shaken their heads, while the Lemyri students had solemnly nodded. "It's a question of ... of pitch. Animulae all seem to exist on different pitches; only certain Animists can sense certain pitches."
Alex walked quickly past most of the animal pens, but here and there he had to stop to bid farewell to friends--some of them fellow students, some of them animals. Despite his excitement at his graduation, he felt a lump come to his throat as Motati, one of his few Lemyri friends, hadshown a totally untypical display of emotion and hugged him gingerly, her fur soft on his face. And he felt his eyes tearing up as he scratched the College's ancient lion through the bars of its cage, listening to the rumbling growl as the beast placidly sucked its own tail-tip, a habit it had picked up in infancy. The lion had been here far longer than Alex had, and he knew, even though he'd be returning, that he wouldn't see the lion alive again. He stroked the matted mane gently with a fingertip, all the while watching to make sure the beast didn't casually turn and bite his finger off. Some of the newer students, busy at the chores of cleaning, looked on enviously; for the first few years of their training, new students were forbidden to talk to, touch, or even make eye contact with any of the animals.
Alex tried to keep his visitations short, but nonetheless he was delayed, and only caught up with the Director at the last pens on the campus.
Here were kept the feeder animals, animals raised for food for the students and animals of the College. Pens of pigs and goats, a large enclosure of chickens, ducks and geese in a pond, a few pens of cavies cooing and bubbling. Stritches wandered and honked in a wide field down one hillside, while the other was taken up with a herd of tough, long-horned water buffalo. Beyond the animal pens the ground sloped away more gradually; and here the earth was cut into terraced fields, guarded by hundreds of rock borders, and irrigated by drainage ditches that made the most of the College's abundant supply of manure. Fields and fruit trees stretched away all around the College, wherever the land could be made flat enough to hold them. The fields were worked and maintained by the students; Alex saw several of them working on repairing the rock borders.
The Director Humani, whose name was Welson, was leaning over the fence to poke at the lead bull buffalo, who was sulking by the fence, not wanting to be led out with the rest of the herd. He was getting on in years (the bull, not the Director),and didn't want to walk down the steep hillside. The two students in charge of herding the buffalo down to the river to drink and graze were both standing by nervously.
The Director gave the bull another tap, then reached out and pulled its tail. The bull rounded on him with surprising speed, huge crescent horns swinging, and the Director jumped back just in time, losing his balance and falling over backward on the safe side of the fence. The bull snorted, then slowly moved off down to the river, the students following it cautiously.
The Director was standing and dusting himself off, grinning though trying to maintain some of his dignity as Alex approached. The Director's Anim, a scruffy brown long-tailed monkey, sat underneath a lemon tree nearby, opening her mouth in threat at the retreating water buffalo. It was rare that an animal as intelligent as a monkey could be bonded, but the Director's training and skill were exceptional. The monkey turned and gave a half-hearted threat gesture at Alex, more out of species habit than any real aggression, and the Director turned at an unheard prompt from his Anim.
"Oh, there you are, Alex," he said, seeing him. "Ready to leave?" he asked, noticing Alex's satchel.
"Yes, sir," Alex replied. "Kataka said I should talk to you before I go, though."
"Ah, right," said the Director, taking a quick look around and then sitting down on a low stone wall. This brought him down to Alex's eye level. He was tall, with dark hair and blue eyes and a manner that seemed friendly but hid a core of stern discipline. His monkey, whose name was Rhese, ran over to Alex and jumped onto his arm. "As you know, we invested a certain amount, to purchase you and have you brought to Highjade. Because of your initial price, right now you're a net loss if, for example, you head out on your quest and are killed. We don't want that to happen, of course."
"No, sir," agreed Alex. Rhese was now grooming his hair.
"Or if we were to lose you, any other way," Welson added. "If you just, oh ... ran off, for example."
Alex didn't respond to this, but felt his ears burning. Rhese pulling them didn't help.
"So we have to protect our interests. Like any other student, you graduate; you find your Anim. You come back. And in your case, we find you a working position and get you started in paying off your debt, through whatever salary your employer determines."
Alex nodded. "Yes, I know."
"But most students learn Separation as soon as they return from their quest. In your case, you work off your debt to us with your new employer, and then, and only then, we'll teach you Separation." He gave a whistle, and Rhese left Alex, to return to her master.
"What? But ... but if I don't know Separation--" Alex protested.
"You have to understand, Alex, that Animists have a certain amount of power, and we're valuable. If you owe us money, we want to be sure that debt is paid. You've shown that we can't exactly trust you."
Alex looked down again, stifling his protests, as the Director continued.
"We have to have insurance. You'll need the College to teach you Separation. And we won't do it until your debt is paid. Understood?"
"But if my Anim dies, without Separation, I'll die! Then you'll have lost everything--"
"It's a gamble we've decided to take. The odds are good. I'm sure you see that the fear of death is a stronger motivation than some kind of tenuous loyalty to a College from which you take every opportunity to escape."
"Is this negative reinforcement, or positive punishment?" Alex asked sarcastically. The Director smiled, but without much humor.
The bond between an Anim and Animist was strong, so strong that they could feel each other's emotions, experiences, pleasures, and pains. The two souls, beast and being, were interwoven. Only the careful discipline of Separation could loosen that bond; without that training, when one of the pair died, the other would suffer a terrible wrenching trauma to the mind and the spirit, like a gaping psychic wound. The lucky ones died instantly, following their Animulae into the realms beyond the Oether. A few lived a little while, if catatonia and constant seizures could be counted as living.
"I'm sure I'll be able to pay you back without any problems, sir," Alex said, with more confidence than he felt. Rhese gave him a suspicious look, and opened her mouth at him, and the Director sighed.
"Well, yes, Rhese, he's hiding something." Alex tried to look innocent. "Let me see. Probably something along the lines of, 'Sure, once I get on a ship out of here I'm never going to come back,' right?"
Alex looked down. "The thought did cross my mind," he added quietly. "I mean, I know I'm supposed to be an Animist, but ... I'd rather be free."
"Alex," Welson sighed. "Why do you think we bought you? You have talent. Your mind stands out in the Oether like a lighthouse."
"Can't I just not Call?" Alex asked, plaintively. "Can't I just, you know, be an animal trainer, or something?"
"As I said, you stand out. All this training we've put you through only makes you more receptive ..." The Director's tone became stern. "You can Call, and be an Animist ... or you can be Called, and become something else." His eyes were cold. "And then you'll never be free. Power always has a price."
Alex shuddered. "I guess ..."
"Don't worry, Alex," said Welson, smiling again. "I'm sure you won't have any problem paying your way clear withus. We'll find you a good job. True, you're not very impressive in appearance, but I'm sure you'll find a good, suitable Anim to back you up. Oh, you did try to Call on the grounds, didn't you?"
"No, sir ... I thought I should check with you first?" Alex asked.
"Yes, good. Thank you," he added. "You wouldn't believe how few people give me that courtesy. All those students down hanging around the baby tirgs, Calling away constantly. It's not like we can't hear them, after all. And there was one girl who Called the first day we'd taught her. It worked, too; she'd bonded one of the piglets in the feeder pens." The Director shook his head, remembering.
"Really, what happened?" Alex asked. He hadn't heard of this before; most of the College's feeder animals were carefully bred for low intelligence and low susceptibility to bonding.
"She tried to keep it a secret, because she knew she wasn't supposed to be Calling so early. Of course we found it out; pig missing, girl not showing for classes ... we found her. No one's going to hire an Animist with a pig! We'd have been a laughingstock. And if we'd just taught her Separation, gotten rid of the pig, and sent her out on her quest, we'd be at risk that she'd go freelance. She was a bit like you, and she got a bit upset over the matter ... So we ended up doing a chemsep."
"Chemsep, chemical Separation. Put her into a coma with drugs, basically shut down the parts of the mind affected by the bonding. Euthanize the Anim, and bring her back out; the mind has a chance to recover and it doesn't take the shock of the death. Then she could go on like it never happened."
"And did she?"
"Um, well." The Director looked embarrassed. Rhese put her head on Welson's knee, and the Director stroked the coarse fur absently. "She actually didn't. I think ... well, theother students gave her a hard time about it. There was a bit of a scene; she didn't want us to kill her Anim, of course. We had to force her. The piglet didn't suffer, and we buried it, you know, all proper, we didn't cook it, I'll swear that, and we gave her counseling, but ... there were jokes. You know how students can be ..."
Alex nodded. Anyone who thought wild animals were vicious had never seen the interplay among a group of teenaged girls.
"And, well ... she killed herself." He looked down, and Rhese looked up at him, and raised a paw in a sort of comforting way. The Director sighed, then looked up again. "Still, no point lingering on this stuff, eh? Go ahead and Call."
"What, now? Here?" Alex looked around. A couple of ancient nanny goats looked at him scornfully, but there were no other students around.
"Sure, why not?" The Director looked around, saw Alex's gaze. "What? You're not going to end up with them, Alex. Those goats are almost as old as you are. Go on."
"Um, I'd really rather ..." Alex began, but the Director interrupted him.
"You're not going to sneak out of it that way. You have to prove to me you can do it, before we'll let you leave. And if you think you can avoid it later ..." He shook his head. "When my first Anim, Coosha, died, I felt awful. I never wanted to go through that again. I said I wouldn't Call again, ever. Then one day Mirkosho came in with this filthy, starving puppy he'd found and was planning to take to the kitchen ... I glanced at it and--" He snapped his fingers. "Like that. That was Grub, the brown dog in the mural in my office."
"I wondered why you'd named her that," Alex said, smiling despite himself.
"That's right. It's the way we are, Alex. Even without your training, you're an Animist at heart. The College is a family.Sometimes we're harsh, but your original family wasn't much better, was it?" Alex shook his head. "Go ahead and Call, Alex, and then you're free to go. For now, anyway." He shut his own eyes.
Alex sighed, and sat down, and leaned against the wall to steady himself. "I haven't done it before," he warned. "I don't know--"
"Just try," insisted the Director. "I'll watch."
He didn't want to. He still held out hope, despite the Director's words, that he could just go about his life as a person; not as a Animist, not as a slave. But here and now, Welson wouldn't let him go unless he proved he could Call. And at least, there were plenty of impressive animals in the menagerie of the College. The baby tirgs, cute and playful in their orange and black stripes, were particularly appealing.
Alex kicked off his boots, and assumed the position for his meditations; the soles of his feet both touching, the palms of his hands touching, head down, eyes closed. The sun was warm on his head, and the smell of manure was in his nose.
Slowly he counted his breaths, seven counts in, seven counts out. He listened to that soft susurration, until it filled the mind and left nothing else. The gurgle and swish of the goats chewing their cud, the distant chatter of the campus, the sounds of the outside world seemed to diminish and vanish.
He concentrated on letting his muscles relax, joint by joint, tendon by tendon, slowly letting control slip away. His limbs seemed to drift into nothingness, but there remained the sensation of warmth, on the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands. He could hear his pulse, a steady beat to the slow counterpoint of his breath.
Watching through the Oether-eyes of Rhese, the Director saw Alex go from a faint imprint on the Oether into a slowly expanding sphere, bright and strong. Welson took a quick glance around, wary of other spirits, but all was quiet.
In Alex's mind, he formed the essence of himself into a single note, and struck it: a Call of here I am, a broadcast ofself, of a pattern seeking a compatible match for a missing part of itself.
In the Director's mind the Call rang out like a bell, like a huge bronze bell that tolled a single note and sent the lights of the Oether rippling and shuddering; it made him flinch back and cover his ears against a sound only his brain had felt, and Rhese gave a coughing bark of surprise and annoyance.
The echoes rang out like ripples in a pond and Alex could feel/see them go, felt them shiver slightly with contacts from other spirits, Animulae, Animists in the Oether, and pass on, unmatched. There was no response, no echo back. He felt the waves pass out to their farthest point; past the walls of the College, he was sure, and some ways into the forest, for he felt a touch of the confusion of woods spirits before the waves faded into nothing. Nothing. Relieved, but also disappointed, he slowly backed himself out of his trance, slowly bringing himself back to reality, to the sun hot on his head and the wall digging into his back and his butt having fallen asleep. The Director was watching him hopefully.
Alex shook his head. "No ... but it did work, didn't it? I did it right?"
"Oh, certainly. Quite loudly, too. Yes, you certainly have talent. Worth every rill we paid for you," he added, meaning it jokingly, but Alex only grimaced. He stood up briskly, then had to sit down again as the blood rushed from his head, then, once recovered, he followed the Director back to the front gate. "It was worth a try, anyway. It always is. Someday we'll be able to do away with this quest thing altogether, just breed all the Animulae we need, here at the College. Speaking of, where did you say you were thinking of looking?"
"I thought ... thought I'd go home, actually," Alex answered, stretching and rubbing his eyes. "See my parents."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" the Director asked warily."I mean, they sold you into slavery. You don't resent that?"
"We were starving." Alex shrugged. "They did what they had to do. Maybe someday I can help them, give them a better life. Maybe they're already dead, but ... I have to know. Besides, there's these animals on Drylast ..." He glanced away, lost in distant memory. "Snowfoxes. White, almost as big as the wolves ... I used to see them far away, playing on the hills. I always wanted to pat them but they never came close." He sighed. "Maybe this time one will."
And besides, he thought, in those distant, cold lands, there's a good chance the College won't even bother to come looking for me.
He made his way down the winding path from the College, through the green of the jungle and down to the shore, where a coastal trail wound along the hills with the black sand beach on one side and the green slopes on the other. On many other occasions he'd walked the same road, traveling to trade with the Humani or Lemyri villages on Highjade.
He passed through the trading village of Lemyri, where he'd disgraced himself so badly with Jocin and Phyl the other night. He hurried through, keeping his head low, and hoping none of the bounding furry shapes recognized him.
He traveled on until he'd reached the town on the coast where he'd first arrived on the island: a Humani city of no great size, but still worthy of note for the trader. In addition to the presence of the College, which was always a buyer for rare animals, herbs, and metal, Highjade provided fine obsidian, rare Lemyri wines and chutney made from the fruits of the forest, fresh water, coffee, tea, cocoa, and other herbs and spices and medicines, ceramics, worked and crafted items, as well as timber.
There were no ships in port heading north at the time;Alex found a small farm willing to let him sleep in the shed and share in meals, in exchange for mucking out the striches and goats. Alex was happy to oblige.
The work kept his mind off the worries of his life; the fact of his debt to the College, the uncertainty of his future, and increasingly, his loneliness. After being surrounded by well-known acquaintances, if not friends, for so many years, he felt lost without the familiar greetings. He found himself now talking to the goats, and made himself stop; all he needed was accidentally to bond with a goat, and he'd be worse off than that girl with the pig.
It was with some relief, then, when he saw the trading ship afloat in the bay one morning, and heard from the dockmaster that it was indeed bound in a roughly northerly direction. Good enough, thought Alex to himself; at least get myself to a more well-traveled port, and I should be able to get passage to Drylast soon enough.
The Charmed turned out to be a three-masted Humani vessel, simple and functional of line, with little ornamentation except two large painted eyes on either side of her prow, which were supposed to keep her away from reefs. She sat at the end of one of the deepwater docks, her crew loading aboard the last necessities of the voyage. She was sitting low in the water, holds full of goods to carry north; judging by the smell, coffee was at least part of her cargo.
Alex hailed the ship as he reached the end of the dock, and a moment later a Roden jumped down from the railing to land before him.
The Rodeni looked very much like large hopping rats, though with larger heads in proportion to their bodies, eyes set farther forward and closer together to allow for some binocular vision, and tails covered in short flat hair with a tuft on the tip. Alex had learned that they were probably more closely related to desert jerboas than rats, but the unknown distant species from which they'd evolved was long extinct and "large hopping rats" was probably the closest youcould get in accurate description. They usually moved in bipedal hops, but could also waddle along awkwardly step by step, and they could travel on all fours quickly, and did, in their native desert tunnels. Their hands, with clawed nails and knobby palms, had an opposable thumb. The front incisors were yellow and long and sharp and very visible, and this particular Roden stood, on his hind legs, only a foot shorter than Alex. Many were smaller than this; they tended to live low in status, and Rodeni who were hungry in their early years would never grow as large as those few who were well fed. Alex sometimes wondered if his own lack of height was due to those childhood years of starvation.
This Roden, cocoa brown, was wearing wide, baggy trews that tied up over the base of the tail, and was therefore a male. He flicked his large ears forward in greeting, looking at Alex with a quizzical air. "Yes, what?" the Roden chirped in Trade. His voice was higher than a human's, and each consonant was sharp and clicking. Trade was a simple, elegant language of easy-to-make sounds, and it was known to all the Trading races--all the sapient species of the Archipelago. All had their own languages as well, often with many variants and dialects, but anywhere you could find a priest you would find a speaker of Trade. For Trade was also the holy language, the magical language of theists, theurgists, and thaumaturgists. Theists were the priests of the gods, theurgists were shamans of the spirit world, and the rare and powerful thaumaturgists were true wizards and witches. In comparison to any, Animists were mere dabblers--but they served a separate and dangerous function of their own.
"The Harbormaster told me you might be looking for an Animist to go along to Patralinkos," Alex said, giving a nod of respect that made his necklace clink.
"Animist, eh? Where's your familiar, then?" demanded the Roden, twisting his head to look behind Alex.
"I don't have one, not yet," Alex explained. "That's why I need to travel, you see."
"Then what good are you?"
"I can still weatherwatch for you; it just will take a bit longer. And I can ..." Alex mentally ran through the list of the skills the College had taught. "Um, I can sew, bind and tend wounds, set bones, prepare foods, distill medicines, weave fences, baskets, and rope, carve wood, slaughter and butcher, cure leather, chip obsidian, divine from entrails, train and shape behaviors, tell enlightening animal stories, identify and interpret most species of mammal, tie the Fourteen True Knots and eleven other ones, and, as I said, I can see into the Oether if you give me a little time to do it." He didn't bother to mention Scooping Dung, Rock Border Repair, Being On Watch, and Digging Drainage Ditches, although it sometimes seemed as if most of College had been composed of that.
"Can you fight?" the Roden asked, squinting up at him.
"Some," retorted Alex, returning the gaze calmly, trying to show confidence. He'd had many days of being nerve-pinched into screams by his Lemyri teachers, and wrestling recalcitrant beasts, if that counted.
"Well, I suppose you won't eat much," sighed the Roden. "And maybe half an Animist's better than nothing. Rather have a priest of Shantovar, but ..."
"You won't find any here; the god-ridden and the Animists don't get along well." Alex folded his arms on his chest.
"I'll have to clear it with the cap'n, but come aboard," the Roden said, springing straight up to grab the rough wooden side of the ship and hauling himself back up to the deck, his legs and tail waggling comically before they vanished. Alex took the longer route, up the gangplank.
On the deck, the crew, a mixture of Humani and Roden, bustled about; a few of them glanced in Alex's direction but did not challenge him. He saw the cocoa brown Roden talking to a man dressed in fine clothing, who soon came over to greet him.
"Captain Chauncer," he introduced himself bluntly. "Youstay on call and weatherwatch for us at dusk and dawn, and whenever else we ask. We'll pay you in passage. Deal?"
"That's all I'm looking for, sir," Alex replied respectfully.
"Prang says you've got other skills as well; we'll expect you to help out as needed. For the most part, though, stay out of the way and let us know if there's anything in the Oether we should know about." He gave a nod of his head, and Alex bowed in acknowledgment.
Prang, the Roden, showed Alex to a cabin, little more than an enlarged cupboard, with a bunk he could lie down in if he tucked up his legs. A slatted-wood hatchroll gave some privacy, but made Alex feel that he was sleeping in the Director's roll-top desk. It was about the same size. Alex felt it was cramped and small until he saw the Rodeni quarters, where three Rodeni shared a space of equivalent size, curled up together in the tiny area. A tiny porthole provided some ventilation.
Cramped and small though it was, it was luxury compared to his last ship voyage, in the hold of a slave trader. That had been dark, crowded, and stuffy. True, they had been allowed out onto the deck once a day, but it had only made the hold seem stuffier upon returning. The cargo had outnumbered the crew, but among the crew was a theurgist--one who works magic with the help of the spirits. When one of the slaves had attempted to punch a crewman for an insult, this shaman had raised his hand--there had been a flash of light that made Alex and all the others watching flinch painfully--and then the slave was rolling on the deck, whimpering like a kicked dog. He'd had to be carried back down into the hold, and for the rest of the trip could not speak or raise his gaze to anyone.
The cabin was without much interest for Alex, so he went about exploring the ship. Alex quickly gathered that Prang was the first officer of the ship, an unusual position for a Roden. Many ships had a high complement of Rodeni, since their natural skills made them useful crewmen, and theirminimum requirements in food and housing made them economical. You could have too many on board a ship, though. If their numbers grew too high, especially in mixed-gender groups, they would start to fight and could erupt into an almost berserk fury.
In cities, Rodeni were often pushed to the bottom of the social structure. They were seen by Humani as being little more than evolved rats, and the Lemyri despised their lack of discipline and ground-living habits. Most Rodeni lived in Humani cities; there were a few all-Rodeni cities and islands, but they were distant and, rumor had it, overcrowded and often stricken with famine and disease.
All the Rodeni on the Charmed were male; this kept the intergroup conflict down to a minimum. On other ships, Prang informed him some time later, the Rodeni crews were entirely female. No ship could be crewed solely by Rodeni, however; their distance vision was poor, making navigation difficult if not impossible without the help of a sharper-eyed being on board.
The crew was busy with its business; goods of trade were being ferried across the bay, and provisions were being replenished. Other goods were spread on the wide floating dock, and a group of merchants, Humani and Lemyri, looked over the bundles of rustling herbs, bolts of cloth, as well as jars, bags, and barrels filled with other things Alex could only begin to guess at. The captain and the trademaster watched them warily, and conducted deals. When darkness fell, Alex went to his cabin and managed to curl himself into the tiny space, small and stuffy after years in his hammock at the College. He was using his rolled-up hammock as a pillow; there was no place to hang it in here, and he found the hard flat surface of the wood strange and uncomfortable, even with its thin mattress. The swaying of the ship made him feel constantly on the verge of being flipped out of bed, another problem with being used to hammocks. Unable to fall asleep, he performed his meditations instead, and just laythere, sensing the faint silvery patterns in the Oether, taking comfort in their random swirling dance. Deliberately, he did not Call. Here and now, he was free, he could do what he wanted. He was sixteen and the world was suddenly opening at his feet into a horizon of possibility. He sat quietly and listened to the Oether, unable to get more than faint impressions, but still, by his talent and his training, more than any normal person could sense.
There were the Visi, the weather-spirits, unaware and unfocused, little more than particles of energy. By them he could weatherwatch, as requested; this calm behavior meant the day would be calm tomorrow. The Visi drifted about aimlessly in his awareness, and he almost fell asleep then; but with a start, he halted, and backed himself out of his trance. It could be dangerous to sleep with an open mind; you never knew what might wander in. He finally fell into normal sleep in the small hours of the morning.