Bromthen Flood Plains
Now and then, throughout the year, the rains come, the tide rises, and the low flat lands near the sea are flooded for miles. Dry land becomes a mere spotting of islands even though in many places the water is only a few inches deep. The amphibians rule the earth this time of year, while the land-dwellers congregate in the boughs of the stilt-rooted cageroot trees or the scattered islands formed by waterswept debris or random mounds of earth and rock.
Lakshmi slithers silently and thoughtfully back to camp. Once she's there, she quietly lays the Bromthen pig near the small fire pit, turning its preparation over to Skye's capable hands. She studies the sun, measuring how long they have until evening and sunset… then sends Mandy with a bucket to fetch water to be heated over the fire. Lakshmi herself sees to the serendips. Each of them gets a handful of grain, an affectionate ear rub, and a check-over to make sure all is well with them.
Mandy is, in fact, kept extremely busy. Lakshmi sends her trotting swiftly back and forth across the little island all afternoon, hauling water, doing the heavy work in butchering the hog, fetching copious amounts of firewood, moving all the rocks over to the fire to warm them up, digging a new latrine, chopping and stacking the wood, unloading the heavy packs from the serendips, taking down the tent, putting a layer of heated rocks under it, putting the tent back up…
Lakshmi remains by the fire, checking over all their equipment, but keeps a stern eye on Mandy, not allowing any slack time at all. She knows Mandy will probably consider this punishment, but what she's really after is to wear Mandara out, so that Mandy will actually want to sit still and listen during dinner.
Taking out a dagger and a spit, Skye works over the pig in simple and pragmatic motions. The knife cuts, gutting the beast, cleaning. Then he pauses, setting his hat on a branch a good distance away, so it doesn't get stained. "Yi be wanting a piece of this, Laks'mi?"
The Skreek's gaze follows Mandara, but he doesn't speak. Yet. .
Lakshmi looks up from her equipment inspection and nods. "Yes, please. I'd like a few of the choicest cuts… I'm thinking they might make acceptable bait." She pauses, thinking, then nods and sets the equipment aside. "Skye, I think we have a problem. We must find a whispa before winter's onset, when the flood waters recede, or we will have missed our chance to do so for an entire year. We don't have much more time to do so… So, to be blunt, we must all work together or we will fail." She also gravely watches Mandara for a moment as the canid trots busily by, then sighs again. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to be painfully blunt with Mandy… but that's my problem. Right now, I think we need to come up with a good plan for whispa finding."
Skye dryly chitters, "They be smart, Boss'Laks'mi, that we already know… " He shrugs once, glancing to the side, his ears rotating in Mandara's general direction. "I mean, I found t'eir tracks going t'e opposite direction Mandy was swimming, and s'e's supposed to be t'e good tracker. Between me an yi, I don't t'ink bait's going to do it. I t'ink we are going to some'ow convince t'em to come investigating us. Outfoxing a fox at t'eir own game will be a mite … tricky. Per'aps some sort of sleig't of 'and is necessary, yes?"
Lakshmi adds quietly, "As the old saying goes, you never chase a fuff'nar to catch it… You just sit still and make a sound like fuff'nar food… and the fuff'nar will come to you. I agree… we need to stop chasing whispas, and let them come to us."
Skye looks back at Lakshmi and smiles. "Yi wish us o look like a dead Creen?"
Straightening his whiskers with one paw, Skye continues. "Though I do wonder w'at a w'ispa considers to be treasure."
Lakshmi chuckles. "Yes, if necessary. So… Let's review what we know." She starts counting on her fingers. "They're extremely clever, to a startling degree. They have a magical reputation. They must be somewhat social animals, since they've managed to keep each other entirely undiscovered until now. Hm… Now that I think about it, it's entirely possible they understand civilized speech." She frowns slightly, and lowers her voice, glancing around with slightly amused chagrin. "We've been told they are jealously protective of their little treasure lairs, and shouldn't be underestimated… hm. How about a trap within a trap? Something that looks like a trap they can break or disrupt… with a real trap set to go off once they break the 'bait' trap?"
Lakshmi hisses softly, "If not food for the 'bait' trap we could try something that would be irresistible for them to investigate?"
Skye looks to Lakshmi, his muzzle crossed by a mischievous grin, " … Kajkajkaj khe'skreek chi'eek kettak, khi? " He pauses a moment, folding his paws together. "Or perhaps something a bit more subtle than that. Yi still 'ave t'e full supply of medicines, yes?"
Lakshmi blinks at Skye's sudden burst of what sounds like stuttering to her… then chuckles. "Yes, and yes, of course. Ah. Good point… That might work well." She frowns thoughtfully, then pulls over her medical satchel and looks through it… then nods again. "If we try this route, we'll need to disguise it somehow… in food or flavored water or somesuch."
Skye leans forward, still quiet, but keeping to Lakshmi's native tongue. "Maybe a simpler trade. We go out, make trap, bait trap, be all intent on trap. But it's t'e Bromt'en steaks back at t'e camp t'at send t'e w'ispa to sleep?"
Lakshmi nods approvingly. "Precisely… a trap within a trap. Excellent. Now… let us also have a back up plan, yes? Hm… " She thinks a moment, then grins, "Shall we be convoluted? A net set to spring over the special food in camp… with the out-of-camp trap as the distraction?"
Lakshmi hisses softly, "Or better yet… the net as 'backup' on the out-of-camp trap?"
Laughing softly, Skye shakes his head. "I t'ink, if t'at way we go, if we try to trap t'e food at t'e camp, t'ey will notice somet'ing is wrong. Not'ing special at t'e camp save for our trust t'at if we are here, t'ey will be t'ere. It should be done so t'at we would come back and find t'e camp raided by animals, instead of a camp set to capture a critterling. But it could also be an unproductive night." The Skreek considers for a long set of heartbeats. "T'is might be a sweetcake wit'out filling, but you know, Uriah, he must have found t'e treasure of a w'ispa."
Lakshmi nods quietly, "My thought also… Why else the adamant warnings against taking their goods? Although like you, I can't help but wonder what a whispa considers 'treasure'… hm. Now here's a thought if they're this intelligent and social… can they be reasoned with? Surely there must be some whispas who are either old and tired, and would like quiet and regular food and protection for their remaining years… or small and young, and either adventurous or tired of being pushed around by larger, stronger whispas? And if so, we could work out something to benefit us both… which I would prefer to force, I admit."
Setting the now cleaned hog upon the spit, Skye settles down by the end of the fire, slowly rotating their dinner above the fire. "If t'ey could or would, wye 'aven't t'ey done so, after so many years? Wye did t'e other one fig't until ex'austed w'en put in a cage? T'e only t'ing I know at t'e moment is t'at I don't know enuff. If I was back at home, I wouldn't even poke my muzzle into t'e window. No, we 'ave little time, and are not even sure of t'eir ways. We do know t'ey like quicksand, and Bromt'en hogs. Do yi t'ink their home would be near t'e sand pits or far away? Would t'ey be close to t'eir prey, wit' home and young?"
Lakshmi hisses softly, "Not near quicksand… Too much water makes flooded burrows a certainty, not an accident. Well… " She's silent a moment, then smiles ruefully, "Perhaps it's never been done because no one ever asked?"
Lakshmi glances wryly at Skye. "If you were in a cage, wouldn't you fight? Foolish animals don't realize what's happened to them… Smart ones do."
Skye shrugs again, friendly and half-conspiratorial. "No, I'd just pick t'e … uhm, I'd be very patient and not worry myself to deat' by running in circles. Fine, so no one asked t'em. T'e question is, how do yi invite a legendary critter, a s'y legendary critter, a smart and s'y legendary critter into camp? T'ey don't get t'e Temple mail for invitations … a trail of pastry crumbs?"
Lakshmi giggles at the image, then grins at Skye. "You are so refreshing, Skye… well, if we've managed to catch one, we can ask it, no?"
Skye tilts his head, rubbing the back of his neck, slowly turning the spit. He looks at the hog for a long long pace. "I wonder … too bad we don't know a good cook."
Lakshmi raises an eyebrow, wondering slightly at the sudden turn the conversation's taken… but remains silent, listening. Skye must be making a point, and will be clearer in a moment.
Turning back to Lakshmi, Skye slowly continues. "T'ey always laughed at me w'en I'd play 'Let's Pretend'. Let's pretend we were a big fat merc'ant, and how would we live, or t'e Temple Jupani, 'ow would t'ey stalk t'roo t'e Bazaar. But tonite, tonite I'm a w'ispa. I'm hungry, a big dog just ruined my dinner. Good Bromt'en. I wonder what bits of t'e Bromt'en I like t'e best. But t'en w'at's t'at I smell? It smells like Bromt'en … but different, special, new, like somet'ing I 'ave never smelled before at all. Would I go investigate?"
Lakshmi nods slowly, watching Skye intently for a few seconds… then abruptly looks back down at her medical satchel. She rummages for a bit… then smiles slowly and pulls out a few folded papers and bottles. She frowns thoughtfully, studying them… then does some judicious "spicing" of the fresh, choice cuts of Bromthen that Skye left for her… and does some more (more normal) spicing of the Bromthen itself. She sneezes once as she applies the spices, but manages to carefully smear the meat with a few additions, both powder and liquid… and a few moments later some rather savory smells start to drift away. She sits back, looking satisfied when she's finished, and puts her stuff away. "There we go! That should make things taste quite nice."
Skye watches, eyes sharp, ears up, as Lakshmi applies the spices to their meal. "Did yi ever play 'Let's Pretend', Laks'mi?"
Lakshmi nods quietly. "Oh yes… There were times I absolutely longed to be an animal, and I'd watch them for hours, dreaming I was one of them."
Skye sets the Bromthen slowly rotating again. "So, we be a w'ispa. We be s'y, or timid, but smart. W'at would draw us out and not instead scare us. Clever we be, but we also 'ave not been caught in more years t'an I can count. W'at mite over come t'at? Somet'ing I 'ave never seen before?"
Lakshmi hisses softly, "Hm, good point… the smells may help, but there's no harm in… sweetening the bait as best we can. So… " She frowns, thinking silently for a long while… then looks up in puzzlement at Skye. "Ah… I'm drawing a bit of a blank here. What's utterly unusual and unexpected?"
Lakshmi hisses softly, "To a mythical creature?"
Skye rubs his muzzle. "A stuff't c'ild's version of you?"
Lakshmi blinks in amused startlement at Skye. "A… what?!"
With a shrug the Skreek continues. "It looks like me, but it's not me. It doesn't move. Do t'ey really t'ink I look like t'at? Is it invading my territory? Will it be my friend? Will I look at it like one sees a mirror? Are t'ey vain? If someone was to put a stuff't Naga in t'e road, one t'at was supposed to look not only like a Naga, but like yi, wouldn't yi pause to take a look?"
Lakshmi nods slowly, thinking, and her gaze travels slowly over to the Bromthen hog's hide. "That… is an interesting idea… Can you do it?"
Skye blinks. "Make a stuff't w'ispa? I 'ave a 'ard enuff time sewing a button back on. T'ou' I'm sure we could find one in t'e City … or even Master Dors'all's. Or maybe find one in a village?"
Lakshmi shakes her head, "We need to do this now, Skye… It's either the village, making it ourselves, or not at all, I fear."
Skye looks down. "I'm sorry, Boss'Laks'mi. If I was to make a stick w'ispa t'ey'd … well, t'ey'd just get a big w'ispa giggle out of it."
However, after a single heartbeat, he looks back. "Laks'mi. just 'ow smart do yi t'ink t'e w'ispas are?"
Lakshmi hmms. "Actually… how about this, Skye? Can you tie some sticks together into a rough approximation of the skeletal system of a whispa? I've stitched live animals up enough… a hide can't be that difficult, after all. We don't need it to look perfect… just realistic enough to ah… " She grins. "… 'scare' them."
Lakshmi smiles. "I'm crossing my fingers that they're smart enough to be reasoned with."
Skye nods then. "Then 'ow about we don't try and make a stuff't whispa. Maybe we make a w'ispa simple, like a picture. An t'en a w'ispa an a snake. An a w'ispa an a snake an a bit of Bromt'en meat. Leave t'em down by t'e quicksand. An 'ope t'ey are smart enouff to understand and come up for an invitation for dinner?"
Lakshmi blinks, startled. "My… what a novel thought! Hm… then again… " She pauses thoughtfully, then grins. "Then again, why not? It will give us time to prepare our backup plan, after all." She chuckles and pulls out a clean white cloth. "Really, Skye, you are exceptional." She tilts her head, regarding the cloth for a moment, then nods. "We can do a simple 'story' of sorts on this, if we're using only simple pictograms. I think… How's this? A simple drawing of a snake by a camp fire, offering a whispa a piece of meat? We could put a real piece of meat on the cloth as well?"
Lakshmi pulls out her writing tools as well. "Black on white… that should stand out in the darkness, and they must be able to see in the dark if they're nocturnal." She grins, adding, "Or they're very used to bumping into things in the dark… "
Taking a moment to check the meat, Skye shakes his head. "T'ey come wit' t'eir own lamps, remember? A soft glow at night. T'e piece of meat is a good t'ing, an earnest of intent, yes? Put a Skreek and a Mandy in t'ere too, so it's not like we are hiding anyt'ing." He stands the meat with his knife and frowns. "T'is was not a small Bromt'en… "
Lakshmi nods, already carefully starting to lightly sketch out the picture on the cloth. "Right… " She grins again. "Good thing this isn't a hankie… or we'd never fit everyone on it!"
As Lakshmi carefully works, she murmurs softly, almost absently, "So, Skye… what sorts of 'make believe' did you play? Did you ever want to be an animal, like I did… or just other people?"
Skye looks back and smiles a wry grin. "Temple Jupani, rich merc'ants, an administrator or two. Once an Arch Inquisitor. Mostly folks t'ou', to wonder w'at it mig't be like in t'eir s'oes, to t'ink about 'ow t'ey would t'ink of t'ings."
Lakshmi looks up with curious interest. "You wanted to know how they'd think? Hm… I rather like the way you think now, actually… You don't think like most folks I know. Still… objectivity is valuable in behaviorism, as long as you don't let someone else's way of thinking override your own… " She ponders a moment, then smiles. "So, what did you gather about how and what they thought, Skye?"
Pausing in his rotation, Skye takes a moment to cut off a few steaks of meat, to set on their own by the fire. "Now we'll at least 'ave some dinner before tomorrow … " He sits back then, balanced on his toes, in a semi-crouch. "Well, no one ever really cawt on to t'e fact t'at ta Jupani never cawt me, yes?"
Lakshmi gives Skye a curious glance. "I'm not sure I follow, Skye. Are you saying that you gathered enough that you were able to successfully avoid the Jupani guards?" She grins in sudden dry amusement. "And… do I really want to know this?"
Lakshmi thinks a moment, then laughs. "Who am I fooling of course I want to know!" She grins at Skye. "Tell, tell!"
Lakshmi adds amusedly, "Although I feel we must keep in mind that we never really had this conversation, of course… and you, also of course, as my trusted assistant, would be as shocked as I to hear of someone mistaking you for some… common thief or somesuch." She grins conspiratorially… but is still listening with fascination, of course.
Skye reaches up and straightens out his long whiskers. "T'at's about it. Like in t'e apot'ecary. T'ere was an older Jupani w'o t'ose first Jupani were c'asing. But w'en t'ey walked in, t'ey saw a Skreek … and t'e Skreek gave t'em somet'ing to see, wit' flourish of hat and standing in t'e middle of t'e aisle, to snare t'eir wits … so t'ey never saw t'e other Jupani slip out t'e back door. But no, trust assured, I was no common street t'ief. And Darkside, well, I never 'ad enuff s'ekels to play 'Let's Pretend' only for fun."
Lakshmi grins at Skye and shakes her head. "You would make such a behaviorist, Skye… Well then. Was Rephidim the same ah… forum in which you learned to pick locks?"
Lakshmi grins and explains, "That's the only thing I could think of to pick, on a cage… ?"
Skye laughs softly. "Well I do like wandering all across t'e surface. And, well, it kind of was a side benefit of sorts. Often in order not to be somew'ere, it was good to be in a place w'ere no one would t'ink yi could get to. Of course t'ere wasn't a Skreek behind t'e door. It be locked, yes?"
Lakshmi chuckles and shakes her head again in amusement as she works. "Interesting. It's a very different-sounding life than mine, I must say." She tilts her head and studies Skye with a curious smile. "Do you ever miss it?"
Reaching down to pick up a steak, the Darkside Skreek shakes his head. "I was on a rooftop, in t'e s'adow of a c'imney. And I realized t'at all I 'ad after years of being broke an' bein' … well 'aving a few coins, t'at all I 'ad to s'ow for it was t'is 'at I found afore t'is R'ian realized it was lost."
Skye looks up. "I figured t'ere 'ad to be somet'in' better.
Lakshmi listens silently, her eyes bright… then nods slowly. "I… sort of understand, I think. It's why people aspire to rise in station, as much as… as why Agni stays with us, even if we don't hobble him… to be cherished and have someone that cares, to be part of something, part of a group of friends… It's part of why I train animals. They understand better than many people I've met, how important it is not to be lost and alone."
Lakshmi sighs softly, looking down at the cloth before her, and hopes silently that whispas understand that too.
Skye nods. "To be known for w'o I am and not w'at I am. "
Skye looks back, quiet. "And if it doesn't work, Lakshmi, yi know w'at?"
Lakshmi smiles, "What?"
Skye shrugs his shoulders in a friendly manner. "We'll just come up with a better plan tomorrow night."
Lakshmi chuckles, "True. We are what we make of ourselves, after all… One setback will not defeat us." She looks at Skye thoughtfully, studying him, then continues, "What you can do… not what you look like." She's silent a moment, still studying Skye, then asks slowly, "Skye… you are treated politely at the school, yes? No one is rude to you, or makes snide comments about … er… about rats?"
Snaring a pair of plates, Skye takes up the two steaks, passing the first one to Lakshmi. "At t'e school and t'e city? Oh, for about one or two ringings of t'e clock tower. But it's 'ard to keep t'e barbs up when t'ey 'ave no effect an' I 'ave my polite muzzle on. Usually t'ey are so surprised t'at t'ey just don't know quite w'at to do wit' a polite Skreek."
Skye smiles back dryly. "In some ways, so very predictable, yes?"
Lakshmi chuckles as she accepts the plate, then looks more serious. "That's true, Skye… but nevertheless you shouldn't have to put up with that… especially if it continues for any length of time." She thinks for a moment, then nods slowly. "If that happens, I would like you to tell me, please? I promise not to do anything foolish like lecture them about being nice to my assistant… " Her eyes glitter in the firelight for a moment as she grins wickedly. " but there are ways to subtly let someone know they've gone too far." She prods the steak curiously with a finger, then licks it curiously. "Hm… I'm not sure precisely why mammals like scorching their food so much… Interesting." She smiles ruefully at Skye, continuing, " and besides, what's the point of my going on about teamwork if I don't do anything to help you when you could use a small bit of assistance?"
Taking a bite of his own steak, Skye just shrugs. "Well, Darkside way, cooking yi food good was one sure way to make sure it didn't kill yi… "
Lakshmi blinks, trying to imagine swallowing something that was trying to swallow her as well not a pleasant prospect!
Skye continues, "Some of our food would 'ave put a fuff'nar off. And if it ever becomes a problem, t'en I will am sure yi will be knowing. As for t'e rest, look at it t'is way … " The Skreek pauses, and for once his smile is neither dry nor wry. "I 'ave more t'an a R'ian's 'at now."
Lakshmi smiles with quiet warmth at Skye's last comment. "I'm glad to hear that, Skye. You're a good person… You deserve it, I think."