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Religious Themed Stories / The Game of God - Chapter 5

    In those days it will be said all is well, but I tell you all is not well. They that have known peace will know peace no longer. The winds will begin to blow and scatter the seeds of change, and only the faithful need not fear. - The Book of the Prophets of God, the words of Tyan.

   

   “Don’t worry, I don’t want to go with you,” Cantor said. “I want to play professionally next cycle. I need to stay here and practice against some adults for a while. I’ll have a size disadvantage for another cycle, but I still think I’m good enough to turn pro.”

   “You told mom this?” Tangoral asked.

   “No, not yet.”

   “So are you going to follow in your brothers’ footsteps and leave the dwelling for the big city?”

   “No, I like it here. The cities are nice places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live in one. I would like to travel around for a while though. Turning professional would let me do just that but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else than here. Margeeum is here and I know she doesn’t want to leave here.”

   “As long as what she wants is the same as what you want, you will do well, but things change Cantor. The roar of the crowds, females chasing after a new rising star, money, fame, you don’t think you’ll be changed by all that?”

   “I think it will be nice for a while but this may come as a surprise to you; I don’t want to play the Game as my life’s work. I want to be an explorer. I want to break new ground and establish new dwellings. I want to be a little like you, but without all the worries,” Cantor replied.

   “Exploration comes with its own worries. You have to worry about staying alive. I have found that new frontiers come with new dangers that no one has ever seen before. More often than not the only thing you find are new ways to get yourself killed. Then there is still the same question, what about Margeeum?” Tangoral asked.

   “We’ve talked about this. I think we’ll be explorers together for a while, but I know there will come a time when we’ll settle down. By becoming a professional Game player for a time it will give me the money, and notoriety, to become and do anything we want to do later on in life.”

   “Name one brother that turned pro and then went onto make something of himself.”

   “I hear what you’re saying and for the most part professional Game players end up as teachers of the Game hoping to manage a rising star so they can again step back into the limelight. One could end up reliving past glories or you end up doing some other mindless task for a living after you can no longer play the Game. However, if you plan ahead you can use the notoriety as a Game player as a stepping stone to something better. It’s what my Dad did. He played for three cycles before getting into business. He played off and on after that to draw attention to the businesses he worked for. It helped him turn some small failing businesses around to become large successful businesses. The brotherhood took note and asked him to become the dwelling clan leader here.”

   “Zothor was a professional Game player?” Tangoral asked a bit surprised by this revelation.

   “One of the best to play the Game,” Cantor replied. “He was the champion for the Blue Brotherhood for four cycles in a row. This was all before I was born of course. Before we moved here, we never lived anywhere else except in the city. That’s why my brothers all left here to go back to the city to live. They couldn’t handle the rural country life.”

   “When did Zothor meet mom?”

   “In his first season as a Game player. Mom came from a small dwelling inland and had moved to the city to finish her studies in business management. That’s where they met in class. She didn’t even know he was a celebrity. Mom never really followed the Game until then. Oh yeah, speaking of Mom that’s why I came in here in the first place. She wants to see when you’ve got the time.”

   

   Tangoral found Ishihari in her office. Unlike her mate, she could rarely be found in her office in any given moment throughout the day. “Mother you wanted to see me?” he asked looking around the room. He had never been in this room before mostly because Ishihari was never in it much, and he had never been curious enough to look in it.

   “Tangoral give me a moment to finish up this paperwork and I’ll be right with you,” she said.

   A half a dozen diplomas were framed and stuck to one of the walls. Most of them had really big words and it was hard for Tangoral to read them. The gist was that Ishihari spent a lot of time in school and was well educated. Another wall had a number of awards stuck to it. Most were for cooking, but there were a few academic awards as well. On her desk were small paintings of her other sons. “No wonder meals are looked forward to around here,” Tangoral said looking at some of her cooking awards.

   “I had to do something until Zothor and I could settle down. Before Zothor retired from playing the Game I ran a few kitchens and couple of dining halls in the city where we lived. I won a few awards in the process. When we moved here almost everyone cooked for themselves. I started a kitchen and soon almost everyone ate there. We enlarge it to the dining hall it is today not long after I started cooking. Individual dwellings still come with small personal kitchens, but almost everyone eats in the dining hall. I make a fair profit off the dining hall here.”

   “You mean the food is not free?”

   “No, it’s not, but the cost is cheaper than cooking it yourself. It’s an automatic deduction now, before when I first started everyone had to pay. When we enlarged the kitchen to the dining hall it is now, the clan agreed to the automatic deduction from their individual profit shares. They can now come in anytime the dining hall is open to get something to eat. My profit margin is not as great as it would be if I was running a dining hall in the city, but I still make a profit while employing many of the sisters here.”

   “Who pays for the tree dwellers that eat in the dining hall?” Tangoral asked.

   “For the moment the dwelling is picking up the tab, but soon the funds that Zothor has set up for you and the other tree dwellers will take over this obligation from the dwelling. Not that you have acquired much of an obligation. You yourself are well in the black, but the others I have had to employ from time to time to cook special meals. So it balances out,” Ishihari replied.

   “What do you mean that I am well in the black?”

   “As the inventor or co-inventor of many of our new products you get a share of the profits of every product sold that we have a license for no matter who makes it. You also get an equal share of the profits that the dwelling makes off those products as well. In a sense, you are paid twice for the same product every time someone buys one of our new products. As the sole inventor, you do not have to share the profits that go to the inventor, but as co-inventor the profits are divided according to the percentage of what you contributed to the actual finished product. Zothor has set up a fund held in trust until you fully understand and can manage your own money if you choose to do so. At the moment, your economic standing within this dwelling is forth or fifth. That places you in the ranks of the leadership of this dwelling. The leadership of a dwelling is made up of the department heads and those with enough economic standing to warrant a say in the affairs of the dwelling. That standing is usually determined by the economic standing of the dwelling clan leader. You, Sokegal, Tangalen, Zothor and I are the top five economic leaders here. No others even come close. As we prosper, the dwelling prospers, and all the clan benefits from our gains.”

   “So if the craft master is the head of his department and an economic leader as well, does that mean he gets two says in his roll in the dwelling leadership.”

   Ishihari laughed. “No, not at all. Sokegal most of the time can take credit as co-inventor of most of the products that come out of the craft hall even if all he can get out of a product is one percent. That’s his right as craft master. You on the other claw do not work for Sokegal and you are considered the head of your own department as well; being the leader of the tree dwellers here and elsewhere. Although you both seem to have two places within the dwelling leadership, you are still only just an advisor to the dwelling clan leader. The leadership of the dwelling is invested in the dwelling clan leader only. Any others considered to be in the dwelling leadership are only advisors to the dwelling clan leader.”

   “Oh.”

   “You might find it of some interest that when you invent something the craft master doesn’t automatically get a cut of the profits. You invented the windows free and clear, but you are listed as co-inventor of the process by which we make the really big windows. Sokegal is taking a percentage because he and some of his craftsmen had a claw in the creation of that process.”

   “I wouldn’t think that the dining hall here makes enough of a profit to account for you to be ranked among the economic leadership of the dwelling.”

   “In that you would be correct, but I still own an interest in a couple of dining halls in the city. They are run by some of my other sons, your other brothers. Also, I hold licenses for a few recipes used in dining halls almost everywhere. I also invested in some of the businesses that Zothor bailed out of financial and physical difficulties. When the Blue Brotherhood asked Zothor to become the dwelling clan leader here we were both very well off in terms of economic standing.”

   “How did Tangalen get his status?” Tangoral asked.

   “He wrote some very famous books and started a publishing company. He holds a couple of licenses on printing machines he invented. His printing machines increased the speed of printing a thousand times. He was the first to do daily newspapers and that led to a seat on the blue council. Tangalen for a time sat on the Grand Council of the Brachyura and was next in line to become the blue clan leader. Then for reasons of his own, he retired here to be our patriarch,” Ishihari replied. “He still is invested in his publishing company even though he no longer runs it. I think one of his children, a daughter I believe runs the company now, but Tangalen still holds the controlling share of the profits.”

   “It sounds like you were very well off before you moved here. If you and Zothor were doing so well, why did you quit your profitable businesses to come here?”

   “The law of God requires that one obeys civil authority. The Clan Leader asked and you know Zothor’s devotion to God and the law. It was hard on our family at first, but now I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

   “The cities, are they like the dwellings I’ve seen?”

   “No, the differences are like day and night. Here we live a little more simply; nowhere near the grand style that we were use to. Here the social class lines are very blurred. In the cities, there are the very poor and the very rich, and it is rare that the two classes mix. Zothor’s status as one of the great Game players of the time placed us among the very rich. Even after he retired from the Game we were still counted among the very rich because by then we were both very successful in business. Our dwelling was almost four times the size of our dwelling now. We had everything that money could buy. When I first came to the city, I might have been counted among the very poor if it was not for my student status, but I had the good fortune to meet a brother that did not care that I came from a very poor background.”

   “I thought for the longest time that Zothor was as poor as I was,” Ishihari continued. “Then one day a friend of mine talked me into going to watch a game. That was the first time I saw Zothor play. He won of course, but I was so shocked to find out that he was this famous Game player that I didn’t talk to him for a couple of seven-days. Then one day I returned to my dwelling after class to find my doorway filled top to bottom with flowers carefully stuck together. I thought he had paid for all those flowers just to impress me which of course made me feel a little more self-conscious about being poor and a little like I could be bought with a claw full of flowers. I found out where he lived and went over to give him a peace of my mind. His dwelling was more modest than I would have thought someone with his status would live in. He politely listened to my tirade and then threw me out of his dwelling telling me to go find the florist he bought the flowers from, if I could. I found out later, from the same friend that had taken me to the game, that Zothor had gone out picked and arranged all those flowers himself. When I found out I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t find the nerve to bring myself to even look at him in class. Then one day, I returned to my dwelling to find him standing in my doorway holding a flower in his claw. “I bought this one,” he said holding the flower out to me. I broke down and cried right there. I’ve been in love with Zothor ever since.”

   “Do you still get flowers?” Tangoral asked.

   “Not as often as before we were sealed together, but every now and again he leaves some flowers in some really strange places for me to find. Just last seven-day, I found my favorite pot filled with flowers. I always know when it’s our anniversary. I’ll come home to find our bed filled with wild flowers. One cycle I had to follow a trail of flowers all over the dwelling to find the gift he got me for my birthday.”

   “Never too busy for love.”

   “What?”

   “Something my father told me once. He said the most important thing in the world is love. He said you should never be to busy for love. He was devoted to my mother. There was nothing in the world that could not wait a while when it came to her or my sister and me.”

   “Sound advice. There, all done with the paperwork. The brotherhood always wants its cut of the profits. Zothor wanted me to talk with you about the other night at dinner.”

   “Why doesn’t he ask himself?”

   “I suspect he thinks you might not tell him everything that’s on your mind. Because there is still a certain amount of separation between you and him, he asked me to talk with you. I told him it was all in his mind and that if he asked you would tell him what he wanted to know. Still, he feels the distance between you and him. I understand how you feel. Your father meant a great deal to you, and I doubt that you will ever think of Zothor as your father. From what you’ve told me of your father I find that I should have liked to known him. I think you know that Zothor would do anything for you, and he worries about you more than I think you know. Still, he has made a request of me and so I ask how much did you overhear between LaSanso and him and what are your thoughts on the matter?” Ishihari asked.

   “I heard most of what was said,” Tangoral replied. “I should stay and try and stop what is about to happen but this is an important journey that we make. I find myself filled with doubts. I’ve asked myself over and over again if I found the Great Cure what would happen if I used it. Most certainly, it would destroy the world we’ve come to know. How many would die so that the world could be set right again? How would the Great Cure affect the Brachyura? It has the potential to destroy your whole race from what I’ve learned about your history. I love you too much to let that happen. I can’t help but think that if the Great Cure is found it should be destroyed for the good of the world as we have come to know it. The journey to the beginning of the world is more important than worrying about Kittanota, or the Red Brotherhood, or what Jonnaul might do in the future. I think that we will return before the red brothers can get to out of hand. Yoeith can call upon the power of Heaven for aide and I can call upon the power of nature. Between the two of us we make up the greatest healing force that the world has ever known. As Yoeith would say, with God on our side, what do we need to fear?”

   “Tangoral, have you ever asked what if there never was a Great Cure for the world. What if the Great Cure is nothing more than wishful thinking of the healers of your people over time? Don’t you think that if the ancients had a cure that they would have used it when they had the chance? The ancients thought they were in control of the world right up to the end. Then it was too late and God destroyed them.”

   “That is one possibility, but if there was no cure then God did not destroy them. They destroyed themselves and God took credit for their destruction. If there was a cure then God did destroyed them before they could use it.”

   “You still don’t know much about the nature of God,” Ishihari said. “God places choices before us and we are free to choose the path on which we will walk. One path leads to life. The other path leads to death. If we choose the path that leads to death then we face the destruction of God in whatever form it may take. When a whole clan, or tribe, or individual sets a leg on the path of death and destruction their destruction is assured when they reach the end of the path. Before they reach the end of the path on which they walk, they have every chance to get off, but if they reach the end it is too late even if they try to turn around and go back the other way. They have already set eternal actions in motion. Once an eternal action is set in motion it cannot be recalled, and it must run its course to the very end. Eternal actions of this nature are set in motion by the justice system of God. Once we tip the scales of justice too far over, the justice system sets in motion the appropriate punishment at the appropriate time.”

   “So the ancients turned their backs on the laws of God and the justice system of God vented its full fury on the inhabitants of the world when they reached the point of no return,” Tangoral said. “Then they must have reached a state where they delighted in evil and shunned the good to reap such a destruction by God. All this does not preclude the possibility that they came up with a cure for the world. It only points out that if there was such a cure they never got the chance to use it.”

   “Or they used it only to find that it didn’t work,” Ishihari said. “It might have even made things worse, who knows. Maybe you will find the answers, and maybe all you will find is more questions.”

   “It may be that Sentinel knows the answers if his memory is intact after all these thousands of cycles of the sun.”

   “Who is Sentinel?” Ishihari asked.

   “Sentinel is the great metal guardians of the place where the beginning of the world is,” Tangoral replied.

   “How can the Sentinel be plural creatures and yet you address him as one being?”

   “He is the one that is many. I spoke with him on many occasions. If you speak to one of the guardians and then speak to another guardian within sight of the one you just spoke to. What you get is a continuation of the same conversation only with a different guardian. It’s as if they all share the same mind. I didn’t understand it even after Sentinel explained it to me. He tends to use words that I don’t understand and there is a slight variation in the language which also makes it hard to understand him.”

   “Like what?” Ishihari asked.

   “When he talked about the size of his memory,” Tangoral replied. “After I got past the names for numbers that have no meaning to me. He said his memory was made up of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of bytes. I’m not sure what a byte is. I have no doubt that his memory must be very large after living for so long, but there are other things like IO devices, and microwave transmitters, that I have no idea what some of these words mean.”

   “Maybe a byte of memory represents a small unit of memory of a given length of time” Ishihari said. “A day may be made up of many bytes of memory. It sounds like a measurement of time of some kind. We measure time by the cycles of the sun, seven-days, days, units of time, and time parts. He may have expressed the size of his memory in terms of the smallest units of time as he measures time. So a small time-part of a day might have been called a byte by the ancients and Sentinel thinks of the size of his memory in those terms.”

   “That makes sense. If I where to describe the size of my memory I might say it was made up of many thousands of days. Do you have any guesses at what the other things mean?” Tangoral asked.

   “The IO device is a machine that does whatever IO stands for. That’s an abbreviation for something. For what I can’t begin the guess,” Ishihari replied. “Microwave transmitters are strange words, but if you break them down you can begin to guess at their meaning. Micro is something very small. So a microwave is a very small wave of some kind. I don’t know what a wave is so I’m not much help there. Transmitter sounds like transportation and my guess is that it is some kind of transportation for the microwave. So when we break it down, and put it back together in terms that we can understand. A microwave transmitter is a transporter or transportation device of some kind for the small wave thing. That’s my best guess.”

   “That’s useful I hope. Sentinel spent a lot of time getting me to talk to him. He said it was so he could analyze the language I spoke and make adjustments for the shift in the language over the many cycles. Actually, he had a name for the cycles of the sun, but I can’t recall what it was right this moment. Personally, I think he was just lonely.”

   “I would think after a few thousand cycles of being alone he would be insane or crazy to some degree.”

   “I don’t think Sentinel is like that. If it were one of the People, or one of the Brachyura, I would agree with you. Sentinel’s mind doesn’t seem to work the way our minds work. My only worry is what will happen when he sees one of the brothers. He guards the ruins of the city not from the People, but from you.”

   “What do you mean he guards the city from us?”

   “He asked me how the war was going and if the Brachyura were still winning. It seems that at some point many thousand of cycles ago the reports on the war that he was getting suddenly stopped. The people abandon the city in fear of attack and because of the encroachment of the forest into the city. What people that stayed were killed by lack of food, diseases, and the wild animals that flourished for a time. The attack never came and I was the first to return after that time.”

   “What did you tell him about the war when he asked?”

   “I didn’t know what or who the Brachyura was at the time. I told him that I didn’t know but in all my travels I had not seen the whole sale slaughter as he described to me. I had to ask him what war was first. I’m hoping to tell him that the war is over and he’ll let us pass in peace.”

   “And if he doesn’t except that the war is over, then what?”

   “I’ll have to find a way to kill him somehow. Some of his weapons are still working so that killing him would not be easy. One guardian has more firepower than this whole dwelling combined and that is with more than fifty percent of his weapons offline as he would say. That I figured out meant, not working. I wondered when I heard about the red brothers if I couldn’t bring Sentinel back with me to help keep the peace or protect the dwelling or something like that. You know I can’t help but wonder if your weapons weren’t designed to be used against the guardians. They’re next to useless against many of the larger animals of the forest unless you hit them in the head.”

   “I’m beginning to see the importance of going to this city, but I wonder if we will like what we find there. Sentinel may know the true history of that time and that may not sit well with what we believe happened during that time. This could have an impact on almost every aspect of our lives. Already what you have told me doesn’t concur with history as we have recorded it. The prophets tell us that God is responsible for the destruction of the ancients and that he raised us up to replace them. Already, I can see we might find out how it was done and that might seem to take God out of the picture. That will give the less faithful a reason not to believe in God and lose what little faith they had. Still, we need to know what the ancients did so that we may avoid the same mistakes in the future. I too find myself wanting to go with you, but like Zothor that is not possible.”

   “I have no desire to leave, but a prophet of God and healer has asked me to go with him. I now find that I believe in God whereas before I was not sure that there was a God. I’m not sure what to do with that belief. Part of me is torn by doubt. The other part seems to see clearly. It maybe that this journey will clear away the rest of the fog in my mind.”

   “I shall miss you terribly when you leave,” Ishihari said with tears in her eyes. “I have come to love you as much as any of my other children. I shall miss watching you grow up. You have grown in many ways this past cycle. You have grown in ways that makes a mother proud and fills her heart with joy. I’m sure your mother would be proud, I know I am.” Tears poured from her eyes as she got up and walked around her desk.

   “I could not have found a better mother to replace the one I lost. You have helped me more than you know and you will always have a place in my heart.” A great sadness welled up inside of Tangoral and tears came to his eyes as he reached down to caress the top of Ishihari’s shell. “I’ve never really found it hard to say goodbye to anyone until I met you.” Two great claws wrapped themselves around Tangoral.

   

   Yoeith got up early. After his morning prayer he went out to welcome the morning. That he did not spend his nights in the dwelling said something of his general discomfort around the brothers. Not that these brothers of this dwelling were anything but kind and generous. It helped that many of them spoke the language of the tree people. He was amazed that they would share their tree with the people. He spent his days helping with the construction of the home inside the grand father tree. He, like many of the people, had never built in a tree such as this one, but his construction skills in the ways of the tree people was more advanced than many of the other brothers that helped with the project . His help was more valuable to Cotayoak because of both his knowledge and his ability as a translator. He often found himself explaining some complicated task to the brothers for which Cotayoak could not find the words. This morning he watched Zothor come up the tree from where he sat on the branch while waiting for the others to wake up. The dwelling clan leader stepped inside the hole in the tree for a moment. When he came back out he spotted Yoeith sitting on the branch. That he could move about almost soundlessly said something about Zothor’s skill as a hunter and tracker. It did not pass unnoticed by Yoeith. Zothor came over and settled down next to Yoeith. “You know you are welcome to spend the night in the dwelling,” he said.

   “I know, but I was born among the People. I feel more comfortable up here where I have spent most of my life,” Yoeith replied.

   “I can’t help but notice you use the language of the tree dwellers more often, like now, than you use the language of what should be your mother tongue.”

   “The language of the people is my native tongue. It is with some difficulty that I speak your language at all. I envy Tangoral’s ability to switch back and forth between languages so smoothly. In fact, most of those that speak both languages can change from one language to the other better than I can.”

   “There is a trick to it. Once you understand what the trick is learning either language becomes simple. We have adult language classes that could help you.”

   “I doubt that I have the time at present, but I’ll see if Tangoral will teach me this trick. You know it’s strange to find a healer so young with more knowledge of the healing arts than my mother, and she was a healer among the hard-shells as well. You know my tribe stopped eating hard-shells because of my mother, but I always wondered what you taste like. I don’t understand why Tangoral bothered with you at all in the first place.”

   “There was a time when I wondered the same thing, but it probably could be summed up in one word, compassion, compassion for all life. That explains why he saved my son and so many others. It’s why he couldn’t watch a young female stalker and her child drown even after seeing what her kind did to one of the green brothers’ dwellings. There is a darker side to why he came to live with us I suspect, but he changed, and we have changed. He stays because we are willing to teach him new things and he now has the resources to explore the world in ways he never dreamed possible.”

   “I can see how that would appeal to a healer like Tangoral but I think there is more to it than that. I have heard the short version of why he came here from the people, and you are right, he came here with dark motives. He came to study you to find a way to destroy you is my guess. It is what I would have done if my parents were killed as his were, but as you said he has been changed and it is a good change. I’m sure by now he has learned most of what you have that is of value. So I still wonder why he is still here, this current experiment not included.”

   “I would guess it’s his love for his adopted mother, my mate. They share a bond of some kind, you know a mother-son kind of thing, and you can’t discount this experiment in the grand scheme of things. He is a young mind that loves to experiment with things and here he has access to tools and equipment that are simply not found among the tree dwellers. He has all the help he needs when ever he needs it, which is why he could ask for brothers to go on this journey and get them.”

   “Anyone would follow Tangoral; he is a natural born leader. Over time, I suspect you would find yourself following him. Some leaders command others and get little or no response. Tangoral suggests something and anyone within hearing quickly does it. His wisdom is beyond his age. Even you listen to him, don’t you?”

   “I weigh his opinion with that of others of the leadership.”

   “That you consider him to be among the leadership says a lot, but I’d guess you rank his opinion right up there next to the old wise one. Ask yourself how many times you have been guided by his wisdom, and then ask yourself who’s really in charge here. The People seem to think he is the one in charge. Was it your idea or his to let the People build up here?”

   “It was my idea.”

   “Are you sure? Tangoral is one of the few healers I’ve seen that can control the actions of others. Think on the other night at dinner. Things were very strained; you could feel the tension in the air. Your son got up to entertain you. I have never seen anyone handle the game balls like that. It was a good show but it didn’t change the feelings that ran deep that night. Tangoral got up, entertained you, and changed the mood of everyone in the room. It was almost the same kind of show that your son put on, what changed? Tangoral is a healer on his way to becoming a legend among the People. In time, many leaders will seek out his advice. Because you think an idea was yours does not mean he did not plant it there, and then watered it over time to see what would grow.”

   Zothor thought for a moment. “No, I’m sure it was my idea. I don’t think he had planed to build anywhere except in the Great Swamp.”

   “If that is the case, then I’m sure he adjusted it to serve his needs and goals for his people.”

   “Now that I can see, but it also works well with what I want for my clan as well.”

   “This experiment that unites both our people as one; I would call it an amazing success. I would not have thought it possible that we could live together in peace, much less work together.”

   “Now why would you think that way when you are living proof that it is possible?” Zothor asked.

   “I have never thought of my self as a hard-shell,” Yoeith replied. “Even when my mother told me that I needed to go and at least see the way the hard-shells lived, I didn’t want to go. I thought they might try to kill me. My mother had to go with me in the beginning. After spending so many cycles living among the People she was just as overwhelmed by the city as I was. Huge dwellings filled with so many hard-shells all rushing about going nowhere. We had no money, and in a city without money it’s hard to survive. You can’t get a good job if you’re poor. If you can’t speak well it doesn’t help. The hard-shells would look at me strange every time I said something. I felt like a freak among people that should have been my brothers. A patriarch took us in and found work for my mother and me. She went to work at a clinic for the poor run by the Church and I cleaned the church buildings. The patriarch was kind enough but he treated me as if I had some kind of mental problem because of my speech problem. Though this afforded me the opportunity to study the words of the prophets. I learned to play the Game and that may have been the one of the few positive things I learned there.”

   “But you didn’t stay did you, why not?”

   “One day some rich brown brothers came to the clinic where my mother worked. One of them was from my mother’s dwelling. She had been cast out by her dwelling many cycles before this time. He must have recognized her. The patriarch turned us out that night not wanting to have a demirep under his roof, or so he said. He wouldn’t even give my mother or me the money he owed us for that seven-day. My mother gave me all the money she had earned before that time and returned home.”

   “What was your mother cast out for, if you don’t mind me asking?”

   “She was found to be with child without a husband, and because she would not say who my father was they cast her out.”

   “Why didn’t she just tell them who he was?” Zothor asked.

   “He died in accident and she didn’t want his name ruined,” Yoeith replied. “They took from her everything she had and cast her out with nothing but the shell on her back. I stopped at my mother’s dwelling when I returned home. I’ve heard the story of how they drove her out, not from her of course, but from her brother who was still there.”

   “What happened after she left you in the city and returned home?”

   “Somewhere I found a hole in a wall to stay in and got a job washing dishes in a dining hall. Oddly enough, it was a blue brother that owned the dining hall. He was a very likeable fellow. He wouldn’t tolerate the other employees teasing me about the way I spoke. He paid a fair wage and treated me with the respect due any brother. As religion, God, and the prophets seemed to fill my mind, I took this time to study other religions. I had many a long conversation with my boss after work on this subject. It was he who gave me my copy of the ancient text as a gift when I left his service. From there I took my time returning home stopping at the dwellings along the way. I surprised many a dwelling clan leader by offering to work to pay for my keep while I stayed at their dwelling resting from my journey.”

   “A habit you picked up from the tree dwellers. I can understand why that would surprise a dwelling clan leader. The last dwelling you stopped at was your mother’s, wasn’t it?” Zothor asked.

   “Yes, it was. I had planed to find a way to destroy it, but God had beaten me to it,” Yoeith replied. “It was a poor dwelling that had seen better times. It was very run down; many things had gone wrong. A lot of the crops had failed, and what crops they did get were of very poor quality. This was not good for an agronomy based dwelling. I can trace their problems back to when they drove my mother out. Before that time, it was a very profitable dwelling growing some of the finest fruit anywhere. When they drove my mother out they tied her claws together, hobbled her legs, and then the whole clan pelted her with sticks, stones, rotten fruit and vegetables, and other things until she was driven completely from the dwelling’s land. Is it any wonder why she counts herself among the People of the Trees?”

   “Did you tell her brother that his sister still lived?”

   “No.”

   “You should have.”

   “Maybe. What brings you up here this early in the morning anyway?” Yoeith asked.

   “I make a point to come up here every seven-day or so to see how things are going and to work for a while when my duties don’t demand my attention elsewhere. I didn’t have anything better to do this morning so I came up early,” Zothor replied.

   “You’re very light on your legs.”

   “I grew up on a dwelling not unlike this one. My father taught me how to hunt and track game on the ground and in the trees. I got to be very good at it, and I liked to climb trees in my youth.”

   “What will you do when they finish construction?”

   “Some dwelling operations may move up here. Some of the brothers and sisters may move up here as well. For the most part, I expect to get a small tribe of tree dwellers to live here. LaSanso told me that LaKayzin has employed the tree dwellers near him as herders for his shunail herds very successfully. I suspect that I will do the same and slowly expand into other areas as we learn to live together.”

   “A little like hunting; you go forward slowly with caution. If I were you I’d carve out secret passageways down to the dwelling for emergency escape routes, just in case.”

   “Just in case of what?” Zothor asked.

   “War. War is about to be poured out upon all the clans,” Yoeith replied. “It will come to the very steps leading to this dwelling,” Yoeith replied. “It will come in the name of God, but that will be a lie. Heed my words, have faith in God and all here will be saved. God knows of your faithfulness Clan Leader, and he rewards the faithful. From here the words and truth of God will pour forth and they will crush all that bar the path of God. The others are waking now.” Yoeith got up and walked off leaving Zothor to ponder his words.

   

   Tangoral stopped by the craft hall to check on the progress of the stick throwers he was having made for the rest of his tribe. Most of the hundred stick throwers he had asked for had already been made. Many of the tools he had asked for were made and stacked waiting for shipment as well. He watched as craftsmen shaved the edges of one of the round windows like the ones sent to the blue clan leader as a gift. The large thin round ones for the Prophet were also being shipped with them. The clan leader’s windows were much thicker than the Prophet’s and he would get his windows first. Tangoral’s attention was drawn to the shavings that fell on the floor. He walked over and picked up a handful of the curly flakes of dried tree sap. He crushed them and watched as they sprang back into shape in his hand. They were very soft and fluffy.

   Sokegal saw his favorite student playing with the window shavings and wondered what he was doing. Sokegal had come to recognize the intense look as Tangoral studied the shavings. It was the look he got on his face just before he invented something new that would make the dwelling even more profit. He walked over to see what Tangoral was up to. “What are all the stick throwers for?” he asked as a round about way of getting to what he really wanted to talk about.

   “A safer way for my people the hunt the really big animals that live in the Great Swamp.” Tangoral was not about to tell the craft master that this was an offensive weapon as well. “Did you ever notice how fluffy these shaving are?” he asked to change the subject.

   “Yes and no, I never really thought about them, except how to dispose of them. I’ve been saving them until I can determine the safest way to dispose of them with minimum environmental impact. My guess is that I may have to make a machine that makes shavings, am I correct?”

   “Perhaps. You’ve seen the pillows in my room for my guests to sit on?” Tangoral asked.

   “I’ve even sat on one if you recall. Very comfortable, why do you ask?” Sokegal asked in reply.

   “It takes a lot of feathers from the Floaters That Sing to the Sun to make one pillow. That is why I and only a few others have them. It takes a long time to collect enough feathers to make just one pillow, but with these shaving it might be possible to make many pillows in a single day. Then the problem may become how to make enough cloth fast enough to keep up with the production.”

   “It would help if I knew how you made cloth?”

   “Ask Shelasaw, she is better at that sort of thing. It’s made from a plant fiber though. A very involved process that takes time. Something the women of the tribes do; men hunt, the women make cloth.”

   “Something to keep me busy while you’re gone?” Sokegal asked.

   “Just a thought,” Tangoral replied. “It might be worth the trip to see Amnashta to see if his tribe would be willing to trade cloth for metal before I leave.”

   “It might be worth it until we find a better away of making cloth.”

   Grizzon rushed through the craft hall door. “There you are,” he said when he spotted Tangoral. “We’ve got six strange tree dwellers inbound heading for the dwelling at a high rate of speed. We are guessing that they are from the other tribe as they came from that direction. One of them is carrying a child.”

   “Did you tell Zothor?” Tangoral asked.

   “Not yet, he’s up top working today,” Grizzon replied.

   “Something must have happened that requires a healer. How long before they arrive?”

   “They should be here by the time we reach the top.”

   

   Yoeith stopped what he was doing and turned all four eyes toward the forest. Zothor who was working next to him stopped what he was doing as well. “What’s up?” he asked.

   “Visitors,” Yoeith said. “Something is very wrong. Five maybe six of the people coming in this direction very fast, they are very noisy, that would indicate something is wrong. The People would pass a dwelling in silence.”

   Sheylmasa came over to stand next to Yoeith. “Visitors,” he said.

   “They are probably coming to see Tangoral. Someone should go get him,” Yoeith said.

   “No need, he is on his way up already,” Sheylmasa replied. “He will be here before our guests arrive.”

   Ishihari had come up with two medical technicians, she added to the group already waiting for the six tree dwellers that came into sight. They were carrying not a child, but a young woman. Amnashta was among the people that had taken turns carrying the woman. Amnashta was somewhat concerned to see so many hard-shells, but mingled in with them were some of the People of the Trees. Tangoral and the medics rush out to greet Amnashta taking the young woman gently from the exhausted men carrying her. “What happened?” Tangoral asked taking note that both her legs and one of her arms were in splints.

   “She fell and disturbed the small floaters that sting. Her husband tried to save her and drew away most of the tiny ones, but Lillantian was still stung many times,” Amnashta replied.

   “Her husband?” Amnashta shook his head. Tangoral grimaced. He knew that meant that he was dead.

   The medics set her down on the platform and stepped clear. Yoeith looked her over noting the puffy areas all over her body. Tangoral knelt down next to her and felt for her pulse; it was very slow as was her breathing. “The small death that rides the wind?” Yoeith asked. Tangoral nodded. She would live or die on her own, death being the most likely outcome.

   “I can’t do much more than make her comfortable Amnashta,” Tangoral said. “It will help if we can cool her body temperature down to slow the poison’s ability to affect her body. I will have to take her down to the ground where it is cooler.” Even as Tangoral was speaking, Lillantian stopped breathing. Quickly Tangoral began to breathe for her even as he felt for her pulse again. There was no pulse so he would stop breathing long enough to compress her chest 30 times before breathing for her again. He alternated between breathing for her and compressing her chest. He kept it up for a long time until Yoeith stopped him.

   “You have done enough,” he said. Tangoral was crushed he had never had anyone die on him before and it was reflected in his eyes as he looked from Amnashta to Ishihari. Ishihari reached out a claw to comfort her son as tears came to her eyes. The hearts of all were touched by Tangoral’s effort to save Lillantian even though he had failed.

   Yoeith saw this and was pleased. Yoeith recognized God’s hand in all things, even in the death of a young woman. He reached out his claws and placed them on Lillantian’s head even as the others began to turn away in sorrow. “Oh Father of all creation,” he began to pray. “Thy faithful are gathered here, I ask that Thou reach forth Thy might hand and show forth Thy power to heal this young woman. I ask this that Thy faithful might believe in Thee and Thy servant. Grant me this favor that our hearts may be lifted up in praise to Thee forever more. May it ever be so. So it shall ever be.” Yoeith straightened the young woman’s hair. “Lillantian, God wants you to wake up now,” he said softly.

   Lillantian’s eyes snapped open and she took a deep breath. The puffiness around the sting marks had completely disappeared. “Hello,” she said weakly as she smiled up at Yoeith.

   “Hello,” he said in return. “Be still, you need to rest, and your broken bones need to be set.”

   No one dared to say anything. They all knew she had been dead. They took Lillantian down to the dwelling where Tangoral set her broken legs and arm. Rooms were prepared for Amnashta and his men and a gather called. Later that evening after the gather feast when the clan had heard the story they praised God in mighty prayer. Amnashta was asked later if he would move his small tribe, join with the people of Sheylmasa and help with the construction project. To this he readily agreed. Lillantian was his eldest daughter and he wished to be near her while waiting for her broken bones to heal.

   

~~~

   

   “We should strike while they are unprepared,” SoLayan said emphatically. “The longer we wait the better the chance is that the other clans will find out what we’re up to.”

   KaZanna, the red clan leader shifted his position, he liked SoLayan’s energy to his cause, but caution was needed here. “There is no need to worry,” he said. “Everything is going according to plan.”

   “Right, and I suppose that it was part of that plan for that fool LaSanso to come snooping around.”

   “LaSanso is gone far away. He will no longer be a bother for a while.”

   “How did you manage that?” SoLayan asked.

   “The green brothers had some kind of a disaster at one of their dwellings; over a hundred and eighty dead, very terrible. I conveyed my deepest sympathies to the green clan leader over this horrible loss and suggested that LaSanso was the best councilor to send with a rescue mission. I even donated food and supplies to the rescue effort. It was the least I could do for such a tragedy as this,” KaZanna replied in pretended sadness.

   “So you bribed the green clan leader into sending LaSanso, that’s ingenious.”

   “It also will serve to discredit anything LaSanso might say against us later. There is nothing remiss for him to find out any way,” KaZanna said. The red clan leader did not like his judgment questioned, but still he had to humor fools like SoLayan. “PaTouan, I haven’t heard any words of wisdom from you yet.”

   “I agree with you Clan Leader,” PaTouan replied. “We can not be sure that the whole clan will support us. It would not do to start a war without the support of our own brotherhood no matter how many seeds we may have planted in their hearts. We need a cause to rally support for our cause. We also haven’t supplied all our dwellings with heavy guns yet. We project another cycle before we are fully armed and ready to fight any kind of sustained action against the other clans. As you said, there is nothing for LaSanso to find out unless you tell him. We have been very careful to cover our tracks. The shipments of guns have been sporadic and poorly documented so that you couldn’t tell what kinds of guns were shipped in the first place. The only thing for LaSanso to find out is that a small gun business is making a very small profit selling some of the finest guns to be had anywhere. We’ll custom make a gun for anybody with the money to pay for it. Can we help it if our own brothers are our best customers?”

   “I wish it noted that we should not wait any longer than absolutely necessary,” SoLayan said.

   “So noted,” KaZanna said. He too would not wait any longer than necessary. “While LaSanso is gone we should step up shipments. We should take advantage of his absences. Increase the ammo going out with the regular shipments to the dwellings as well. We will wait until an opportunity presents itself before creating a new age of enlightenment.”

   

~~~

   

   Tangoral found that he liked the Game more than he thought he would. The Game took on a whole new aspect as a player verses a spectator. He spent a lot of his spare time playing the Game; most of the time it was a game with only one player. Cantor had taught him that this was the best way to get really good. By playing himself, he had to react twice as fast as he would in a real game, or so Cantor reasoned. Of course, he never really got the chance to play anyone very good and lately he had been winning most of the games he played. He had even played Leygal and Margeeum at the same time and won. His highest praise came from Margeeum when she told him that he would give Cantor a run for his money one day. Today would be the last day he would get to practice for a long time. “Could you use another player to practice with,” a voice called out from the gallery.

   Tangoral stopped and looked up at the gallery. Zothor stood there looking down at him. “Sure, it’s not often that one gets the chance to test one’s skills against one of the great players of the Game,” Tangoral replied. Zothor disappeared from the gallery and a moment later entered the court from the rear door.

   “That was a long time ago. I am older and slower now and don’t get to play as much as I use to,” he said. “Volley for the serve?”

   “Sure, you go first.”

   Zothor bounced the ball off the wall, the ball landing just short of the line by the width of the ball. Zothor thought to himself, I still have the touch. “Good shot,” Tangoral said. Zothor watched as Tangoral’s volley shot seemed to float through the air to land on the front edge of the line.

   “Beginner’s luck.”

   “Or a lot of hard practice paying off.” Tangoral took the ball tossed it high in the air and then gave it a good whack with one of his paddles and drove it hard down the right side of the court. Zothor return the ball easily and so began one of the toughest games that he could ever remember playing. At first, he went easy on Tangoral until he found that by doing so he gave up a lot of points to Tangoral. He slid easily back into the grove and more and more he was finding that he had to dip into his bag of tricks just to keep even with Tangoral. If he relaxed even for a moment he lost points to Tangoral. Breaks came and went as both players tried to best the other. The game had gone beyond two hundred for both players when the spectators began to trickle into the galley. That trickle became a flood when the word went out that Zothor was playing the Game. Soon the gallery was packed and the breaks were taken through the side doors as some of the brothers were kind enough to lend a claw to open and close them.

   Ishihari looked down from the gallery at her mate and her son playing one of the most grueling games she had ever witnessed her mate play. She nudged Tangalen who stood in the place of judgment. “Who’s winning and what’s the score?” she asked.

   “Tangoral seems to be ahead for now. The score at this point is 375 to 359 Tangoral’s favor but Zothor is gaining slowly. Zothor made the mistake of letting Tangoral get ahead early in the game. He’s paying for that mistake now playing catch up. Could even cost him the game,” Tangalen replied. “I have to tell you that this is one of the most exciting games it has been my pleasure to watch.”

   “Where’s Cantor?”

   “He’s down in Tangoral’s corner offering advice to his brother along with Tragal and Sokegal. Grizzon and Doesen are in Zothor’s corner. Neither player is suffering any difficulty despite the fact that this is one of the most physical games I have ever watched. I’ve had the pleasure of watching Zothor play a couple of times before he retired. This has got to be one of the toughest most challenging games he has ever played.”

   Cantor poured water over his brother at the break. He had never seen his father play the Game even though he had played with him from time to time. Every point was fought for with great effort on the part of both players. Many time parts would pass before one or the other could claim a point. Cantor was getting his first real look at what it might mean to play professionally. “You’re doing great, but if you want to win you’re going to have to play the far side and make Dad chase the ball more,” he told Tangoral.

   “That’s easy for you to say, harder to do. He resets after each shot. I’ve used all the tricks you’ve shown me so far. They just aren’t working. I can understand why he was once one of the best players of the Game. He has not lost his touch. Are you certain you want to do this for a living?” Tangoral asked.

   “More than ever,” Cantor replied. Looking across the court he could see his mother talking with his Dad.

   “You must be crazy,” Ishihari told her mate. “You haven’t played the Game in more cycles than I have legs.”

   “I can’t explain it, but when I retired a part of me died a little,” Zothor replied. “Now here I am playing the toughest most demanding game I have ever played and I have never felt as alive as I am right now. Of all the games I’ve played, this game, whether I win or lose, will have been the best game of my life because it embodies the true essence of the Game and what it is suppose to be.”

   “I never knew you felt that way. Are you sorry you gave up the Game?” Ishihari asked with a little sadness in her voice. She remembered when she asked him to give up the Game.

   “Sometimes I miss the cheering crowds, but most of all I just miss playing the Game. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing my love,” Zothor replied as he stroked his mate’s shell.

   “It’s time,” Doesen said. Zothor got up and walked back out onto the court.

   Tangoral did his best to hold his own but Zothor was slowly beating him. His lead had been cut to two points. The game had stopped being fun some time ago. Every muscle in his body ached and he was dead tired. Zothor on the other hand, or claw, looked like he could go on forever. If anything he was getting better. Nothing Cantor suggested seemed to work for long, if at all. Tangoral wondered if Cantor would turn out like his father. It was late and night had set in when Tangoral reached out and caught the ball. “I give up,” he said. They had been fighting over the four hundred and eighty something point for what seemed like a very long time to Tangoral when he put an end to the game. “If you had not given me such a great point advantage you would have won long ago.”

   “There are no winners or losers unless it can be said that we are both winners,” Zothor said. “I have never played such a game as I have played here today. You should be proud of the level of skill you have attained to in so short a time. True greatness is measured by what is in the heart, not by how many games are won and lost.”

   Once again Zothor heard the cheering crowds as he and Tangoral walk off the court. At dinner the game was recapped and embellished over and over again. The excitement of the game had sucked the spectators into it and carried them onto a higher plane of understanding. No one remembered to bet on the game. Later that evening as the high of the moment wore off Zothor began to feel the stupidity of what he had done. He found himself standing in Tangoral’s doorway. “May I come in?” he asked.

   “Yeah, come on in,” Tangoral replied. Ashorah was rubbing the sourness out of his muscles as he lay on his bed. She along with many of the People had watched the game.

   Zothor eased himself down on one of the pillows that Tangoral had for his guests. “Thank you,” he said after he was settled.

   “Thank you for what?” Tangoral asked.

   “Thank you for giving me back a part of my life I thought long dead. You may not realize this that game was the most satisfying game I have ever played. I have never played so hard in all my life. Not even the game for judgment against the red clan when I defended the honor of the Blue Brotherhood was that tough.”

   “But, I was still losing,” Tangoral said.

   “You should be proud of the level of skill you have achieved in so short of time. If you’d learn to reset after you hit the ball you probably could beat Cantor. You tend to watch where the ball goes after you hit it. Most players do the same thing. This causes a delay in their reactions that can add up over time. These are the only flaws in your style that I noted. Add to that you simply haven’t built up the stamina to play a long game yet, but that will come with time.”

   “You know that Cantor wants to turn pro next cycle?”

   “No, I didn’t know that.”

   “He expects to use his status as a player as a stepping stone to something better in life.”

   “At least he is planning ahead and that is good. Many players never think beyond the next game.”

   “He has had one of the greatest examples any child could have, but now I ask, will you take the next step with him and train him. None of his tricks worked on you, and I think he will need new tricks that will work.”

   “I don’t have a lot of time these days.”

   “How much time with your son do you think you have left before he is gone? If you want to rediscover the part of your life that you lost, what better way than to train the next great champion of the Game?”

   “You’re right of course. I shall make the time, this is my vow. How did you come to be so wise?” Zothor asked.

   “I too had a great father, not unlike you, and we grow up a little faster in the forest. As far as adoptive parents go I too could not ask for better examples to guide me on the proper path of life,” Tangoral replied

   Zothor stood up slowly. He was feeling warm and fuzzy all over. “I must go and check on the preparations for your departure tomorrow,” he said.

   “It was a great game,” Tangoral said as Zothor reached the door.

   “It truly was. Never was a greater game ever played,” Zothor replied before he left the room.

   

~~~

   

   The send off involved the whole clan as they saw Tangoral and the others off. Many more brothers were accompanying Tangoral back to his home than would actually make the journey. Margeeum was returning with Tangoral. Ishihari had decided at the last moment to accompany her son as well. Many gifts and supplies were being sent which was the reason for the added brothers. Sokegal went with his craftsmen, Mowlan and Yorye; to be sure they fully understood his instructions. He also wanted to see Tangoral’s home for himself having heard stories about how wonderful it was. It took four days and part of the fifth to reach their destination. Pogotawle was sent ahead to warn Sorgarlac of the incoming horde that was about to descend on the home.

   When they arrive the people swarmed over them helping the brothers to unload their burdens. They were taken by surprise by the sight of a stalker with Tangoral. Sorgarlac greeted Tangoral, Tragal, and the others with great joy. “Tragal my friend, it is good to see you,” he said.

   “Sounds like you’re about to put me to work even before I’ve had a chance to rest,” Tragal said.

   “True enough, one of our guns jammed at a bad time. We have not been able to fix it. Dontowla was killed as a result. We killed the long neck but not before it got Dontowla.”

   “I find it hard to believe that a long neck could get in here,” Tangoral said.

   “Dontowla had left the home and was gone for a very long time. He had done this many times so we were not too concerned. He returned the last time at a bad moment when a hungry long neck came to investigate the home. He was too close to the ground and too far away when the long neck spotted him. The gun jammed as he made a run for it.”

   “Do you know where he went?” Tangoral asked.

   “No.”

   “Sounds like you need to clean your guns. I’ll go through them with you tomorrow and we’ll show you how to clean and repair them,” Tragal said.

   “Sounds good. Tangoral, I can’t help but wonder why you brought so many hard-shells here. Do you think that was wise?” Sorgarlac asked.

   “I needed to bring a lot of stuff for our home. I wanted to bring many tools and new weapons for hunting. It would take many trips by the people to bring all the stuff I could bring in one trip. Some of the hard-shells you will need to guide back to their home. Others will be going with Tangalen, Yoeith, and me as we journey to the beginning of the world, so some of the supplies are for our journey. All the brothers I have brought with me that will be returning have been building with the People so put them to work in the morning. Many of them are skilled craftsmen. The one called Sokegal is their leader so listen well to any suggestions he may make. The one called Ishihari is my mother among the hard-shells. She is also the leader of the hard-shells wife. No harm is to come to her. So when you take them back take a lot of our people with you to make sure she gets home safely. Don’t worry about the hard-shells being here. They get lost easy in the forest, isn’t that right Tragal?”

   “You’re going to remind me of that for the rest of my life aren’t you,” Tragal said. “You’re right though, we do not do as well up here as we might on the ground.”

   “None of the ones that are returning are skilled enough to find their way back,” Tangoral said.

   “If you believe that then you underestimate the abilities of the Lady Ishihari, your mother,” Tragal answer back. “Most certainly the craftsmen we brought with us probably would get lost a few steps from here, but not so with Ishihari. She can track almost as well as Zothor. She came from a very small, very poor dwelling. They all hunted to augment their food supply. Ishihari most certainly could find her way back here. Margeeum has been here twice now and she has trained with the soldiers you taught to hunt down Kittanota. What about her?”

   “They could become lost on the way back,” Sorgarlac said in jest, but his response was not taken that way. All four of Tragal’s eyes came around to stare at him. Tangoral’s eyes locked on Sorgarlac’s. Sorgarlac knew right away that he had said the wrong thing. He could see the anger and rage build in Tangoral. He watched as Tangoral’s eyes became as cold as steel.

   “Let me make sure you understand. If anything happens to my mother, you die, your wife dies, your children die. No one will ever remember that you even lived. There won’t be enough left of you or your family to feed to a rothar,” Tangoral said coldly. He turned and walked off with Molaythea at his side.

   “It was a joke,” Sorgarlac said to Tragal by way of an apology.

   “A very bad joke,” Tragal replied coldly.

   “Do you think he meant what he said?”

   “Lady Ishihari has completely replaced the mother he lost. You could cook us all and I doubt that Tangoral would really care, but if any harm came to her he’d kill everyone here to get to you. I know he meant what he said. How do you feel about being ripped into tiny pieces by stalker? If I were you I’d wait for him to calm down and then go tell him you’re sorry.”

   “How could he place a hard-shell above his own people?”

   “You still don’t get it. He is not placing a hard-shell above his own people. He’s placing a greater value on his adopted mother above that of you and your family combined. Something happened that created a strong bond between those two that transcended the issue of race. She is his mother as surely as if she belonged to the People and he is her son as if he had been born to her. My guess is that having lost one mother that he loved very much he is taking no chances of losing the mother that replaced the one he lost. Margeeum is one of his best friends at the dwelling as well. So I’d avoid jokes that threaten his mother and his friends in the future.”

   “He’s changed,” Sorgarlac said.

   “Yes, he has. He’s gone from being an angry young tree dweller out to destroy us to a healer that understands the only thing that needs to be destroyed is our outdated ideas and notions,” Tragal said just before he turned and walked off to leave Sorgarlac to his thoughts.

   

   Later that night as Tangoral sat alone staring into the fire Sorgarlac came and sat next to him. “I’m sorry about what I said,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t know that you cared for these hard-shells that much. My remark was thoughtless and in jest.”

   “Sorgarlac, I really didn’t mean what I said either,” Tangoral replied. “I doubt that I would have killed your family, just you. I have lived with the Brachyura for more than a cycle of the sun. They are my friends, friends that would do anything I asked. The soldiers that I take with me on this journey are more for my protection than anything else. It is with some difficulty that I call them hard-shells at all. I have to think that is the only way you understand what I mean when I refer to them. To me they are my friends, my people, and my brothers. I have become like Yoeith except I have come to think of some them as my family. I have a mother and brothers and a father again. The hate and anger in my heart was replaced one rainy night by a woman whose love for a strange funny looking child broke through the walls he had set up around his heart. Ishihari has become my mother and I have become her son. There are no words to express how much I love her. When an accident nearly killed me she stayed by my side the whole time. She has been there for me whenever I needed her. It’s like the spirit of my mother lives within her. For you to say what you said threaten my mother whom I love more than life. Do you understand?”

   “No, but I am beginning to.”

   Ishihari knew something was bothering her son. He had seemed to distance himself from everyone most of the evening. She lay watching him as he sat by the fire. She heard all of what was said between Sorgarlac and her son and her heart was warmed. When Sorgarlac got up and left Ishihari got up quietly and walked up behind Tangoral. So quiet was her approach that the two great claws that wrapped themselves around him surprised Tangoral. “I love you too,” she said simply. Tears came to his eyes as he relaxed into the claws that held him.

   Sorgarlac watched from the blackness of the night and shook his head. Yoeith came up and stood next to Sorgarlac. “There is something very special between those two,” he said. “A love between a mother and son that in this case goes beyond conventional reasoning.”

   “I just don’t understand it,” Sorgarlac said. “It’s like he’d turn his back on his tribe for a hard-shell.”

   “The problem is that you see with your eyes and not with your heart. He sees the hard-shells as People now, and you still look at them as hard-shells, something not People. I must admit that there are times that I suffer from the same problem because of what the hard-shells did to my mother. However, these hard-shells are good people with big hearts. Talk to some of the People that have been working with the brothers building the home in their tree and you will find they are starting to think like Tangoral. When you take Ishihari back with the other craftsmen you should spend some time working on the project there. Eat their food, sleep in their beds, learn to play their games, and you too will find a change taking place in your heart. I think of myself as one of the People. My tribe thinks of me and my mother as one of the People. The only difference between your people and mine is that they have learned to see with their hearts and not their eyes. Learn this and you will begin to understand the love Tangoral has for his adopted mother.”

   “Still, it seems like he places the hard-shells first.”

   “There is none ...as blind as those who will not see,” Yoeith said more to himself than to Sorgarlac. “Take a good look around you. You live in the finest home ever built. All your pots and pans are metal as are all your tools. You have become the richest tribe ever known. You have guns and ammo supplied to you by the hard-shells and you live in safety never known to the People before. You have an over abundance of food all around you. There is an entire army ready to protect you and come to your aid if needed. All the blue hard-shells, not just the ones here, have taken a vow not to hunt the People. Tangoral has done all this for the People and his tribe. He has done nothing for the hard-shells except offer them his friendship. Now you find fault with him because he gave a son’s love for his mother to a hard-shell that gave him a mother’s love in return. Where is it that you keep your heart that you cannot see these things?”

   “You make me feel ashamed that I even think these things,” Sorgarlac said.

   “Good, it is not meant that you should find fault with another simply because he will not walk on the path on which you walk or think the way you would have him think. It is not the place of one man to tell another what to do or condemn him if his actions do not meet with your approval. This is the way of the People and the council given by the servants of God. As a leader among the tribes this above all should be inscribed upon your heart unless of course another’s action might bring harm upon the tribe and I see nothing but good here,” Yoeith said. “So go find where it is you put your heart Sorgarlac. I am going to go find my bed.” Yoeith turned and walked off into the night.

   

   The next day found everyone working. Most of the brothers, Margeeum and Christeaen went up to help raise the next floor. Tragal, Doesen, Candean, and the forth soldier going on the journey, Ieetan, were busy teaching some of the tree people how to clean and repair the guns. Tangoral, Sokegal, Mowlan, Yorye, Tangalen, and Ishihari spent most of the day setting up the equivalent of a craft hall on one of the upper levels of the home with the many tools they brought with them. For the rest of the day Tangoral and Ishihari set up a small dining hall and had dinner ready for the tired workers at the end of the day. This was fun, Tangoral thought as he helped Ishihari clean up after dinner. “You said goodbye to Ashorah didn’t you? I didn’t see her when we left the dwelling?” Ishihari asked.

   “How can I say goodbye when I’m not supposed to be talking to her?” Tangoral asked back.

   “You could talk a lot better if you didn’t stick your faces together like I saw you doing just before we left the dwelling,” Sokegal who had volunteered to wash the dishes said.

   “I’m not supposed to talk to her, so we weren’t talking.”

   “Well, you definitely weren’t talking. I can vouch for that,” Sokegal said laughing. “Now that I think of it, I don’t remember seeing any of the tree people in the escort. I would think they’d come to see you off.”

   “Different customs, we don’t treat every goings and comings of a person like some great event. If I go, or if I return, it’s nobody’s business but my own. The world does not stop when I leave, and it does not stop when I return. If the world will not stop what it is doing why should the People?” Tangoral asked.

   “I suppose that is one way to look at things,” Sokegal said. “You know this is a real primitive way to wash dishes. It wouldn’t take much to hook up running water of a sort.”

   “How?”

   “You could put tanks on the top level and a rain catchment device somewhere above the tanks. The rain is caught and funneled into the tanks where it can be piped down to any level. The higher you place the storage tanks the greater the pressure at the outlet. The dwelling’s water system is similar except we also pump water out of the ground and up into the four storage tanks on top of the dwelling.”

   “Could this system be used to put out fires?” Tangoral asked.

   “I suppose it could. We don’t have anything in the dwelling that could burn, so I’ve never thought about it,” Sokegal replied.

   “A home can be burned, and while a dwelling might not burn there are things inside a dwelling that can. What would you do if the craft hall caught fire? It’s filled with many things the can burn. Just because you have been lucky enough not to have a fire at the dwelling does not mean it is not possible. My own room is filled with things that would burn if they were set on fire.”

   “I’ve never really considered this problem. Living here I can see why you’d be concerned about the possibility of a fire, and I must admit that critical areas around the dwelling could benefit from having some kind of a device for putting out fires. I’ll give it some thought while you are gone.”

   “Give it a lot of thought,” Ishihari said. “Before Zothor became dwelling clan leader here, a poor section of the city, where I lived, caught fire against the tree where it was built. They had to let the section of the dwelling burn because there was no way to put the fire out. About forty died in that fire before they found a way to control the fire and keep it from spreading. It was a sad thing to see. Many brothers and sisters that had very little lost everything that they did have including some of their loved ones. I was lucky; I didn’t live next to the tree.”

   “I shall place it at the top of my list of things to invent,” Sokegal said.

   

~~~

   

   Zothor sat in his office looking out the window. He could not help but think that he should have gone with his mate. True to his promise to Tangoral, he had taken up training Cantor. Their first game was only played to two hundred points but it taught Zothor how good his son really was. The game also taught Cantor something as his father beat him soundly. He learned that he had a lot more to learn. The score was 200 to 163. Zothor knew his son could beat most of the adults in the dwelling, but Zothor was not most adults. His record of wins still stood and it had never been broken by any player since his retirement. Cantor was slow to reset after he would hit the ball and he relied on his technical ability too much which seemed to be the reason why he was slow resetting. His son also needed to keep an eye on the ball although it didn’t cause the brief delay that most players that watched the ball experienced. With a little work he could see his son becoming the All Clan Champion something he had not been able to do. It was more than a little frustrating to Zothor to remember losing the championship to the red clan only to win a judgment against that same player a cycle later. Four times he had lost the championship in extended play, and that had bothered him for a long time. Now, he found himself a chance to redeem himself in his son. He was deep in thought when Grizzon brought him a message from the blue clan leader. It read:

   Zothor:

   I have had to step up my plans for the future, and I require your wisdom and talent sooner than I had planned. I have submitted your name as councilor and the council has confirmed and sustained you by unanimous vote. All that remains is that you accept this position. While there was much murmuring about not killing tree dwellers, all our dwellings agreed if you will provide translators. The return of LaSanso was well timed and did much in the way of getting the brothers to agree to stop the killing of the tree dwellers. The Green Brotherhood has followed our lead in this thing and asked if you would provide them with translators as well.

   LaKayzin was confirmed as clan leader of his dwelling. I suspect that you had a claw in that.

   There are reports of missing red brothers that went out hunting and did not return. I fear the worst. There is still not enough information to pinpoint Kittanota’s location yet. The messenger that brought the message is to wait for your reply.

   Adreeum   

   

   P. S. – Thank you for the windows. The note about how strong they are was interesting. I shall keep your secret regarding the windows as you requested, but I couldn’t help but note that the windows that you sent the Prophet were much thinner. – A.

   This bit of news came sooner than expected. Zothor wondered how his mate would react to the news. He could retain the leadership of the dwelling if he wished although most councilors relinquished all their other responsibilities when they became councilors. This would be a good place to return to if he found that he did not wish to serve as councilor for a long term. Zothor had become content where he was, but he would serve for the good of all concerned. With all the new inventions coming out of his dwelling, from a business point of view it was just good business to remain the dwelling clan leader while serving as councilor on the council of the Blue Brotherhood.

   

~~~

   

   KaZanna had to bring his operation all most to a screeching halt with the early return of LaSanso. “Can’t we arrange an accident for LaSanso?” SoLayan asked.

   “No, just leave him alone. There is nothing for him to find out. If he wants to waste his time investigating, let him,” KaZanna replied. He would not go as far as killing another clan’s councilor. He did not need an investigation into the death of a councilor that was probing a certain red clan business.

   “What if he does find out something?”

   “What’s he going to learn? We’re shipping guns out to our dwellings, so what?” KaZanna watched as SoLayan paced back and forth in front of his desk. “Relax, the news of the renegade tree dweller pretty much give us an excuse to step up shipments to our dwellings. No one is going to be alarmed if we are sending guns and ammo out to our dwellings so they can defend themselves.”

   “What about the Blue Brotherhood having an elite group of soldiers ready to go out and deal with this tree dweller?” SoLayan asked. “What if they go out looking for this tree dweller and see things they shouldn’t? How will you explain that?”

   “First, they would have to ask permission to enter our land. We will simply not give them permission,” KaZanna replied. “I’m told that these are some of the soldiers that rescued the Green Brotherhood’s dwelling after they were attacked by stalkers. These are the only soldiers that have seen any kind of action in two thousand cycles of the sun. Adreeum is simply offering the services of a few well trained soldiers that have actually been in battle. No one else has any effective soldiers able to deal with this kind of a problem, except maybe us.”

   “What if they’re better trained than we are?”

   “All these soldier come from the same dwelling. They’re coming up here with Adreeum’s new councilor. We’ll get to see just how well trained they are.”

   “What do we do if they are better than our soldiers?” SoLayan asked again.

   “Would you relax. Everything is going according to plan,” KaZanna replied. “We can use this whole tree dweller business to our advantage. We might even be able to get the Church to side with us when the time comes. A few soldiers cannot possibly stand up against the might of the entire red clan. Even if they are better, we will still have time to train our soldiers to deal with them, so relax.”

   

~~~

   

   The time had come to let her son go off into the vast unknown of the Great Swamp. Supplies were packed and everyone that was going was as ready as they could be. Many days were spent in hunting and drying meat for the journey. Ishihari knew the food would not last even a fraction of the trip to the beginning of their world. Most of the dried food would be used for emergencies. They would have to hunt as they go and that would slow them down a bit. Still, spirits of all those going were high despite the fact that they were going where no Brachyura had ever gone before. Ishihari hugged her son once more. “I am not going to get to watch you grow up into the man that you already have become,” she said. “My heart is filled with joy and sadness at the same time.”

   “There are only so many ways that I can say that we will be fine,” Tangoral said.

   “I know that God will protect you and bring you safely home again, but it’s…,” Ishihari started to say.

   “A mother’s job to worry,” Tangoral finished for her. “It tears my heart out to leave you too, but I must do this. All the answers are out there waiting for us to come and find them. As a healer I have to go, as your son I want to stay by your side but I have the promise of God the all will be well with you and us so I am not afraid to leave you. Besides, I’m taking Molaythea with me. There is not a better warning system in the world than her. Ashorah will take care of her child while we’re gone. I have planned the best I can for any problems that might arise. So the sooner you let me go the sooner I can return to you.”

   Ishihari hugged Tangoral once more and then released him. Tangoral turned to face Margeeum; she had grown quite a bit in the cycle he had known her. She was almost as tall as his mother. “At least this time you didn’t have to talk your way out of the cooking pot,” he said.

   “It was more fun last time though. I didn’t have to work as hard,” Margeeum replied.

   “Keep Cantor out of trouble, will you?”

   “If I can. Be careful out there.”

   “Last time I went out there I went alone. This time I have more protection than I know what to do with, I’ll be fine.”

   Margeeum reached out and hugged Tangoral. “I could not have asked for a better brother,” she whispered to him.

   “Nor I a better little sister,” he whispered back. Tangoral could feel the tears on his face as he turned and faced Sokegal. The craft master had tears in all his eyes. “Remember, I expect to see a way to mass produce pillows when I return. Also, I want a water system for my home here and a fire protection system for both here and the dwelling.”

   “I’ll work on the problems,” Sokegal promised. “Everybody here has already said it and I’ll say it again. Take care of yourself, and make sure my craftsmen do a good job and follow my instructions. If I were younger and didn’t have a family to worry about, I’d go with you.”

   “Of that I have no doubt,” Tangoral said. Tangoral walked over to where Sorgarlac stood with Yoeith. “You remember everything I taught you and all that I said?” he asked.

   “Yes,” Sorgarlac replied.

   “If you need any help do not let your pride get in the way, go and ask the hard-shells for help. Yoeith are we ready to go?”

   “As ready as we’ll ever be,” Yoeith replied.

   “Then let’s go before I change my mind,” Tangoral said looking at Ishihari.

   As Tangoral walk away Yoeith turned to face Sorgarlac. “Did you ever find where you left your heart?” he asked.

   “Yes, I did,” Sorgarlac replied.

   “Good.” Yoeith turned and followed after Tangoral.

   As Ishihari watched her son leave Sorgarlac came and stood next to her. “What will happen when he finds the Great Cure?” he asked.

   “Tangoral has already found the Great Cure,” she replied. “First, he used it on himself and then he used it on us. He is using it on you and when he returns he will use it on the world.”

   “Why is he going if he already has the Great Cure? Why hasn’t he used it already to heal the world?” Sorgarlac asked.

   “He is going for love and to save the world in which he lives,” Ishihari replied. “If you refer to restoring the world back the way it was, a change like that would destroy the world in which you now live. If you look around you begin to see the Great Cure already at work in the hearts and minds of men and Brachyura alike. The Great Cure has already set about changing the world. Look how far we have come in such a short time. Our part of the world has changed so much we are all struggling to keep up. It is harder on some than it is on others. The greatest challenge we face comes from within as the Great Cure seeks to purify our hearts. It will cleanse and change the world one heart at a time.”

   “I have only talked with a few of you, and it seems like you are all a race of healers of a sort. No wonder Tangoral likes you.”

   “I’m afraid to say that is not the case. Our dwelling, our home, all who live there value the things of the spirit more than the things of the world. We are the exception, not the rule. Nowhere else in the world could what’s happening here take place. Yes, Tangoral does like us, but he’s a child at heart with a need to know everything about the world around him. He likes us because we offer him the ability and a place to learn more knowledge than he ever imagined existed. In the process he has offered us his friendship in return. Of all the things he has given us, this is the most valuable to us. I have become his mother and he has become my son. There is nothing I value more than this. I would give up everything I have to hold onto the love we share. What is wealth or anything if it costs you your happiness?”

   “Tangoral said the spirit of his mother lives within you. I can believe this now. You sound just like her.”

   “And you have trouble with our relationship, don’t you?” Ishihari asked.

   “Yes, but I have come to see the love you share and the value he places on his love for you as well. I was concerned, but it is none of my affair as it was pointed out to me several times over the last few days. If Tangoral is happy then I suppose that is all that matters,” Sorgarlac replied.

   “I think all you lack is the familiarity with us that Tangoral has. You should come and spend some time with us at our dwelling. Almost all of the brothers and sisters speak your language now. We would be honored to have you stay with us for a time,” Ishihari said.

   “Yoeith said I should spend some time there as well. I think I shall take you up on your offer,” Sorgarlac said.

   

~~~

   

   Upon her return to the dwelling Margeeum asked Zothor to be one of the translators he was sending out to the blue and green clans’ dwellings. That is how she found herself standing alone unarmed on a branch high above the ground. Well, she was not exactly alone. Behind her and surrounding a tree dweller hive was the bulk of the brothers from a nearby dwelling. The people were frightened, this she could tell, but they were also confused by the actions of the brothers. She was certain that they all thought they would die at any moment. So here she stood just out of the range of their long spears waiting for something to happen. The branch on which she stood was the main entrance to the hive and she would wait as long as long as it took.

   The day came and went without anything happening. The next morning she was still there waiting. Margeeum was tired and hungry. Some of the tree dwellers were no longer trying to hide. One even stood on the same branch that she did. Perhaps he was contemplating coming out to see her, she hoped. He was a tree dweller in his prime. She wondered about his standing in the tribe, the leader or healer perhaps. In any case she was tired of waiting as she started forward slowly. This brought a whole new flurry of activity in the hive. Several long spears came out to greet her. This was a defensive move; she had seen this before when a long neck attacked Tangoral’s home. She kept her eyes on the tree dweller that stood before her. She stopped at the end of the wall of spears. Gently she reached out and pushed the spears that barred her way aside before continuing on. Now she was well in range, the brothers could not help her now. Slowly, she kept walking down the branch until she stood before the tree dweller. They stood there looking at one another for a moment. “I’m rather hoping that you are either the leader or the healer of this tribe,” she said. Surprise was written on all the faces of the tree dwellers that were within hearing range.

   The tree dweller that stood before her recovered quickly from the shock of hearing her speak. “I am neither. My father leads the tribe and we are without a healer,” he replied.

   “My name is Margeeum and I have come to speak with your leader on behalf of my people.”

   “I am called Anabidin. Why should a hard-shell wish to talk with us?”

   “It is a long story, but the short version is we no longer wish to be enemies of the People of the Trees.”

   “Friends do not come with weapons and surround their friends.”

   “If I had come alone I would have been last night’s dinner. We only surrounded you to keep you from running away from us before we could make contact with you. Have we tried to harm anyone yet?”

   “Your words ring true, but you are wrong in thinking you would have been last night’s dinner. Tonight’s dinner would be more like it.”

   “In any case, I would not like to be anyone’s dinner, last night or tonight.”

   “Well said, how is it that you speak our language so well?”

   “To make a long story short, one of my best friends is a healer among the people. He taught me your language. Not only did he teach me, but he also taught my whole tribe. My people learned the value of having the People of the Trees as friends. Now other blue hard-shells, who are not part of our tribe, but related, also wish to be your friends, but they cannot speak your language. They have asked the leader of my tribe for help in this matter and so I was sent to translate their words. Many other translators besides me have gone out among our many tribes to ask if there cannot be peace between our people and your people.”

   “I find this hard to believe. Do all hard-shells wish to be our friends?”

   “No, only the blue and green ones.”

   “Why just them? Why don’t all the hard-shells wish to be our friends?”

   “Because so far only the leaders of the blue and green hard-shells can see the benefits of peace. They or their advisors have seen that we can work together in peace. There are things that you make that we can use and there are things that we make that you can use. It is only by becoming friends that we can trade for the things that we both need. Also there are some things that the People of the Trees can help us with from time to time. In return for your help we would give you things that you need. It is not unreasonable to think that if we needed a lot of help doing a certain thing your tribe might not need to hunt for food as long as we needed your help.”

   “Truly, this is a matter for my father and the elders to discuss.”

   “As I said I am here only to translate. The leader of the nearby tribe of blue hard-shells is out there with the others waiting to hear from me. He has many gifts for the People and is the one to whom your leader will be talking to.”

   “If he comes alone and in peace, then we will welcome him in peace and we will talk.”

   “This he is willing to do but he cannot bring all the gifts he brought for the People with him. Others must bring the gifts first. After that, their leader will stay here alone to talk with you and the elders. The moment I return those that surround the home will withdraw, but because they will fear for the life of their leader they will not go far,” Margeeum said.

   “This is agreeable,” Anabidin said.

   Margeeum went back across the branch to where the dwelling clan leader was waiting with the other brothers. “I’m surprised to see you still alive,” he said. “What did they say?”

   “They said that they would talk with you if you came alone and unarmed,” Margeeum said.

   “You’re crazy; I’m not going to do that.”

   “Then why have we even bothered to come here?”

   “Because the clan leader commanded that we try and make peace with the tree dwellers.”

   “Have you so little faith in our clan leader and your God that you will not put forth a good effort?”

   “Those are wild savage creatures. I do not intend to trust such creatures,” the dwelling clan leader said.

   “Behind what shunail did you get that dribble?” Margeeum asked. “I have a brother that is a tree dweller and I’d put him up against the best minds that you could find in your dwelling. Heck, I’d put him up against the best players you have at your dwelling. These are honorable creatures. If they say they will welcome you in peace and listen to what you have to say I’d bet my life on it, and in point of fact, I just did. How could you face those that you lead knowing that a child did what you would not?”

   Margeeum could see the anger in the dwelling clan leader rise but then he took a moment to look around at the brothers that were with him. By some of the stern looks he got, they sided with this young sister. “Ok, but if I die so do all the tree dwellers,” he said.

   “I’ve already explained that to them. We need to send the gifts and the shunails we brought with us. Then withdraw the brothers that surround the hive. Some should stay here though to remind them that we are still nearby.”

   “Do as she says. If I’m going to die I might as well get it over with.” The dwelling clan leader dropped his gun and started down the branch. Margeeum had to hurry to catch up with him. That the same prickly forest of spears that Margeeum faced earlier did not greet him was encouraging. Five shunails and three brothers carrying the pots and pans and other things that had been selected as gifts for the tree dwellers followed them. The brothers dropped their loads and left leaving their dwelling clan leader to face his fate alone.

   Anabidin came over to stand next to Margeeum. “There is so much metal,” he said. “Never have I seen so much metal.”

   “Anabidin, this is Naypan, leader of the tribe of hard-shells who live not far from here,” Margeeum said. “Clan Leader, this is Anabidin the son of the leader of the tree dwellers here. He is very impressed with your gifts.”

   “I’m hoping that I get some kind of a return on the loss of five shunails,” Naypan said.

   “Tonight they will be eating them and not us. I think that is a good return.”

   “What did you say?” Anabidin asked. Margeeum told him, and Anabidin smiled and chuckled a bit. “To my knowledge we have never eaten a guest that came in peace.”

   “I doubt that you have ever had guests as tempting as we are,” Margeeum said. Anabidin roared in laughter.

   “What did you say?” Naypan asked.

   “It was a little joke on how tasty we are,” Margeeum replied.

   “That’s not something to joke about.”

   “Don’t worry he assured me that they have never eaten a guest that came in peace.”

   “I doubt that they have ever had guests as eatable as we are.”

   “That’s what I said to make him laugh.”

   “That was laughter,” Naypan asked

   “Yeah, you get used to it,” Margeeum replied. “Anabidin, I have not eaten since yesterday. Is there anything around I could eat before dinner?”

   “Don’t they feed you?” he asked.

   “Back home the food is great, but here they could burn water. I’m certain the food here is better.”

   Anabidin smiled. “My wife was cooking the morning meal before you interrupted us. Flat bread with fruit topping, and sliced shunail.”

   “Not a shunail from one of his herds I hope,” Margeeum said.

   “No, we have no need to risk any of our hunters raiding the hard-shells for food.”

   “So where do you get your shunails then?”

   “There are two great shunails that have nests near by. That makes for lots of shunails to eat. Of course we have to share with the long necks and stalkers.”

   “What did you say?” Naypan asked.

   “I was hungry, so I got us invited for breakfast.”

   “Do we have to eat their food too?”

   “Are you fond of your mate’s cooking?” Naypan groaned and the sour look on his face told Margeeum she was not alone in her thinking. “So I’m not the only one who thinks she can’t cook. Come sample some really good food for a change.”

   Naypan was too polite to stuff himself silly. The food was pure heaven despite how simple the meal was. He was wondering if he could get a tree dweller to take over cooking for his mate. “This is the best food I have had in a long, long time. Tell Anabidin thank you for me.” Margeeum translated for him adding how bad a cook his mate was.

   Anabidin smiled with the understanding. “Tell him my wife will cook as much as he can eat. I’d feel sorry for anyone so tortured.”

   After Margeeum translated what Anabidin said it was Naypan’s turn to laugh. “Tell him this food is worth every gift I brought with me for his tribe.” He meant it too.

   Naypan toured the hive with Anabidin. With Margeeum’s help, he spoke to a few of the people curious enough to come near them. He watched the construction of a new level of the hive. It was here that Margeeum left him to go help with the construction. What are you doing?” he asked.

   “Working for my dinner,” she replied.

   “Why, aren’t we guests?”

   “Yes, we are guests and I could do nothing because we are only going to be here a short time, but the tree dwellers have taught us the true meaning of what a guest is. A true guest does not impose on his host, nor is he a burden. It’s hard for a tree dweller to sit around much less sit around and be waited on. A day maybe because he might feel a little out of place; longer than that you’d find him out helping somebody do something. Beside, I’m trying to make a good impression.” Naypan thought about this for a moment before he too joined with Margeeum to help with the construction of the new level of the hive.

   By dinner Naypan had under gone a lot of changes. Nothing he was taught about the tree dwellers was true. Dinner was a wide assortment of foods; he had Margeeum to thank for that. Never had he tasted such wonderful food. As tired as he was he felt elevated by the day he had and now he sat in the circle of men waiting to be heard. Margeeum sat next to and a little behind him. Anabidin saw this and wondered why the hard-shell did not sit within the circle. “Margeeum will you not join the circle?” he asked.

   “Anabidin, I am only here to translate, and I am a female,” she replied.

   “You know our customs very well.”

   “I should, I have a brother and many friends among the People.”

   “You may add one more. Tell Naypan he may speak now and we will listen.”

   “Clan Leader, say what it is you have come to say. Stand when you speak and don’t speak so fast that I cannot keep up.”

   Naypan stood up and looked at all the tree dwellers. “First, I’d like to thank you for your hospitality and all the wonderful food you have served us. My mate is a terrible cook, so you have no idea what a treat it is for me to eat really good food.” That got a laugh from most of the men in the circle and some of the women too. “I lead a small clan of brothers and sisters and we are but a small part of a greater whole. Even though I am a leader, there are leaders to whom I must answer. They have commanded that I end all hostilities toward you and all the other tree dwellers that I may encounter. I was not singled out; this command went out to all the brotherhood. Also, we are to befriend you if possible, such was the command of my clan leader. For this reason I have engaged one of our sisters from another dwelling to translate for me. I ask a question, can we be friends? Yesterday I would have answered “no,” but today I think it is possible. I have been told that there are many things that we can do for one another. This too I believe. There are many things that you make that we could use and there are many things that we make that you could use as well. As friends, we could trade these things with one another. We may find that as we learn to trust each other that we can work together. You helping us, and we helping you. I’m told that you do not value the same things that we value, but still, there are things that we can give you in return for your help. I would give a great many things to anyone who would come and replace my mate as cook.” That got another round of laughter. “That is only one type of help that you could give us. I am told and believe that there are many other things that you could do for us. It may also be found that there are many things we can do for you as well. There are many things that we can learn from each other if we can become friends. So I ask again, can we be friends?”

   “Are you finished?” Margeeum asked after she finished translating.

   “Yes.”

   “Then sit down.”

   Anabidin helped his father to stand. “I have heard the words of the hard-shell leader,” he began. “They are good words, and I believe that he speaks from the heart. Until today we knew very little about the hard-shells and we still know little about them, but we do know the hearts of these two hard-shells here. I have heard the ‘what’ of their story, but I have not heard the ‘why.’ The one called Margeeum speaks our language and knows our customs as if she has lived among us her whole life. My son tells me it is a long story, but I am an old man and I’m not going anywhere. I should like to hear how she came to speak our language so well. I believe that her story may answer many questions still in my mind.”

   Margeeum stood but did not cross into the circle. “More than fifteen moons ago a young healer saved the life of the son of the leader of my tribe. Our custom is to adopt anyone that saves the life of a child. This has been our custom for three thousand cycles of the sun. Never before has one of the People saved the life of a hard-shell. We have always thought of you as our enemies. Our leader was faced with the question of how to redeem his honor. There seemed to be no other way to redeem his honor except to adopt this tree dweller, as we call you. Because this healer, who is called Tangoral, disappeared back into the forest it seemed that he would not need to make good on his words. So our leader commanded that the People of the Trees were not to be hunted by anyone on our lands. This seemed good enough. One day hunters came and passed beyond our lands and destroyed the home of Tangoral killing his parents and many others. These hunters never returned from the forest.”

   “Others came looking for the hunters because they never returned to their home,” Margeeum continued. “Our leader, because he was the best tracker of our tribe, said he would lead them in their search for their missing brothers. Tangoral too had found the missing hunters about the same time as our leader did. They had all been eaten by stalkers. Tangoral for reasons of his own warned our leader that the stalkers were returning in time to save his life and the lives of the men of our tribe that went with our leader. All the others were killed because they would not heed our leader’s warning cry. So fast did our leader and his men run from certain death that they became lost in the forest. It was Tangoral that led them out of the forest and back to their home.’

   “We now owed Tangoral a great debt of honor for the many lives that he saved. Our leader adopted him into his family as our honor demands. He has saved many other lives after that including my own. I had to try and talk myself out of a cooking pot and it was Tangoral that came along and saved me and two of my friends. Because I was a child at the time my mother, whose husband had died, also adopted Tangoral into her family. It is Tangoral that taught me and some of my friends to speak your language, and over time many of my tribe learned to speak your language. Learning that we can be friends with the People of the Trees we embarked on a bold adventure which was to share the grandfather tree that we lived in with Tangoral’s people. Because the leaders of the blue and green hard-shells saw that there was much good in being friends with the People they commanded that all the blue and green hard-shells should make friends with the People of the Trees. This is why I was sent to this tribe so that I may translate for the leader of the hard-shells here. This is how Tangoral became my brother and my best friend. I could go into greater detail. Even as we speak many of my people have been sent out to act as translators for other tribes of ours.” Margeeum translated what she said for Naypan and then sat back down.

   Anabidin helped his father back up to speak. “I know of Tangoral, but he was just a child.”

   “Yes, he is a child and as a child I have played with him, but he is almost a young man now. He has become a great healer among his people as his father was before him.”

   “You have spoken of peace and this is good. If there can be peace between us then perhaps in time we can become friends, but this is a long journey and we must go slowly. My journey in this life is about done. When I am no longer my son will lead in my place. I should like to hear his thoughts on this matter.”

   Anabidin helped his father sit back down before he stepped into the circle before the men. “I too have listened to the words of the hard-shells, and they seem to be good words spoken from the heart. We cannot put aside our hate for the many murders of our people so quickly though. You speak of peace between us and this is good. My father says that we should go slowly in this matter, this is wise council. I find it hard to believe that we can be of any help to you. You are so rich that you can afford to give metal away. If I give you one thing will you give me back one thing, or will I have to give you five things to get one thing from you?”

   “Margeeum, I think I’m in trouble here. This tree dweller is nobody’s fool,” Naypan said after hearing the translation. “I have not thought this thing out this far.”

   “Anabidin, how many plates would you give for a knife made of metal?” Margeeum asked. “Surely one plate is not worth one knife made of metal.”

   “I am not talking about plates,” Anabidin replied.

   “But I am. You say the hard-shells are rich and by your standard, they are. By my standard this tribe of hard-shells is not rich at all. It may be that they would want to have plates like the ones the People make. So I ask how many plates for a knife made of metal.”

   “Ok, five plates.”

   “I was thinking more like ten plates, but perhaps we might agree on eight plates for a metal knife. Now you said that there is nothing you can do for a people so rich, but I know of a tribe of green hard-shells that has some of their people helping them with their shunail herds. Most of the time the people just watch over the herds as they eat. This is not hard work but in return their tribe will never have to worry about hunting again. All their food is provided for. This was what that tribe needed because hunting was poor in the area. You would be surprised what you can do for us, but the best thing that you can do for us is just be our friends.”

   “Perhaps there are things that we can do for you, but would you have us forgive you so quickly for the deaths of so many?” Anabidin asked.

   “No, but I would remind you that there are hard-shells that have not returned home to their families because they ended up in your cooking pots. I know, I’ve had to talk myself out of one,” Margeeum replied

   Anabidin smiled he knew he had been beaten by this hard-shell. He had no objections left. “I can see that truly you have a healer as your friend, and you know the People well, but these are your words not the words of the leader of the tribe of hard-shells that came to talk with us,” he said.

   Naypan stood back up after listening to the translation, all his eyes focused on Anabidin. “You are correct in saying that Margeeum’s words are not mine. The council of your father to go slow in this matter is indeed wise council, but you have raced ahead of me and gone places that I was not prepared to go. For me it was enough just to ask if there could be peace between us. It was enough to learn that we might become friends. I thought we might need many such meetings like this before we could forge a true friendship between our races. We need time just to learn to speak each other’s language. As we have come to visit you, you should come to visit us. There are many things that we need to learn about each other before we need to worry about how many plates we need before we will trade for a metal knife. Since we are on the subject, I would trade a metal knife for five of your plates with the flowers in them. I would need two hundred plates which in return you would get forty knifes made of metal any size you like. I would give you extra knives if the flowers in the plates were very pretty flowers.” Naypan looked around at the other tree dwellers sitting in the circle before refocusing on Anabidin. “One other thing though, when Margeeum said that the best thing you could do for us is just be our friends, she was correct. The best thing you can do for us is just be our friends and we will endeavor to be your friends as well.” Naypan sat back down as Margeeum finished translated his words.

   “You are right, I have gone far ahead of you, I see that now,” Anabidin said. “It is enough for now to ask if there can be peace between our people and yours. I too believe that there may come a time when we can call each other friends, but for now it is enough to just listen to your words and have you listen to our words. Perhaps, I shall come and visit you in your home as you have come to visit us in our home.”

   This time Anabidin’s father did not stand having grown weak from what little standing he had done. “I have heard many wise words spoken this day. The hard-shell called Naypan has asked if we can be friends. I answer, we shall see. Can there be peace between our people? I answer, if the hard-shells will no longer hunt us, then we will no longer hunt them. Hard-shell Margeeum, I too would have given ten plates for a knife made of metal. If my son wishes to trade with you, he may do so. I remember the child Tangoral. He had the eyes of an old wise one. Tell me, what is he doing now?”

   “Old Father, he has gone to where the world began to search for the Great Cure. Some of my people have gone with him to help in the search. It will be almost a full cycle of the sun before I see my brother again,” Margeeum said a little surprised that Tangoral was known this far from his home.

   “No healer has ever made that journey and returned,” Anabidin said.

   “You don’t know Tangoral. I have no doubt that he will succeed where all others have failed,” Margeeum replied.

   “Perhaps, it is late; you should stay for the night.”

   “We should go. Naypan will want to get back to his wife’s cooking.” That drew a chuckle from some of the men that sat in the circle. “His people may get worried about him and come to see if he is ok.”

   “What did you say?” Naypan asked.

   “We need to leave so they can finish talking among themselves. Also, I’m sure that the brothers are worried about us having been gone so long. It would not do to have an armed group of brothers show up in the middle of the night looking for us,” Margeeum replied.

   “Tell them thank you again for their kind hospitality. We will come to talk with them again in a few days or they can come to see us at our dwelling.”

   “Tell him it has been an interesting day for us as well, and I will come and visit him in two days time at his home,” Anabidin said after he heard the translation.

   

   “What happened?” one of the brothers asked. “You were gone for a very long time. We were beginning to worry.”

   “We got invited to dinner. It seems that they will not talk about important issues that affect their whole tribe until after dinner. I was unable to see their leader until that time. I had to spend the day with them waiting. I have learned many things this day. Everything we have been taught about these creatures is a lie. It was a good beginning, some of them will come to see us in two days time and we will continue to work towards becoming friends,” Naypan said.

   

~~~

   

   Zothor stood in the middle of a large spacious dwelling that was one of the perks of being a councilor. Ishihari was not happy about leaving her home but relented in the end when she found out that Zothor did not intend to give up being the clan leader of the dwelling. That meant that she would get to return to the dwelling from time to time. “You’d think that they would have left some furniture for you to use. They even took the soft sand, so we don’t even have a bed to sleep on,” Ishihari complained.

   “Then it is a good thing that we brought all those pillows with us,” Zothor replied.

   “Those are for guests to sit on. They’re not for us to sleep on.”

   “Well, tonight they will have to do. Tomorrow we will have to go shopping. Cantor can stay with his brother until we get this place fixed up.”

   “Stripped you clean did they,” a voice said from the door.

   “Clan Leader, please come in,” Ishihari said. She did not expect a personal visit from the clan leader on the day that they arrived.

   Adreeum stepped through the door. “I hope you don’t mind, I brought a small army of craftsmen with me,” he said. “I assume that those windows that you brought with you are to be installed and new soft sand for your bed is being brought up even as we speak. Lady Ishihari, they will be more than happy to help you unload anything that you may have brought with you. My craftsmen are in your claws; do with them as you will. I need to borrow your mate for a while. I promise to bring him back shortly.”

   “Clan Leader, you are a lifesaver. Keep him as long as you like. He hates this part of moving,” Ishihari said.

   “Come on Zothor, let’s take a walk and I’ll show you around. I assumed that you wanted a couple of those windows installed in your office. I doubt that this structure could hold all eight of the windows that you brought with you. If you show me which windows you want in your office I’ll have them installed by morning.”

   “Really, Clan Leader, you are too kind...,” Zothor began to say.

   “Not another word, nothing is too good for my councilors. Now, if you’ll come show me which windows you want in your office,” Adreeum said turning to leave. Zothor had to hurry to catch up with the clan leader. “Reports are beginning to come in regarding our attempts to make peace with the tree dwellers,” he said as they walked down to where Zothor left his carts. “No one has been hurt yet and all accounts have been very positive. This is a very good beginning. We are careful to follow the outline for contact that you gave us, and as I said, so far it seems to be working.”

   “Actually, it was Tangoral that came up with that plan,” Zothor said.

   “I thought so, but I’d rather like to think that you came up with it for political reasons.”

   “I see.”

   “The green brothers are having similar success. The story LaSanso told about LaKayzin and how the tree dwellers were so helpful to the dwelling in their time in need was what got us over the hump that blocked our path to peace. Of course, when the other clans were told about the renegade tree dweller they wonder why we were even bothering trying to make peace with the tree dwellers. The Prophet has all but branded us as heretics. The yellow clan followed his lead and has stopped speaking to us unless it is something vital. The black and brown clans have taken a wait and see what happens approach. The red clan backs the Prophet with some reservations. They have begun to ship guns and ammo out to their dwellings in case they are attacked. This is understandable since they are the ones most likely to be attacked first. I suspect that Kittanota is already in their area. They are the ones with the most hunters that turn up missing.”

   “Does the red clan leader back the Prophet openly?

   “Not to our face. I believe you know him, KaZanna.”

   The name stopped Zothor dead in his tracks. “KaZanna,” he said in disbelief.

   “So you remember him,” Adreeum said pulling Zothor along with his claw to keep him walking.

   “Oh, I remember KaZanna alright. I lost the All Clan Championship to him four times but beat him so badly in judgment that everyone wondered if I had lost the championships on purpose. I was suspended from playing the Game until the allegations could be investigated.”

   “I recall that the commission’s report absolved you of any wrong doing.”

   “That cost me the games I needed to make the playoffs that cycle.”

   “You still beat that cycle’s champion.”

   “In an exhibition game. It counted for nothing. So how did KaZanna become clan leader anyway?”

   “There are a lot of brothers that would like to know the answer to that question as well. He was very successful in business before he became a councilor. Some say he bought that position. After that, he moved up the line of succession with the deaths of senior councilors and a few clan leaders. When he became clan leader he replaced all the old clan leader’s councilors with brothers loyal to him. As a clan leader he’s has been ok. You don’t trip over his legs. He likes to keep all his options open. This, I suspect, is why he has not sided with the Prophet openly.”

   “There is a subtle way to cheat while playing the Game and KaZanna was a master at it. A slight nudge at the right time can throw off a player’s timing. You can seemingly accidentally entangle a player's legs with your claws as he crosses in front of you. There are a dozen little things you can do to upset your opponent in formal play. In judgment you can walk all over your opponent if he gets in your way. You can’t do that any other time.”

   “So that’s what happened. He cheated in order to win the championship but he couldn’t handle it when the rules changed to anything goes as long as you don’t hit the ball with the same claw twice in a row. I saw that game, you literally walked all over him. That game was to a thousand points and if I recall correctly he quit when you reached seven hundred and something and he was what two hundred and fifty points down.”

   “Something like that.”

   “You must have wanted to get even real bad that day.”

   “No, I was playing for judgment, for the honor of our clan, and in judgment you do what ever it takes to win as long as you don’t cripple your opponent so that he can’t play. What few rules there are in judgment, one of them is that the players must remain equal in their physical ability to play the Game. Break an opponent’s leg, if the game is to continue from that point your leg must be broken as well. Otherwise, you must wait for him to heal or his clan has the option to choose a new champion to continue the game.”

   “Still, you humiliated him pretty well that day. It will be interesting to see what his reaction will be to seeing you again,” Adreeum said as he came to a halt next to the cart that held the windows Zothor had brought with him. “Pick out your windows for your office and then we’ll go over and I show you your office and you can tell the craftsmen where you want your windows put.”

   

   “Well, what did the clan leader say?” Ishihari asked after Zothor returned.

   “It was just a progress report on how the peace process is going with the tree dwellers and the ripples it is causing in the political circles here,” he replied. “You’ll never believe who the red clan leader is.”

   “Who?”

   “KaZanna.”

   “You’re kidding, right?”

   “I wish I was.”

   “Do you think that he’ll be a problem for you here?”

   “I don’t know, but I suspect that we’ll find out soon enough.”

   “Let’s go out to eat tonight. I know the perfect dining hall,” Ishihari said.

   “Sure, it’ll take my mind of KaZanna,” Zothor said.

   

   Zothor and Ishihari were greeted by a waiter in the dining hall entryway. “I’m sorry we don’t have any open tables at this moment,” he said.

   Zothor spotted an open table at the back of the dining hall. “There’s an open table way in the back,” he said.

   “That table is reserved for important guests. If you will wait for a while, I’m sure a table will open up shortly.”

   “I’m a councilor of the Blue Brotherhood is that important enough for you,” Zothor said.

   “I know all the blue councilors and I’ve never seen you before,” the waiter replied.

   “I’m the owner of this dining hall is that important enough for you,” Ishihari said.

   “I know the owner sister and you aren’t him,” the waiter replied.

   “It’s a sad day when you can’t get a table in your own dining hall,” Zothor said somewhat amused. “If you go and get the owner we can straighten this out.”

   “That won’t do you any good brother; the owner himself requested that table be reserved for special guests of his.”

   “We are going to go sit down at that table,” Ishihari said. “Now you can try and stop us but if you do you might find you don’t have a job here any more for a number of reasons. First, because my mate is the newest councilor of the Blue Brotherhood, and second, because I am the owner of this dining hall…

   “And third, because she is my mother,” a voice said. “Tincal, my I present the Lady Ishihari and Councilor Zothor, my mother and father. You must forgive Tincal, Mother. I told him if anyone got that table I’d fire him.”

   “In that case you’re doing a fine job. Keep up the good work,” Ishihari said.

   “Syanor, you mean she really is the owner and he really is a councilor?” Tincal asked sheepishly.

   “That’s what I mean,” Syanor replied.

   Tincal turned a pale blue. “I’m so sorry I had no idea who you really were,” he said.

   “Tincal, don’t worry about it, we should have started out by asking for our son to begin with,” Zothor said.

   Zothor and the others were still standing in the entrance when LaSanso and his mate entered the dining hall. Tincal greeted them when they entered. “Greetings Councilor LaSanso, all our tables are full at the moment but we will try and get you a table as quickly as possible,” he said.

   “I knew I should have gotten reservations before this, how long will I have to wait?” LaSanso asked.

   “Not long at all if you know the owner and my son doesn’t mind,” Zothor said.

   LaSanso was surprised to see Zothor. “Clan Leader Zothor, what are you doing here?” he asked.

   “Eating,” Zothor replied looking at his son.

   “It’s fine with me Dad. Tincal, bring out another table and add it to our table.” Tincal raced off to do as he was told.

   “You know Syanor?” LaSanso asked still surprised to see Zothor in the city.

   “He’s my son.”

   “What are you doing here? You’re the last brother I would have expected to see here.”

   “Our clan leader asked me to come, so here we are.”

   “That makes sense,” LaSanso said as his mate nudged him in his side. “Forgive me; this is my mate, LeBrandianna. LeBrandianna this is Lady Ishihari and her mate Dwelling Clan Leader Zothor. It was his clan that rescued our dwelling from the stalkers.”

   “Our clan will be forever grateful for that,” LeBrandianna said. “LaSanso told me how horrible that was. It was a very noble thing that you did.”

   “Lady LeBrandianna, that’s what friends and neighbors are for,” Zothor said.

   “Still, we will not forget what you did,” she said.

   “Dad, our table is ready,” Syanor said.

   As they crossed the dining hall to their tables, “They’ll let anyone in here,” someone said aloud. LaSanso looked around his eyes coming to rest on SoLayan. “Not going to say anything,” SoLayan said as they drew closer to his table. “At least Syanor is putting you in the back of the room where the other patrons won’t have to smell you.”

   LaSanso had had enough of SoLayan and he started to turn around, but his mate stopped him. “He’s trying to start a fight with you so you’ll challenge him,” she said.

   “I can’t keep backing down.”

   “You can’t win and you know it. He wants you to challenge him.”

   “Lady LeBrandianna is right, ignore him,” Zothor said.

   “LaSanso, are you going to keep hiding behind your mate. Maybe she wants to take up the challenge for you,” SoLayan said. “It certainly would be more fun than playing you.” LaSanso pulled free of his mate and turned back to give SoLayan a piece of his mind but someone had already beaten him to it.

   Two claws came down hard on SoLayan’s table. “I want you to keep your mouth shut and eat and leave. Better still, you and your friends just leave. If your mother didn’t teach you better manners, I’d rather not have you in my dining hall altogether,” Ishihari said.

   “LaSanso, are you going to let the females fight your battles for you,” SoLayan said unruffled. “I could make it a foursome. I think they would find it most pleasurable.” SoLayan’s two guests were both females.

   The insult to his mate brought Zothor into the fray. “I don’t know who you are or why you want Councilor LaSanso to challenge you so bad, but if you want to challenge someone, I’m your brother,” he said.

   “LaSanso, maybe you ought to tell your friends who I am before they get into trouble,” SoLayan said.

   “Zothor, he’s SoLayan, a councilor of the Red Brotherhood, so maybe you should stay out of this,” LaSanso said.

   “This is between us councilors so run along before I file a complaint against you with your brotherhood,” SoLayan said to Zothor casually dismissing him with a wave of his claw. Ishihari moved out of the way very quickly, she could see the anger in her mate rising.

   Zothor’s claws came down on the table with enough force to shatter the table. This brought SoLayan and his two female guests to their legs. “Let me introduces myself. I am Zothor, councilor of the Blue Brotherhood and a former champion for the brotherhood. You go back to KaZanna and tell him who I am, and I’ll bet he remembers me. Now, as I recall the owner of this dining hall just asked you to leave. So do you want to leave under your own power or do you want to be carried out?”

   SoLayan was a coward at heart, so he chose the better part of valor. “This isn’t over,” he said as he turned to leave.

   “That’s why you’re here, to fill the vacancy in the Blue Brotherhood’s council,” LaSanso said. “Now why would KaZanna remember you? No, wait, you’re that Zothor. You’re the one that humiliated KaZanna in a game of judgment several cycles back.”

   “That was a long time ago,” Zothor said. “Syanor, I’m sorry about the table.”

   “Dad, don’t worry about it. It was worth it to see that arrogant… ah… councilor get what’s coming to him,” Syanor said.

   “LaSanso, do you want to tell me what that was all about?” Zothor asked after they had settled down at their tables.

   “Since my return from your dwelling SoLayan has taken every opportunity to goad me into challenging him to a game for judgment. I’m not very good at playing the Game, so up until now I was willing to let his insults slide of my shell,” LaSanso replied.

   “There is more to it than that. SoLayan must know that you are not very good or he would not try to challenge you,” Zothor said.

   “I have been investigating the activities of the red clan since KaZanna became clan leader at the unexpected death of the previous clan leader,” LaSanso said. “I have gone through the records since KaZanna became part of the red council. A lot of brothers in leadership positions have died mysteriously since he became a councilor. When he became clan leader, a short time later a small business started. That business is a small factory that makes guns. The records for that business are poorly kept in comparison to other red clan businesses. What records I have managed to see show that the business is making a small profit with most of their customers coming from their own clan.”

   “What’s wrong with that?”

   “I wish I knew. They ship about a five hundred guns a cycle, except for this cycle. They shipped that many guns during the fifteen seven-days I was gone. I didn’t start having problems with SoLayan until I started investigating this business again.”

   “What kind of guns are they shipping?”

   “I don’t know. The business’s records are unclear on this point.”

   “How long has this business been in business?”

   “About four cycles now.”

   “So they have shipped four thousand guns,” Zothor said.

   “Four thousand guns that I know of. Also a lot of ammo is shipped with their regular shipments out to their dwellings. I suspect that a number of guns are shipped as well. My guess is that they have shipped closer to five thousand guns out to their dwellings.”

   “How many dwellings do they have?” Ishihari asked.

   “Thirty-six well established dwellings, and they are seeking to establish twelve more,” LaSanso replied.

   “At that rate the business will be out of business in another couple of cycles,” Zothor said.

   “Zothor, let’s not talk about business any more,” Ishihari said. “We came here to see our son and to get away from all that.”

   “You are quite right my dear. LaSanso, stop by my office tomorrow and we will continue this discussion. Syanor, I’m sorry for bring this problem into your place of business,” Zothor said.

   “Don’t worry Dad, excitement around here only detracts from an otherwise boring day,” Syanor said. “Here comes Tincal with our food.”

   

~~~

   

   “I do the thinking around here,” KaZanna said barely able to contain his fury. “What part of leave LaSanso alone didn’t you understand?”

   “I thought…,” SoLayan started to say.

   “You don’t think! You just do what you’re told! If you can’t stay out of trouble from now on I am going to send you somewhere where you can’t cause any more problems.”

   “Who is this Zothor anyway? I bet I could beat him.”

   “I’ll take that bet and give you a thousand to one odds. You couldn’t beat Zothor even if he had half his legs and one claw tied behind his shell. Now, I have to go apologize and hope I can keep him from becoming involved because of your stupidity. You stay away from Zothor and LaSanso from now on is that that clear.”

   “But…”

   “No buts, you leave them alone! If either one of them walk into a room you’re in, I want you to leave. You don’t talk to them, you don’t say anything. You just get up and leave. If I hear that you have bothered either of them I’ll send you so far away it will take you a full cycle to get there. Now get out of my sight,” KaZanna said.

   “So who is this Zothor anyway?” PaTouan asked after SoLayan left.

   “An old enemy. I won the championship but lost a judgment against him. He has a very clear-cut definition of right and wrong. Even though he never won a championship, some say he is the greatest player that ever lived. His record for the number of wins in a cycle is unbroken. The only way a player could break his record is to go through a cycle undefeated and win the championship. I recall that he was very good in business, but the blue clan shipped him off to some poor dwelling somewhere on the other side of the known world and that was the last I heard of him until today,” KaZanna replied.

   “He must have been sent to the dwelling to set it right,” PaTouan said.

   “Now that the blue clan has brought him back, and promoted him, means that he must have done a very good job,” KaZanna said. “Now that I think about it, that’s what Zothor did. He took failing businesses and turned them around making them highly successful businesses.”

   “So the blue clan shipped him off to their poorest dwelling to see if he could do the same with a dwelling as he had done with a few businesses.”

   “Now, the new blue clan leader has brought him back as one of his councilors. This is unexpected, but it changes nothing. Shipments still go out as planned.”

   “What do we do about him?” PaTouan asked.

   “Nothing, just leave Zothor to me,” KaZanna replied.

   

~~~

   

   Two dozen carts rolled down the narrow path pulled by red brothers. None of the brothers were armed; they had no reason to be. This was a well traveled trail. Their surprise was short lived when the first shots rang out. A moment later all the brothers lay dead with great gaping wholes in the tops of their shells. Kittanota was among the first to reach the hard-shells. “Leave no trace, take everything,” he shouted. He threw off the cover from the first cart he came upon. What he found was not what he expected to find. He expected to find food, metal, and other supplies. What he found was guns and ammo. As he went through each of the carts he found that they were all filled with hard-shell weapons. This was the first large group that his small army had attacked. This was a great victory that yielded even greater rewards. These guns were not the small guns that he had; they were the big guns the blue hard-shells carried. His men were already carrying the hard-shell bodies off and unloading the carts. They would feast well tonight.

   

~~~

   

   “I heard that you had returned from exile, but I didn’t believe it,” KaZanna said standing in the doorway of Zothor’s office. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

   “Somehow, I knew I’d be seeing you,” Zothor said.

   “I heard about that shameful incident at your son’s dining hall. Rest assured that SoLayan was severely reprimanded.”

   “What does SoLayan have against LaSanso anyway?”

   “It seems that LaSanso has been investigating some business that SoLayan has a small interest in. I guess that the owners complained about LaSanso’s investigation to SoLayan. I’m afraid that he takes these things way too seriously. I’m thinking of replacing him as councilor as soon as I find someone more agreeable that the council will accept. The fool even thought he could challenge you. Lately, I have come to wonder why I pick him to be one of my councilors in the first place.”

   “Whatever his problem is he needs to get it fixed before he bites off more of his leg than he can chew. What’s this I hear about you becoming the red clan leader?”

   “Sad but true, I went into a business with an eye to getting into politics and now here I am the clan leader. Fate is a strange bedfellow. I heard the brotherhood shipped you off to some God forsaken place somewhere, I always wonder why?” KaZanna asked.

   “I guess the brotherhood wanted to see if I could do for a dwelling what I did for several businesses,” Zothor replied.

   “You must have done well. I see the blue clan leader has rewarded you for your hard work but being a councilor is not all it is made out to be.”

   “I have kept my options open. Between you and me, I was happy doing what I was doing, but the clan leader made a long journey to ask me personally to be his councilor. How could I say, “no,” but like I said, I have kept my options open. I have no desire to make this my life’s work.”

   “I have to run; I just stopped by to apologize for SoLayan’s behavior. Congratulations again on your promotion, I’m sure it’s well deserved. We’ll have to do dinner sometime and catch up on old times when I can find the time,” KaZanna said.

   “Sounds great, thanks for taking the time to stop by,” Zothor said.

   “It was the least I could do for an old friend,” KaZanna said as he turned to leave.

   Rownan passed the red clan leader on his way to see Zothor. He was a bit surprised to see the red clan leader in the dwelling. “I wonder why the red clan leader was here,” he said as he entered Zothor’s office.

   “He came to see me,” Zothor said.

   “Why?”

   “One of his councilors got out of control the other night at my son’s dining hall. He came by to apologize.”

   “You mean he came by to kiss your shell. He’s so slick; I bet mud doesn’t stick to his shell.”

   “He was a little too polite for the KaZanna I remember. I’d bet money that he is up to something.”

   “We know he’s up to something, but we don’t know what yet. He’s too nice, too friendly, and too helpful to be real.”

   “The only information I have is that he has been shipping guns out to his dwellings for the past few cycles.”

   “How many guns?”

   “Between four and five thousand guns.”

   “We need to go talk to the clan leader right now,” Rownan said.

   “Why?” Zothor asked.

   Rownan looked out the office door and down the hallway in both directions. The hallway was empty. “We sent out a scouting party about a half a cycle ago to scout out red clan dwellings,” he said when he turned back. “They came back with reports that the dwellings they spied on were very involved with the training of their soldiers even though they did their best to hide that fact from visitors.”

   “So, I do the same thing.”

   “Yes, but you don’t try to hide what you’re doing. None of our spies could get close to any of their armories. While they also stopped by other clan dwellings, only the red clan’s dwellings had tight security around certain areas of their dwellings. How many clans do you know that need to set up a gun making business? I’ve seen your weaponry. You didn’t buy any of that stuff off the shelf. The fact is most dwellings can make any of the guns they might need. Why would any clan need a gun making business?”

   “You’re right we need to go see the clan leader, but we should stop and get LaSanso first.”

   “Why?” Rownan asked.

   “Because he has been investigating KaZanna and this gun making business. He may have some pieces of the puzzle that we don’t have. If we all sit down together we may be able to put all the pieces of this puzzle together,” Zothor said.

   “We should send for LaSanso then. It may not be good to be seen with him right now. Red clan spies are everywhere watching every move the clans make,” Rownan said.

   “Well, then we should all meet at my dwelling for dinner. I’ll have some of the soldiers that I brought with me assure our privacy,” Zothor said.

   

   “I can’t believe you did this to me,” Ishihari said to her mate. “I’m not ready to have visitors over yet; much less have the clan leader come eat dinner here.”

   “You’ve got time. Have Syanor send something over,” Zothor said.

   “It would be cold by the time it got here. I can’t believe you did this to me.”

   “Hey, this is business. They’re not coming over to be impressed by your cooking. Just throw something together; you can impress them some other time. Where’s Cantor?”

   “He went to play Syanor’s oldest son Jonnor. He won’t be back for a while.”

   “Good.”

   “Start straightening things up, while I see what I can whip up. I still can’t believe you did this to me.”

   By the time the guests started to arrive the dwelling was spotless and the before dinner snacks were set out. Rownan was the first to arrive. “I didn’t see any of your soldiers,” he said.

   “Good, it best not to draw attention to ourselves,” Zothor replied.

   “Lady Ishihari, you done a wonderful job fixing this dwelling up,” Rownan said.

   “Thank you, I still have to get some more furniture though.” Ishihari said. “Zothor, what soldiers?”

   “Just a couple of brothers to insure that we are not disturbed,” he replied.

   “Lady Ishihari, what do you call this?” Rownan asked holding some cloth that was stuck over the large round windows and tied at the sides.

   “The tree dwellers call it cloth. At our dwelling the windows were something you looked out at the world through. Here it’s a lot like the world can look in. I call them shades. I close them when I want a little more privacy.”

   “May I close them?” Rownan asked.

   “Sure.” Ishihari replied. “Zothor, what’s going on?”

   “I told you, business. Our guests are not here to eat. In fact, if anyone asks, some of them weren’t here at all tonight,” Zothor replied.

   Adreeum was the next to arrive with his mate Luceantihi. “Lady Ishihari, I’m sorry to impose on you with such short notice but this seemed like the safest place for us to meet. I brought my mate to validate our cover story of having dinner with you.”

   “It’s shocking to think that we need such intrigue,” Luceantihi said.

   The final guest arrived with a blue soldier as his escort. “Clan Leader, he had several red brothers following him. I doubt that we lost them all before reaching the back of this dwelling, but we might have,” the soldier reported before he left.

   “I don’t see why I just didn’t just come in by the front door,” LaSanso said.

   “It might create problems considering tonight’s topic,” Zothor said.

   “Which is?” LaSanso asked.

   “KaZanna,” Adreeum replied.

   “I have put together some of the information that you gave me, and some of the information that Rownan gave me, and it does not paint a pretty picture,” Zothor said. “By getting us altogether I’m hoping to fill in the blanks before it’s too late.”

   “To late for what?” LaSanso asked.

   “To stop a war,” Zothor said. “Rownan told me that the red clan is secretly training its dwellings soldiers. You’ve told me that they have shipped over four thousand guns out to those dwellings. This adds up to the potential for starting a war. I believe that all KaZanna is waiting for is someone to light the fire. Kittanota, the renegade tree dweller, is the spark that could ignite that fire. Imagine what would happen if he should capture just one of these shipments in escalating attacks on the Red Brotherhood. If all the regular shipments to their dwellings have weapons in them then Kittanota could suddenly find himself well armed and well supplied by just one of these shipments. If he could take more than one of these shipments before KaZanna could be informed, KaZanna might find that he needs his army just to fight the tree dwellers. He is not going to expose his claws before he is ready. He’ll risk losing a whole dwelling to keep a secret that is already out.”

   “You’re certain of this?” Adreeum asked.

   “Absolutely, there is no other reason to have a business dedicated to making guns,” Zothor replied. “KaZanna has already shipped over four thousand guns. Kittanota will, sooner or later, attack one of these shipments. Once he learns what’s in them he will attack as many of these shipments as he can before KaZanna can start sending them with armed escorts. Kittanota will then raise an army and attack a small red clan dwelling.”

   “I cannot take this before the other clans without proof,” Adreeum said.

   “The proof may well be KaZanna’s army standing on our dwellings’ doorsteps,” LaSanso said. “KaZanna has replaced every councilor and dwelling clan leader that will not bow to his will. If you’re in a position of leadership in the red clan and you disagree with KaZanna you could end up dead or shipped off to someplace no one has ever heard of. Look up the records and you will find that a lot of brothers died in leadership positions during the time that KaZanna has been clan leader. The records also show that those that trade with the clans as their business have stopped trading with the red clan. Ask a trader why, and he’ll tell you that they just aren’t that friendly toward strangers as they should be. It’s not worth the problems they are encountering to continue trading with them. The other clans are not likely to listen to you anyway. My own clan leader won’t listen to me, so why would he listen to you? No, you’ll have to catch KaZanna in the act before any of the other clans would believe you.”

   “So you’re saying in order for us to provide proof we have to let KaZanna start a war. That’s great, that’s just great,” Rownan said.

   Adreeum sat down on one of the pillows that surrounded the dinner table. He reached out and plucked one of the before meal snacks from the tray in the middle of the table. “This thing that I’m sitting on, what is it?” he asked.

   “It’s called a pillow, a tree dweller invention,” Ishihari replied.

   “Luceantihi, you have to try one of these. There very soft to sit on, like sitting on soft sand.” The others follow his example seating themselves around the table. “I need more proof,” Adreeum said after they were all seated. While I agree with Zothor’s interpretation of the facts we now have, I still need more proof. There are many ways to look at the facts we now have. KaZanna could say that he is just replacing the out dated weapons of his dwellings with more modern ones a little at a time. What clan leader would fault him for doing so?”

   “What more information do we need?” Rownan asked.

   “We need to know what kind of guns he is shipping. If the guns are a mix, it could well be he is just replacing the weapons of his dwellings, but if they are all heavy guns then it may be as Zothor said. We need to take a look at one of his dwellings a good distance from here to see what kind of training his soldiers are doing. We need to do this without being discovered,” Adreeum said.

   “That would be hard to do. All his dwellings have some kind of watch to detect unwanted guests. Our own spies went disguised as traders complete with goods and all that stuff. They came back with sketchy information as it was. How are we going to get close enough to see what’s going on without being detected?” Rownan asked.

   “Zothor,” Adreeum said indicating that he should reply to Rownan’s question.

   “It can be done,” Zothor said.

   “How?” Rownan asked.

   “I brought with me a small force of specially trained soldiers to hunt down Kittanota and get the green brothers’ guns back,” Zothor replied. “They’ve been trained to track though the trees high above the ground and approach by stealth Kittanota and his army and destroy it if necessary in order to secure any weapons he might have. They have been trained by my adopted son to do just that. KaZanna has trained his soldiers to fight Brachyura. If we come in high through the trees we should be undetected by any of his watches. I’ve had to move my watch stations higher up to detect the tree dwellers that come to visit unannounced and sometimes they still get by us. I doubt that KaZanna is better prepared to deal with this kind of a problem than I am. We could scout one of his shipments in the same manner. We could follow it by day and get a look at it at night.”

   “Ok, say he is shipping heavy guns and we find that he is training soldiers. We just gave him the excuse to do so. All he’d have to say is that he is preparing his dwellings just in case Kittanota attacks one of them, what then?” LaSanso asked.

   “Then we play his game,” Zothor replied.

   “What do you mean?” Adreeum asked.

   “We do what he wants us to,” Zothor replied. “LaSanso, you stop your investigation of KaZanna. We give KaZanna information that tells him we are as weak as he thinks we are. We make him think that he doesn’t need to rush things. I’m certain Kittanota will become a problem for him at some point, but if he thinks we are falling in line, he may tolerate Kittanota’s raids for a while. We can even let his spies see our specially trained force for hunting down the renegade tree dweller in training, and we show him nothing special. Let him see a finely trained group fighting from the ground up with standard formations and bad camouflage. We make him over confident and when he makes his move we will be ready to make ours.”

   “And what move is that?” Rownan asked.

   “We play his game,” Ishihari replied setting the dinner on the table. “We train our brotherhood as he is training his, only we train ours better. The difference will be that we will make our own guns instead of setting up a business to make them. This was his mistake and it has cost him the element of surprise.”

   “My mate is correct,” Zothor said. “If any of our dwellings ask why we are doing what we are doing. We tell them it is to prepare them in case Kittanota attacks one of our dwellings. We tell them that he is better armed than we first thought. I will write up a training outline for them and we’ll follow that up with special training later if we have the time. As of right now our game should be to stall for time. We are behind in points, but we’re not so far behind that we can’t catch up.”

   “Zothor what about our new armory layout, would that help here?” Ishihari asked as she sat down next to her mate.

   “Yes, I believe it would,” he replied.

   

~~~

   

   “Hey, I’ve got this court reserved,” Cantor yelled from the gallery at the brown brother practicing on the court below.

   “Tough luck kid, I need to practice,” the player yelled back.

   “I can see that you need the practice but that doesn’t give you the right to take our court.”

   “Cantor, we can come back another time,” Jonnor said.

   “Hey, we’re going to play,” Cantor said. “Hey you, are you going to give up the court or what?”

   “Adults come before kids, kid,” the player replied.

   “My dad made the reservations.”

   “Then go whine to him then, but I still won’t give up the court. Hey kid, where did that other kid go?”

   “He on his way down,” Jonnor said.

   “On his way down to do what?”

   “To teach you some manners,” Cantor said as he stepped out onto the court.

   “Do you even know who I am kid?”

   “No, I don’t, but why would I care?”

   “I’m Bittanic.” Jonnor gasped when he heard the name.

   “That’s supposed to mean something to me. I tell you what; if you can beat me in a quick game you can have the court, say fifty points.”

   “I already have the court.”

   “If you think you’re so good, what do you have to worry about?”

   “This is going to be a real quick game. Do you want to volley for the serve?” Bittanic asked.

   “No, you keep it, I’ll get it back in a moment any way,” Cantor replied.

   “Whatever you say kid.” Bittanic served the ball down the left side of the court. Cantor’s return sent the ball down the same side just out of reach from Bittanic. “Lucky shot kid,” he said. Cantor served the ball hard and fast down the right side. It was a stretch but Bittanic hit the ball back to the left side. Even as he moved to reset in the center of the court the ball fired past him on the right side again. Cantor used a playing serve to keep the ball in motion. The ball seemed to dance all around Bittanic; every time he would hit the ball the return caught him out of position. Cantor kept the ball in play not letting Bittanic get his balance or give him time to reset. By the fifth point Bittanic knew he had his claws full. When he slammed into the wall trying to get the serve back and keep the game from going above thirty he knew he was in trouble. At fifty and scoreless he was gasping for air and ready to give up. Jonnor could not believe his eyes as he watched from the gallery.

   “That’s the game,” Cantor said as he plucked the ball from the air.

   “Who are you?” Bittanic asked between breaths.

   “I’m Cantor.”

   “Well Cantor, the court is all yours.”

   “Jonnor, we can play now. Brother Bittanic, I think you should know my dad is better than I am.”

   “Who is your father?”

   “Councilor Zothor.”

   “The Zothor, champion for the Blue Brotherhood a few cycles back?” Bittanic asked.

   “It was more than a few cycles ago, and yes he’s that Zothor,” Cantor replied. “Brother Bittanic, next time just ask, I can always use the practice.”

   “Zothor’s kid I can’t believe it,” Bittanic mumbled to himself as he walked off the court.

   “Do you know who that was?” Jonnor asked once he was on the court.

   “No, why, should I know him,” Cantor replied.

   “That was Bittanic, he was last cycle’s brown champion,” Jonnor said.

   “If he plans to win this cycle he needs a lot more practice. Here you serve,” Cantor said as he tossed Jonnor the ball.

   

~~~

   

   KaZanna was more than a little disturbed by the news. Four shipments had disappeared and now SoLayan was telling him that a fifth one was missing as well. “How can a shipment just disappear without a trace?” he asked.

   “Maybe LaSanso had something to do with it,” SoLayan replied.

   “He’s given up his snooping as I knew he would. By all reports he has stopped bothering us and now spends his time directing the project of making peace with the tree dwellers for the Green Brotherhood,” KaZanna said

   “What about your friend Zothor?” SoLayan asked. “It’s his soldiers that the blue clan leader has promised to send after the renegade tree dweller.”

   “His soldiers are well trained but they aren’t any better than our own soldiers,” PaTouan said. “They spend a lot of time practicing climbing trees to give chase to tree dwellers. Their guns are mostly the long light ones. Good for shooting tree dwellers high in the trees.”

   “What about the rumors that the Blue Brotherhood is training its dwelling soldiers?” SoLayan asked.

   “That’s not a rumor, it’s a fact,” KaZanna said. “The blue clan leader has taken the precaution of training his dwelling soldiers in case this renegade tree dweller may attack one of their dwellings. He has advised the other clans to do the same. A wise precaution on his part, but without any real guns that’s not likely to be a problem.”

   “If none of the clans took our shipments, where are they?” SoLayan asked.

   “Perhaps we should consider the possibility that this renegade tree dweller may have them,” PaTouan said.

   “What! Not a chance,” SoLayan said.

   “What makes you think that?” KaZanna asked.

   “Up until now we have assumed that this tree dweller is stupid,” PaTouan replied. “With the blue and green brotherhoods making contact with the tree dwellers we are beginning to learn a lot about the tree dwellers that we never knew. By all reports tree dwellers are not the stupid savage creatures that we think they are. They are a race as intelligent as we are. We know that this renegade tree dweller is in our area. If he is going to wage war on us then he’s going to need guns. We know that the blue clan’s soldiers couldn’t make our shipments vanish without a trace, but the tree dwellers could. I’d put money on this renegade tree dweller having our guns.”

   “If this tree dweller has our guns, what do we do about it?” SoLayan asked.

   “Nothing, we are too close to the culmination of our plans to draw attention to ourselves. We cannot afford to have blue soldiers snooping about. When the time comes they can chase this tree dweller until hell freezes over for all I care. In fact, that’s a good way to get them out of the way when the time comes, but until then we send an armed escort with all our shipments,” KaZanna said.

   “What if this tree dweller attacks one of our dwellings?” SoLayan asked.

   “Then we’ll find out just how well we’ve trained our soldiers won’t we,” KaZanna replied.

   

~~~

   

   Bantan and Frothay had been trailing the red clan shipment from the city for two and a half seven-days. Already they had passed a red clan dwelling. The watch stations were set near the trailheads to the dwelling, but there were no other watches set along the boarders of the dwelling’s land as they should have done. They had watched some of the dwelling brothers practice raiding a dwelling on their own dwelling and others practicing simple ground maneuvers for fighting in open areas. The shipment had stopped at that dwelling for the night before continuing on. Bantan and Frothay were waiting for the red brothers that made up the armed escort to get careless. Now all their patience would pay off. The red brothers had camped between two trees with their camp next to one tree and some of their carts next to the other tree.

   “Tell me again what is supposed to be in those carts,” Bantan said.

   “Seeds for a dwelling another couple seven-days from here,” Frothay replied.

   “You want to bet that there aren’t any seeds in those carts?” Bantan asked.

   “No, I expect that we’ll find them full of heavy guns. Well, let’s do it.” The climb down went quickly and before long they stood next to one of the carts. “Bantan, keep an eye out,” Frothay whispered. Quietly, but quickly Frothay undid the straps that held the cover on the cart. Flipping back the cover, he looked inside the cart. “Jackpot,” he said softly. He reached in and pulled out a single gun from one of the boxes before replacing the cover.

   “Hurry up, someone is coming,” Bantan whispered. Frothay finished tying the strap when he heard Bantan’s warning, “Take cover.” Both of them backed against the tree and quit moving trusting that their camouflage was perfect. A red brother walked around the end cart and passed by Frothay and Bantan so close that he could have reached out and touched them. After the brother was gone they raced back up the tree quietly. It was here that Frothay examined his prize more closely.

   “It’s a heavy gun all right,” he said. “The damn fools are going to start a war.”

   “Are you sure we don’t want to go back down and check another cart on the off chance that we picked the only cart that had guns in it? The other carts could have seeds in them.”

   “All the boxes in that cart had guns in them, but you can go down if you want. I think the only seeds you’ll find are the seeds of war.”

   “Frothay, someone is coming down the branch.” Frothay and Bantan quickly moved to either side of the path along the branch.

   Slowly a tree dweller crept along the branch. So intent on the goings on below him that he failed to see the danger ahead of him and then it was too late. The claw that hit him knocked him senseless and by the time he recovered he was tied, gagged, and was being carried off.

   “If you’re a good tree dweller we’ll apologize later and send you on your way with many gifts,” Bantan said in the tree dweller’s own language.

   “He’s got two metal knives Bantan.”

   “However, if you’re one of Kittanota’s men you’re in real trouble.” The tree dweller started to struggle when he heard Kittanota’s name.

   “Two prizes in one night, Zothor will be pleased,” Frothay said.

   

~~~

   

   Zothor sat in the room waiting for Adreeum and Rownan to show up. On a table before him sat the gun Frothay had taken from one of the carts in a shipment bound for a red clan dwelling. Stuck to the wall was the tree dweller they had brought with them as well. Frothay watched his prisoner from the corner of the room. Bantan had gone off to bed and would return at midday to take his turn guarding the prisoner. Aside from being stuck to the wall the tree dweller had not yet been harmed. If anything he had been treated very well since his capture. On the table with the gun were two metal knives and a few other bits of metal that the tree dweller was wearing. Adreeum entered the room followed by Rownan. “Has he said anything yet?” Adreeum asked. He glanced at the new heavy gun sitting on the table and knew what that meant.

   “I haven’t asked him anything yet,” Zothor replied. “I’ve been waiting for you. Frothay will translate for you.”

   “Then get on with it,” Adreeum said.

   “There are answers to many questions which we want to know,” Zothor began. “If you answer truthfully and tell us everything we wish to know we will let you live and send you home. If you do not answer us, we will make you answer us. I would rather not have to hurt you. It would be best to answer my questions the first time I ask them, do you understand.” The tree dweller nodded his head, yes. “What is your name?”

   “Lotreycal.”

   “Lotreycal are you one of Kittanota’s people, or are you from another tribe that has joined with Kittanota to fight the hard-shells?”

   “I am not one of Kittanota’s people but I have joined with him to fight against you.”

   “Where is Kittanota in relation to where we found you?”

   “I will not tell you that, even if you kill me. Kittanota is a great leader; we have had many great victories and killed many of you hard-shells.”

   “I have no doubt that you have killed a few of us, but Kittanota is not a great leader,” Zothor said. “He took some things from us and when we came to get them back he ran away from us taking his men with him. He left behind the women of his tribe and his wife to face our wrath. When we found the women of his tribe they had no food because hunting was very poor in the area where his tribe was located. We had compassion on the women and took them to our home and fed them. They have become our friends and his wife who is the tribe’s healer has vowed to kill Kittanota if she should ever see him again. This is the great leader you follow.”

   “I don’t believe you, Kittanota is a great leader,” Lotreycal said. “We have killed many of you and taken many of your guns. We will not be chased from our homes any more, nor will we let you kill our women and children as you killed Kittanota’s women and children.”

   “How many guns have you taken? One or two guns from a few hunters are not great victories.”

   “We do not need the guns from a few hunters. We have hundreds and hundreds of guns. We have taken in one raid more guns than I can count. Soon all the tribes will join us and we will drive you from your lands as you have driven us from ours.”

   “I know that you stretch the truth Lotreycal. You have only raided a few small groups of hard-shells that were bringing supplies to other hard-shell homes. You may have taken many guns, but I doubt that Kittanota has more than a few hundred guns. These are guns that are not meant to be used by the People. You cannot carry them into battle, and if we chase you, you must stay and fight or leave the guns behind and run away. I also know that you cannot get all the other tribes to join you. Everyday a new tribe becomes our friends. Most of the hard-shells no longer hunt the People. Only the red hard-shells are still true enemies to the People of the Trees. One day we will find Kittanota and take back the things that he has taken from us. We will do this peacefully if we can or we will do it with much bloodshed, but we will reclaim those things that are ours. How many follow Kittanota?”

   “I will not answer your questions any more. I will not tell you these things that you wish to know.”

   “What harm is there in telling me how many follow Kittanota?” Zothor asked.

   “We are small in numbers and if I tell you how many follow Kittanota you will know how many hard-shells you will need to fight us,” Lotreycal replied.

   “What do the healers from the tribes who have had men join Kittanota say?”

   “They said that Kittanota would be killed by the hard-shells and that he would anger the hard-shells and they would come and kill us. None of that has happened, and he kills more of you every day. Every day more join us to fight against you.”

   “You make it sound like the men that fight with Kittanota number more than any tribe in the area.”

   “We are not as many as the people of the tribes, but when they see how great a leader Kittanota is more will join us.”

   “Then you have more guns than you have men to use them.”

   “This is true, but more join us everyday soon we will have enough men to use all our guns. Then we will kill all of you.”

   “Anything else that we need to know?” Zothor asked Adreeum.

   “I’d like a little more details about the shipments they have intercepted from the red clan,” Adreeum replied.

   “Lotreycal, the raids that you got your guns on, was there anything else with the guns?” Zothor asked.

   “There were lots of guns and things that make your guns work. Some food, some metal things, and some other stuff that was of no use,” Lotreycal replied.

   “I’d like to thank you for answering all our questions,” Zothor said.

   “I didn’t answer any of your questions.”

   “Oh, but you did. I know that you have taken between three hundred to five hundred guns and that you have more ammo than you know what to do with. I know that about a hundred and fifty men follow Kittanota. I know that Kittanota cannot be far from where we found you. A few days travel at the most. I know that so far you have not raided any of the hard-shells that were armed yet. Yes, you have told us quite a bit. Now, I am going to tell you something and show you some things before I let you go. First, the guns that you have are for the red hard-shells, for the army that they plan to use to kill all the People of the Trees. Every shipment that you do not raid means that the red hard-shells got the guns and ammo they needed to rid their lands of all the People. When they have enough guns they will destroy you all, Kittanota included. Next you cannot kill us all and I’ll show you why. Frothay release him.” Frothay got up walked over and began to un-stick Lotreycal from the wall.

   “You’re just going to let him go?” Adreeum asked.

   “After I show him the city and feed him, yes, I am,” Zothor replied. “Then I will have him followed to pinpoint Kittanota’s exact location. We will then use Kittanota against KaZanna. I have twenty soldiers to use against an army of a hundred and fifty or more. Let’s see if we can reduce the odds a little while sowing a little dissention in the ranks. I want Kittanota to become a bigger pain in KaZanna’s side.”

   “So you give Kittanota a reason to stop all the shipments he can instead of just the ones he happens to catch,” Rownan said.

   “By being kind to Lotreycal and telling him what I want him to hear and showing him what I want him to see I introduce an unstable element in Kittanota’s rank and file. Lotreycal will go back and start asking questions having learned that we are not all the big bad hard-shells that Kittanota has made us out to be. I want him to go back wondering if Kittanota is telling the truth, or if all he has been saying is a lie,” Zothor said.

   “So we are going to do to Kittanota what we are doing to KaZanna,” Adreeum said.

   “We are going to start the war a little early by using Kittanota and his army against KaZanna. Kittanota has not yet fought a real battle. When he does I think that the tree dwellers will see what war is really about and all go home leaving Kittanota alone.”

   “That’s when you’ll move in and take him out,” Rownan said.

   “Exactly.”

   

   Lotreycal stared out the window of Zothor’s dwelling. The city stretched out before him. All the hard-shell homes here were three or four times taller than any of the hard-shell homes he ever saw. Brachyura cities were initially built around twelve trees, but were expanded over time. Each dwelling completely surrounded a tree against which it was built and merged with the dwellings that were built against other trees nearby. The city Lotreycal found himself in encompassed thirty-six such trees. “It’s so big,” he said after a while. One of the four guards that kept him covered moved so Zothor could come over to stand next to him.

   “Lotreycal, there are twenty-four other cities just like this one,” Zothor said. Of course, he left out the fact that most of them were much smaller than this city. This city was the seat of power for all six clans. “Do you still think you can kill us all?” Lotreycal did not answer. He just stared out the window. “Dinner will be ready soon.” Zothor turned and walked away to leave Lotreycal to his thoughts.

   “Do you think it is wise to let him stay here?” Ishihari asked.

   “I want him to feel as welcome as possible before we release him tomorrow,” Zothor replied.

   “I don’t know how welcome I’d feel with four guards around me,” Ishihari said.

   “Just a reminder that he has not earned our trust.”

   “Hello, may I come in?” asked LaSanso from the doorway.

   “Certainly,” Zothor said.

   “I have someone with me that has come a long way to see you,” LaSanso said.

   “Any friend of yours is a friend of ours,” Zothor said.

   LaSanso entered the dwelling followed by Saralashaw. Surprise was written all over Zothor. “Saralashaw, I am very surprised to see you. This is most unexpected, but it couldn’t be better timed,” he said.

   Lotreycal was surprised to see another one of the People here among the hard-shells. “Did they capture you too?” he asked.

   “No,” Saralashaw answered. “He’s your prisoner?” she asked Zothor.

   “Yes. He is a follower of Kittanota’s that we were able to capture.”

   “Did he tell you where Kittanota is?”

   “No, but we can guess the general area.”

   “If you will give me some time with him he will tell you everything that he knows or he will die screaming.”

   Lotreycal was shocked by what Saralashaw said. “Why would you do that for these hard-shells?” he asked.

   “Lotreycal, let me introduce you to Kittanota’s wife, the healer Saralashaw,” Zothor said.

   “You lie,” Lotreycal said. “Kittanota’s wife is dead with the other women of his tribe, killed by hard-shells.”

   “When I catch him he will wish I had died,” Saralashaw said with a growl. “He left us to starve taking all the men with him to go fight the hard-shells. We do not need to fight the hard-shells, and it was the hard-shells that came to our rescue. Now, we live and work with them. One of the men came back recently; the women of our tribe cooked him slowly until he told us everything the hard-shells wanted to know. He was gone so long that his wife found another husband from a nearby tribe that the green hard-shells made friends with. I know where Kittanota is and I’ve come to make sure that he can never use the knowledge he took from me again. So Clan Leader, if you will give me a few moments with Lotreycal here. He will tell us exactly where Kittanota is.”

   “I sorry daughter, I can’t do that. I need Kittanota to keep doing what he is doing for the moment.”

   Saralashaw was surprised by Zothor’s words. “Do you have any idea how many guns he has now, and how many followers he has gained?” she asked.

   “I place the number of guns around four maybe five hundred, and the number of followers close to a hundred and fifty,” Zothor replied.

   “The number of guns is closer to seven hundred and he has maybe five hundred followers he can call upon. With maybe a hundred or more that stay at the new home he has established. Every day you wait to kill him will cost lives. He has two healers that have joined him, but both of them together don’t have the knowledge that I have, so they don’t count for much beyond a morale advantage.”

   “That doesn’t change the fact that I need him where he is, doing what he is doing. Kittanota has yet to fight a real battle against real soldiers. I find myself trying to deal with forces far more dangerous to the brotherhood and the People than Kittanota will ever be. The red clan has made and shipped out to its dwellings ten times the number of guns Kittanota has. It is only a matter of time before the red clan leader declares war on the brotherhood and the People of the Trees. We are not prepared for something like this, so we’re stalling for time using whatever weapons are available to us. Kittanota is a well placed weapon we are using to stall for time in order to prepare to deal with the red clan leader. What do you think that the People will do when they get a real taste of what war is all about?”

   “I don’t know. Are you’re willing to let people die when you could stop Kittanota now?”

   “No, I’m not, but I am forced to choose between a few that might die now over thousands that might die later. Saralashaw, what would you have me do, kill one person now and risk the thousands that might die later because of that one death?” Zothor asked. “I am playing the game of my life with an old enemy and the stakes are the highest that I have ever played for in my life.”

   Saralashaw did not know what to say. She tried to place herself in Zothor’s position. Could she sacrifice one or two lives in order to save a whole tribe? Would she try to save everyone at the risk of losing all? “I don’t know what I would do in your place,” she replied. “By our laws and customs I cannot let Kittanota live. The blood of the dead, your dead, demands justice. You would have me ignore their cries.”

   “The blood of our dead cries out to God for justice, not you. God will punish Kittanota in his own time and in a manner of his own choosing. It may be by your hand, or ours, or some other punishment may wait for him, but justice will claim Kittanota in the end, of that I have no doubt,” Ishihari said.

   “I cannot deny my roll in the deaths of so many. My spirit cannot rest until Kittanota is dead,” Saralashaw said.

   “Put all your cares and worries in the hands of God and be comforted,” Ishihari said. “Would you throw away your life to try and take the life of another? Would not justice be better served if you did good things to help those that you think you have wronged? Killing Kittanota will not bring back the dead, nor will it heal your heart. His blood will be on your hands. You cannot make up for one wrong with another wrong. You only compound the problem.”

   “I wish I had your faith. You make it sound so easy.”

   “It is easy, just trust in God to do what he says he can do.”

   Saralashaw walked over to stand in front of Lotreycal. With blinding speed she hit him in the chest and watched him fold up and fall to the floor gasping for air. “You tell Kittanota for me that one day he and I will meet again and I will regain the knowledge he took.” Everyone one was shocked and surprised by her actions. It happened so fast that no one could have stopped her. “Don’t worry, he’ll live,” she told Zothor.

   

   Saralashaw stood looking out the window lost in her own thoughts. The size of this hard-shell city was difficult for her to take in as a whole. The hard-shell home here seemed to go on forever. Ishihari came and stood next to her. “Those look like such deep thoughts. If you don’t mind sharing them you’ll find that I am a good listener,” Ishihari said after a while.

   “I promised your husband that I would not go after Kittanota and still I find two escorts, two armed escorts following me wherever I go, not that I’ve really gone anywhere. It’s like he doesn’t trust me,” Saralashaw said.

   “Zothor trusts you my dear. He just doesn’t trust many of those in the other brotherhoods. Your escorts are there to insure your safety while you are here.”

   “I never thought of it that way.”

   “May I ask a question?”

   “Sure.”

   “How is it that a bright intelligent girl such as yourself ended up married to someone like Kittanota anyway?” Ishihari asked.

   “Stupidity,” Saralashaw replied. “I was blinded by a few beautiful moments that didn’t last. I was so enchanted by the here and now I didn’t look at what may lay ahead. When the fire died, I stayed with him out of duty hoping to recapture the magic of past moments long gone by. I didn’t see that he was just using me as a step to gain the leadership of our tribe. When I did realize this it was too late, the blood of the green hard-shells had already dried on the floors of their home. There is no place that is completely devoid of bloodstains on the many floors of their home. I know, I looked. It won’t wash out, I tried. It can’t be covered over, that was tried too. The blood just leaches back up before the sand can dry. Every day I wake up and see those floors and I can’t help but think it was my fault that all those hard-shells died.” Tears started to run down Saralashaw’s face.

   Ishihari felt her sadness and was touched by her sorrow blaming herself for something she did not do. “Saralashaw, it’s not your fault. They disobeyed God’s law long enough to call down the justice system from Heaven. Judgment was rendered and a punishment was set in motion. Justice and God are both eternal and because of that the punishment is an eternal action and once set in motion it must run its course to the very end. For every law given by God there is a punishment and a reward affixed to it. Obey the law and you are rewarded; disobey the law and you are punished. You may think that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, but it teaches the rest of us what we risk if we disobey God.”

   “Sounds like a cruel God.”

   “Not really, we are free to choose between life and death, happiness or sadness, doing good or doing evil, but one day we must stand before God and account for our actions based on those choices. If there is justice in the universe then we must be called to answer for every deed, every thought, and every word that proceeded forth from us. This is the justice of God. Because God is eternal, whatever justice system he uses must also be eternal. If justice is eternal then the laws God has given us must, by the very nature of God and justice, have an eternal quality about them as well. So laws are given and punishments and rewards are affixed to them and no law can be given that does not have both a punishment and a reward attached to it. If there is a right then there must be a wrong. This is the nature of the universe, everything has its opposite in the universe or it cannot exist. If there is a punishment then there must also be some kind of reward. If this was not so then the law itself could not exist in the universe and justice would not acknowledge it because it must enact a punishment or a reward. Without a reward there can be no punishment and vice-a-verse-a. The green brothers chose to disobey a law given by God. All laws given by God must have an eternal nature that requires an eternal justice system to enact the affixed punishment or reward. When you disobey God long enough you risk passing a set limit beyond which it becomes too late to repent because justice has already set an eternal action in motion. Once an eternal action is set in motion it cannot be stopped, and it must run its course to the very end however long or short a time that may be. You may see this as cruel, but God in his mercy spared the lives of a few. Those few will take more care to do what God asks. It also opened their minds to new ideas and was very instrumental in bringing about peace between the green and blue brotherhoods and the People of the Trees. While the death of so many is very tragic, look at how much good has come about because of that one event.”

   “I can see why Tangoral spoke so highly of you and why I caught him calling you mother from time to time. You do sound a little like our mother both in voice and thought. I can almost close my eyes and see her.” Tears came to Saralashaw’s eyes for a whole new reason as she began to cry. Ishihari wrapped her claws around Saralashaw and pulled her close to comfort her. Saralashaw buried her head in her arms on top of Ishihari’s shell and cried the tears she had not had time for when Tangoral told her of the deaths of their parents.

   Zothor stopped at the entrance to his dwelling so fast that Rownan almost fell over him. Ishihari waive to him not to come in just yet. “What’s up?” Rownan asked as Zothor backed out.

   “One of those mother-daughter things I suspect,” Zothor replied. “We’ll come back later.”

   Saralashaw sat on her knees wiping the tears from her eyes. Ishihari had retracted her retractable eyes so she could look at Saralashaw eye to eye as she sat on the floor before her. “It has always been our great honor to have Tangoral as our adopted son. We are just as honored to call you our daughter as well,” Ishihari said.

   “How do you fit all the love you have in you into one heart?” Saralashaw asked as tears began to fill her eyes again.

   “The love has always been there, it’s comes with being a mother, and I have a son that helped me to see beyond shapes and forms,” Ishihari replied. “I believe you already know him.”

   “Tangoral,” Saralashaw smiled. “Mother, it feels strange and comfortable at the same time. I would be honored to have you think of me as your daughter.”

   “I never had a daughter before. All my other children are males.”

   “Well, Mother, you have one now,” Saralashaw said as she wiped away the remainder of her tears. “You know I would have though Tangoral would have come with you,” she said after the tears had all dried.

   “He wanted to come, but he had to go to the beginning of the world and get the Great Cure.”

   “You let him make that journey. No healer has ever returned from that search.”

   “So Tangoral explained to me, but then Tangoral is not your everyday healer. He did not go alone. Many of our own people went with him. Nor has any healer before had the advantage of knowing where to look. Another very powerful healer goes with him as well. God goes before them and is their protector, what can stand in their way. Name one time that Tangoral has not accomplished what he set out to do. I have faith in my God and faith in my son.”

   “Still, you should have stopped him,” Saralashaw said.

   “You’re a healer; tell me how that is possible. You are a very knowledgeable healer, but I doubt that you have the knowledge enough to stop your brother from doing anything that he wants to do. He is of age, so what custom of yours could I call upon to stop him? He may be our son, but we also must view him as the leader of his tribe. His economic standing in the brotherhood places him inside the circle of our leadership as well. Both as one of the People and one of the brotherhood he is a very powerful force to deal with. When you become a mother you too will wrestle with the question of when to let go of your children. It will tear your heart out each time you watch one of your children walk away into an uncertain future. You know it wasn’t until you left and never returned that Tangoral began to wander about in search of knowledge and you, but he made a point of always returning home to his mother. Do you have any idea what your disappearance did to her? Tangoral went out traveling far and wide searching for you, for her. He never gave up hope of finding you. It was love that let him go, and it was love that always brought him back. Can I do less?” Ishihari asked.

   “How do you know this?” Tears again began to blur Saralashaw’s vision.

   “I have spent a lot of time talking with Tangoral and I’ve heard many of the stories he told his mother when he would return home, also he talks in his sleep. Try standing there watching him toss and turn in the night calling out your name and the only thing you can do is whisper everything is alright until the dream passes. When he cries out in the night, “I’ll find her for you mother,” you can’t help but feel her sorrow, and his sorrow, and his never ending desire to find you. Then try coming home and finding everyone that you loved and everything that meant anything all gone. When he came to live with us the only hope he had left was finding you, and even that was almost gone. You have no idea of the weight that was lifted from him when he found you safe and alive. My son’s happiness is my happiness and my daughter’s sadness is my sadness. I’m a mother and it’s all part of the job.”

   Saralashaw began to sob again as tears streamed down her face. “My mother would often say that very same thing,” she said between sobs. “I had no idea. How do I make up for something like that?”

   Ishihari held Saralashaw in her claws. “Don’t even try.” she replied. “Daughter, you cry, you dry your eyes and get on with your life. Stop living in the past. The past is gone and you can’t bring it back. You go forward trying to avoid the mistakes of the past, but now is still the time for crying. We will dry your eyes later,” Ishihari said softly. Saralashaw only began to cry more earnestly as she heard the words her mother had spoke to her once before a long time ago.

   

~~~

   

   The Great Swamp has many dangers most of which can be avoided by traveling high in the trees, but travel high up is not as easy. Tragal was surprised once to find the branch he was standing on was the tail of a long neck. He would have sworn the long neck could have wrapped itself around the base of a tree. It would have been hard for anyone to be sure if he was correct as they all ended up running for their lives. Tangoral stopped it by throwing several small round balls at its head. The balls exploded with a bright flash of light followed by what seemed like a hundred smaller flashes of light. Blinded by the light the long neck retreated down the tree. This was just one of the monsters they encountered on their journey. Christeaen did not believe in monsters when she started this trip, but she had seen monsters no living Brachyura had ever laid eyes on before. Now, she was a believer, but monsters were not the only problems they were having.

   “Tangoral, we’re almost out of food. We need to start hunting,” Tragal said.

   “If you’d have killed the long neck we ran into yesterday we would have had plenty of food,” Doesen said.

   “I was a little too busy running for my life to get off a good shot. Why didn’t you shoot it?”

   “Because you were in the way.” Doesen could run much faster than Tragal.

   “Tragal, you see the flowers?” Tangoral asked pointing at the large white blooms out on one of the tree limbs.

   “Yes, I do,” Tragal replied.

   “You can eat those. They’re best just before they open.”

   “We can’t eat flowers the whole way there.”

   “There are many other things that we can eat as we walk along. I will show them to you and we’ll still do some hunting too,” Tangoral said.

   “If we can keep from being hunted,” Candean said. “Tangoral, that was a good trick with the exploding flashy light things you have.”

   “The big long necks stay on the ground mostly,” Tangoral informed him. “Bright flashing lights can scare them. Twinkle balls I call them. Good for scaring long necks, stalkers, and entertaining children at night. However, I used most of them all up. I’ll have to make more. Just to be safe we need to move higher up in the tree. It will be slower going but we will be safer.”

   “Why are the long necks afraid of the flashing light twinkle ball things?” Tangalen asked.

   “They are not really frightened by the light. Long necks and many other creatures live on the ground where it is dark even during the day. Bright light blinds and confuses these creatures,” Tangoral replied. “More light reaches the area around a dwelling because of the occasional times that the herds get out of control and run up the trees around the dwelling. They strip a lot of leaves and other brush from the trees during those times before you can get them down again. This lets more light reach the area around the dwelling. This enables you to adjust to the light given off by my twinkle balls. If the light was bright enough you too would go blind.”

   

~~~

   

   Zothor wondered about the effect that his mate always seemed to have on the tree dwellers. Just a few moments was all she needed to win the heart of any tree dweller that she would meet. Zothor was not sure that eating out, even if it was at Syanor’s dining hall, was a good idea. Dinner as it turned out was by special invitation only. Only the clan leaders, their councilors, and their guests were invited, and as the dining hall was the most popular dining hall in the city and the food would be free many came. Zothor could see Ishihari’s claw in the night’s dinner and there was more to it than all the food being tree dweller recipes. The yellow clan leader had refused the invitation, but a few of his councilors showed up. For most of them, it was their first chance to meet a tree dweller close up. Most were amazed by Saralashaw’s command of their language. As the evening went on the questions for his daughter that started out simple became more complex and personal in nature. Even when he thought the questions went beyond the bounds of being polite Saralashaw never lost her composure. Zothor could see the wheels turning in KaZanna’s mind as he fired off some of the toughest questions anyone asked. Most of the questions stopped when the food was served. Zothor had KaZanna and his mate seated at his table. Adreeum was seated at a nearby table so he could overhear anything that was said. LaSanso sat with his clan leader, and Rownan sat with Zothor and his family. Many red councilors came as well. Only SoLayan was noticeably missing. Zothor wondered if KaZanna made good on his threat and shipped SoLayan off somewhere faraway.

   Saralashaw watched KarEena, KaZanna’s mate. She seemed to be having a good time but Saralashaw could see that it was just a show for the crowd. It wasn’t easy for Saralashaw to learn to feel the emotions of the hard-shells but it turned out their eyes were a dead giveaway. KarEena’s eyes almost always faced forward and she never really looked at anyone. The evening was filled quick glances at her husband as if to check to make sure he was not displeased with her actions. Saralashaw had seen this among her own people when a husband was mistreating his wife. She looked at Ishihari and then glanced down at KarEena. “I know,” Ishihari leaned over and whispered to her.

   “She needs a real friend,” Saralashaw whispered back. “It would not take much to turn her against her husband.”

   “You think?” Ishihari asked.

   “I know,” Saralashaw replied. Saralashaw also watched KaZanna. He was too nice, too polite; his eyes roamed the room and would fixate on a few choice hard-shells from time to time before continuing his constant scanning of the room. His desire to dominate those around him seemed to ooze from him. “If this were my tribe I would kill him for the good of all,” she whispered to Ishihari.

   “There are some here that would agree with you,” Ishihari whispered back.

   “I now see what Zothor means. He is more dangerous than Kittanota will ever dream of being.” Saralashaw watched as KarEena got up and walked back towards the bathrooms. “I’ll be right back,” she said getting up to follow her.

   “Where’s the tree dweller going?” KaZanna asked.

   “To the bathroom,” Ishihari said.

   “Oh.” KaZanna’s eyes began to roam the room again but one eye followed his mate. “I have heard that you have become a very good player like your father,” he said to Cantor.

   “I can’t be that good. My Dad can spot me fifty points and still win by fifty,” Cantor replied. Zothor smiled, he wondered how long it would take before Cantor figured out he had to cheat to win.

   “I heard that you beat Bittanic and he’s a pretty good player being brown champion and all. He’s been the brown champion two cycles in a row. He will most likely be this coming season’s champion as well,” KaZanna said.

   “If I were you I wouldn’t rush out to put your money on him this coming season,” Cantor said. “Of course that doesn’t say much for the other brown players if he can do it again this next cycle.”

   KaZanna almost rolled over in laughter. “True enough. It’s a well known fact that brown players are not the best of players.” The topic turned to the Game and Cantor’s plans to compete in the next season’s games.

   

   “Are you enjoying yourself this evening?” Saralashaw asked.

   “It’s one of the better evenings I’ve had in a while,” KarEena replied. It was rare that she was ever alone with anyone much less a tree dweller.

   “But you’re not enjoying yourself are you?”

   “No, not really.”

   “I can’t say that I’m having the greatest time of my life either.”

   “I don’t doubt it with the leadership of all the clans bombarding you with all the question they’ve been asking.”

   “This is the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve gotten the chance to leave the dwelling and see some of the city. I never imagined that something could be so big.”

   “I know what you mean. I don’t get out much either.”

   “You must be very busy as a clan leader’s mate,” Saralashaw said.

   “Not really. I just don’t get the chance to get out and about often,” KarEena replied.

   “That’s too bad. Sometimes I could use someone to talk to other than my mother. Do you want to have lunch with me here tomorrow?”

   “I can’t.”

   “Oh.”

   “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just KaZanna doesn’t let me go out much,” KarEena said.

   “That’s too bad. He must be afraid that you will give away clan secrets. You know if ever need to talk with someone, you can talk with me. Among the tree dwellers I am a healer and sometimes the only thing I need to do to heal the sadness in the heart of someone is to just listen,” Saralashaw said.

   “Who says that I’m sad?” KarEena asked.

   “I didn’t say that you were sad. I just asked if you were enjoying yourself this evening,” Saralashaw replied. “Any time you want to have lunch, it’s on me,” Saralashaw said as she left the bathroom.

KarEena seemed to feel a little better because someone took a moment to be concerned about her. It had been sometime since anyone paid any attention to her.

   

   After dinner, the questions for Saralashaw began again. The questions turned cruel and brutal and Zothor was about to put a stop to this interrogation when KaZanna asked, “Have you ever eaten one of us?”

   It was then that Ishihari jumped into the fray. “That is quite enough,” she said no longer caring who she insulted. She was about to unleash a mother’s fury on the leadership of four clans. “You all have gone well beyond the bounds of decency. What brother would not have challenged you all long ago? I have sat here in total amazement as my daughter calmly answered all your questions with such forthright candor that I found myself shocked by not only your questions, but by her answers as well. Now, KaZanna you ask if she’s eaten any of us. I will not allow her to answer that question; I will answer in her place. I have no doubt that she has eaten a few of us. To most tree dwellers we are a delicacy, but I will tell you something you have not considered. About a cycle ago, a small band of blue brothers passed through our land to hunt near the Great Swamp. They found a tree dweller hive not far from our land. In the early morning they set it on fire and waited for the tree dwellers to run out so they could shoot them. They shot the males, females, and even children. They killed anything that moved that they could see. They didn’t take any trophies; they just left the bodies to rot and then went looking for something else to kill. The body count was probably close to a hundred dead maybe more. The entire leadership of the tribe was gone in a single moment. The tribe’s healer and his mate were killed. They were the parents of this young female you see before you calmly answering your foul questions. I’d like to cook the whole lot of you, and believe me; I know the tree dwellers’ recipe for hard-shells as they call us. Now, if you want to ask any more questions they will be nice polite questions or you will keep your mouths shut and just listen. If any of you have a problem with this you can take it up with my mate and he’s on the verge of challenging you all, one at a time or all at once. He’s so mad right now I doubt that he would care which it is. That’s provided he gets the chance to challenge you and I don’t throw you all in a really big stew pot in the back room first.” Ishihari stood there glaring at the clans’ leadership daring them to say something. This was one of the reasons Zothor loved his mate so much.

   “Does she really know the recipe for hard-shells?” Saralashaw asked Cantor.

   “It a lot like long neck stew with a minor adjustment to the proportions of the spices you would add. Then there is the roasted version where we’re slowly cooked, sometimes alive in our shell, remember to change sides often. Baked is a lot like being roasted. First, you break the claws and legs off one at a time to be use for a different dish, or saved for later. Then you cut the top shell off and remove our guts. Then several small holes are excavated throughout the body. These spaces are then filled with bread crumbs, vegetables, and spices. The top shell is then put back on and covered in leaves. A layer of clay is placed on top of that and a fire is built on top of that. It takes a little more than a day to fully bake one of us. Of course there’s no guarantee the hard-shell was dead when they started to prepare him or her for baking,” Cantor replied. “Yeah, I think she knows a recipe or two for hard-shells.” Many of the females present and in earshot excused themselves and rushed for the bathroom. The males were made of sterner stuff, but not by much. Some of them looked quite pale after Cantor’s description of being baked by tree dwellers. Ishihari could have kissed her son.

   Saralashaw looked at all the hard-shells. “Cantor is quite accurate in his description of how we would bake you,” she said. “The only thing he left out was that we would build a big fire first. We would then put the hard-shell on top of that before covering it in leaves and clay. Does that answer your question?” she asked KaZanna. KarEena was one of the few females that did not get up from the table. She looked at her mate and then looked back at Saralashaw and smiled. This subtle form of communication was not lost on Saralashaw as she smiled back knowingly.

   KaZanna was the first to recover. “Lady Ishihari, let me first apologize for myself, my fellow clan leaders, and our councilors,” he said. “You are most correct, that was most rude of us. I doubt that it occurred to any of us that we might have been offering insult to your family. I now recall that you did introduce the tree dweller as your adopted daughter. That fact, it seems, was lost on us all. Perhaps, we should start over at the beginning and hear how she became your daughter in the first place.”

   “That is a tale many lives lost and many lives saved. It’s a tale of a sister lost and then found many cycles later, and it all began with one tree dweller saving the life of my son Cantor who is seated with us this day,” Zothor said.

   


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