Half-asleep, Khiray sat up in his bed. For the last few hours he had tossed and turned restlessly, unable to find genuine rest but too tired to wake up for good.
"I'm coming!" he replied.
"Hurry up. We have cut the bread already." The deep voice could only belong to Uncle Farlin. Saswin's brother was the third and final member of the family aboard the 'Silver Ansicc'. Khiray's mother Ayashlee had had a brother too who worked for Saswin, but when Ayashlee died in an unfortunate accident many years ago, he had left the ship to find his life's dream elsewhere. Saswin had never looked out for another lifemate; Khiray knew that he still mourned for the beautiful Vixen, despite all the years gone by.
Khiray brushed his fur thoroughly and washed the sleep from his eyes. Oo'men had to wash their whole body because they sweated; the most races of the Furryfolk only needed to clean critical parts with water and to use the brush elsewhere. The duration of the morning hygiene wasn't all that different, though; the dense fur and especially the long, easily matted hair of the tail needed thorough care. No Furry, no even the poorest, wanted to be seen with dirty, untidy fur, unless he was ill... other than the Oo'men who sometimes did not hold cleanliness in the highest esteem.
When he finally entered the dining room, the others had begun breakfast without him. Only five Furrys of the twelve who formed the crew of the 'Silver Ansicc' were currently aboard: Saswin, Farlin, Delley, Freight Master Shooshun -- an elderly tomcat with thick horn-rimmed glasses and striped fur -- and Khiray himself. The two workers and both sailors, Delley's assistant, the cook and the passenger steward -- who was responsible for the health of living freight too, due to lack of passengers -- enjoyed their shore leave and had left the ship early this morning.
"I've found buyers who'll pay the new prices for part of our freight already", Saswin began during their meal. "Those customers who wait for their wares still have to be served. Khiray, could you rent a cheap wagon? We'll have to get several bags of seeds to a farm."
Khiray nodded. "I should deliver Pallys his books, too. I don't trust the porters with them. Last year they had almost let them drop into the mud."
"Do you have a buyer for those new weapons of yours?"
"Not yet. Maybe Galbren himself will be interested. With all those new guards he may find additional weapons useful."
Saswin frowned. "Watch out when you deal with Galbren. He'll skin you if it pleases him. He has been a shrewd merchant even before he became governor."
"We could keep the weapons as well", Delley interfered. "Why sell the best stuff? Even if you got them cheap."
Khiray flinched. Cheap? The deal did cost him one night's sleep already, and almost his fur in the bar the night before.
"We don't need no new weapons", Farlin mumbled. He was a very tall and sturdy Fox; heavily built, but not fat -- Khiray had never seen any fat Foxes or Otters in his life. "The river is not exactly swarming with pirates up here, you know."
"One can never own enough weapons", Deley chuckled.
"Rats!" Uncle Farlin groaned.
Khiray didn't listen to their usual happy quarrels anymore. He though about the best way of selling the weapons...
And about whatever the Foxtaurs may do this very moment...
Why did he have to think of the Foxtaurs all the time? The deal was done. He should make a healthy profit now, prepare the next business transactions. He could visit the carver to look for new, interesting Furry erotica -- for his special Oo'men customer in Hanmur. Deliver the goods, sell out the freight, fulfill the contracts, find buyers. That, and that alone, should be his sole interest.
But Saljin -- Saljin of the Stones -- occupied his mind, more than he would have admitted by himself. What did the Foxtaurs buy for the money when they did not hang around in bars? Why had they come all the way from their home to the Armygan?
Maybe he could talk to them again. If he just could find the right excuse...
Trade among the Furrys needed its time. One was supposed to talk about the weather, the health of the children, the quality of the water and the newest rumors before even mentioning goods and gold. Afterwards, hot tea was drunk -- one of the most expensive beverages, since the tea leaves were harvested beyond the Lakenda Mountains by Oo'men -- to show each other the highest regard. Fast deals were appropriate only on the markets when goods for everyday life were purchased. Or if someone wanted to cheat some poor soul.
Khiray didn't get round to doing his business that day, and it was at a late hour the next day when he finally could take the time to deliver the books to Pallys the Rabbit. The big quantities of seeds, grains, cotton and dried fruits came first. The little things Khiray traded with as a side business were typically Otter stuff, but books were not among them: Otters tended to be a little careless with water and would have spoiled books for good.
Pallys had been the teacher of Sookandil for a longer time than Khiray could remember. There was no obligation to attend school in the Armygan, but most Furrys tried to teach their children at least the basics of reading and writing, counting and calculating and practical things like law, trade, and local customs. About three of four children learnt that lore from Pallys who got a little fee or payment in kind for teaching. Part of the other kids got their lessons from their parents, like Khiray: the long journeys aboard the 'Silver Ansicc' did never allow him to join regular school with Pallys.
With other children, the long way from their farm to the town or the tight money made it impossible for them to go to school (although Pallys was well-known for his generosity; he often taught without asking for anything). Only a few kids in Sookandil didn't get any lessons because they had to earn a living and had no time to spare.
With Oo'men, school was implemented more strictly. Young Oo'men had to attend school in any case and were supposed to learn far more than Furrys. In the Armygan, children mostly followed their parents in their business. Three or four years Pallys taught them -- with interruptions during harvesting time, and not every day of the week to allow the kids to help their parents --, then they were trained at the parent's farm or in their shop. When they were twelve to fourteen years old, they were apprenticed and returned home as journeymen or masters. Children who didn't want to continue their parent's trade or were unable to, could change to another profession as well.
Khiray had learnt as a child to read and write from his mother and to calculate from his father. His parents and his uncle had taught him history and law, geography and first aid and drawing as well. And Delley... well, Delley had passed on Rat lore to him. Saswin and Ayashlee would have frowned upon this for sure, if they had known. But Delley was discreet, and Khiray could keep quiet too. Khiray learnt to watch and perceive, to hide and camouflage, to savour his drinks (and not get drunk), to flee and fight -- both fair and unfair -- and to make love to a woman long before he had his first girl in Drun'kaal.
He was no Rat, however, and his Fox interpretations of Rat lore often drove Delley to despair. But Delley had become his best friend -- a better friend than he ever had at land.
But Khiray's wanderlust carried a thirst for knowledge with it. Khiray learnt the language of the Empire Dharwil in the Oo'men cities and bought books on most diverse topics. He searched thoroughly every new city in the Armygan they put in at for books. What he had learnt, was not enough.
He had some trouble, though, to tell apart a made-up story and a true report among the books he purchased. Sometimes he confused living people with imaginary heroes. That was no wonder, however: even knowledgeable authors tended to include legends and fables with their books and to dress up the lives of well-known rulers and merchants with colorful descriptions until it resembled the tales of old.
Khiray had gotten to know Pallys only when he was twelve already. He knew what Pallys taught from his friends at land who learnt from the Rabbit -- and considered the themes below his standing. He knew to write very well and had been introduced to the art of trading by his father, quite thoroughly. He was an apprentice now, not a mere child. Why should he bother with an elderly Rabbit who taught children the letters?
Saswin had sent him with some books to Pallys at that time. The teacher sometimes ordered his literature in other cities, even Oo'men books; he wasn't travelling himself anymore. When he opened the door for Khiray and asked him in, the Fox almost dropped his delivery.
Pallys owned books -- books and lots of books. More books than Khiray had even seen in bookstores. The dwelling of the Rabbit was full of folios, scrolls, bound and stapled pages, giant atlasses, small pocket books, textbooks and novels and novellas, all carefully sorted and equipped with notes on small pieces of paper. The small rooms were taken up by shelves wherever Khiray looked.
"You read all of those?" he asked unbelievingly.
Pallys nodded slowly. "During a long life."
Khiray had not known by then what Pallys was hinting at. Only many years later he learnt why Pallys' ears were covered in scratches, why he limped and where he had gotten the scars beneath his white fur. Pallys had not been a teacher all his life. But he had always loved his books -- more than his friends.
From that day on Khiray was fascinated with Pallys. If the Rabbit owned that many books, he had to know things beyond the drawing of letters. He had asked many questions and gotten many answers, leading only to more questions.
Khiray had become older and a wee bit wiser since then. Every time he came to Sookandil he used to spend some time with Pallys, and they exchanged thoughts and memories. Khiray made no secret of his longing -- but that was the only topic Pallys did not want to speak about.
The sun was already setting when Khiray arrived at Pallys' house with the package. The teacher's home was an old, not too well preserved building away from the rich quarters. Teachers were not paid much, and Pallys' generosity with his fee and his love for books made his financial situation even worse.
Pallys opened before Khiray had a chance to knock. "I've been waiting for you."
"Good to see you again", Khiray said. He couldn't help the feeling that Pallys had spent the day standing behind the window and waiting for his books.
"You are late this time."
Khiray sighed and told about the broken boilers yet again. Pallys nodded thoughtfully at every word, although he didn't knew much about steam machines.
"Did you make up your mind yet?" he finally asked.
Khiray grinned. It was an old saying between them both -- only half jokingly. Pallys had made the suggestion once to start a study at a university. Sages and magicians, judges and high officers had to study at one of the great universities, and Pallys believed that Khiray should feel called to higher things than to a life as merchant. Galbren too had studied at a university, if Khiray understood the rumors correctly. In Drun'kaal of all things... The young Fox almost envied him.
Almost. To be a trader allowed him travelling wherever he wanted -- to a certain degree. Being a judge or governor would tie him to a single town for the rest of his life. A magician's profession alone would have tempted Khiray, but the demands were high for students of the magic lore, and he didn't know anything about magic at all. That far away from the big cities there were no magicians to grant Khiray apprenticeship as a preparation for studying. And finally he needed a talent to be a magician. In whatever form that talent might show up, Khiray was sure that he never had felt anything the like in himself.
No, if he couldn't be a traveler and discoverer, and if he couldn't live in the big exciting city, then a life as merchant was the next best option. It wasn't the worst of fates, even on a boring route far away from the capital.
Pallys offered Khiray a seat and tea, and for a while they chatted about this and that, until the conversation came inevitably to the Foxtaurs.
"I saw them once before", Pallys revealed to Khiray. "They never stay long in the cities. No one knows much about them. But they make very fine craft work."
"Weapons?" Pallys rose an eyebrow and put up his long ears. "I've never heard that they offered good weapons."
"Then this may be the first time." Khiray handed the Rabbit one of the dream knifes he had bought. Since the incident at the bar he carried it always in his belt.
Pallys immediately discovered the hidden blade. The sharpness and strength of the metal surprised even him, and he knew the outstanding weaponry of the Drun'kaal soldiers.
"Troll steel", Khiray explained.
"If they had had something like that before, I would have heard about it." Pallys reassembled the knife and gave it back.
"Maybe they just discovered the Trolls these years", Khiray conjectured. "I would ask them, but..."
"Hm?" Pallys rose his head and looked sharply into his eyes. He knew it at once when Khiray felt uneasy.
So the Fox told the Rabbit of the weapons he had bought, the quarrel in the bar and his dilemma. "I don't want to cheat anyone, but I cannot give back the weapons. It would look as if I'd be dissatisfied with them."
"And you really want to make that deal, of course."
Khiray squirmed. "Yes."
"You could offer them a share of the profit", Pallys decided. "A bonus. Estimate what the weapons will bring in, and pay the Foxtaurs a percentage."
The Fox nodded violently. "Yes. That is a good idea."
"Until you sold the weapons, you can still go to them and buy something else. I'm sure you can resell everything they offer, at least at the same price. And you'd have a pretext for speaking with them."
Khiray called himself a fool for not thinking of that simple solution. But he had to admit that he feared another meeting... maybe he just hadn't wanted to think of it.
"What do you think of Galbren?" the Rabbit asked suddenly and started to fill his pipe with spice herbs.
"Galbren?" Khiray thought only briefly about the question. "Shrewd merchant. Good orator. Loves power."
"What does he want with the new guards?"
"I don't know." Khiray told Pallys of all his thoughts about the subject. Pallys nodded gravely, but he didn't say a word on his part and refused to answer Khiray's questions. The young Fox had never seen Pallys that reserved.
Did the Rabbit suspect something Khiray could not even think of?
It was too late to visit the Foxtaurs when Khiray finally left Pallys' house. The shops were closed, and there was nowhere a deal to be made. Saswin was meeting a customer that evening, and Delley probably worked on his machines half the night and didn't want to be disturbed. In a word, there was nothing to do for Khiray.
Slowly he wandered across the town, observed here and there a change, a new building, an empty space where a house had been torn down since his last visit. He wished Lysh would be there. He had no true friends in Sookandil except her; the only one he would have liked to see again had left the city, and another acquaintance had joined the guards and was currently in the training camp -- but that one wasn't the kind of friend Khiray wanted to share this clear, dry, bright night with.
He had left the city limits and arrived at the wide meadows north of the town before he had decided what to do. Trees were lining the path in a hilly landscape; the empty pastures showed little groves; the moon shone on stone walls and old wooden fences. A bridge spanned a softly burbling river.
On a meadow two Foxtaurs stood. They were too far away for Khiray to recognize. The Fox looked around. No Furry was to be seen. Carefully he sneaked closer, keeping himself in the shadow of the trees. He didn't know why he was that cautious -- it was his town, after all, not theirs.
The Foxtaurs had weapons with them. It were Dekka'shin, those double-bladed lances unknown in the Armygan. Khiray had inspected thoroughly the Dekka'shin he had bought. They consisted of a thick wooden staff and two swordlike blades fixed at both ends of the staff. The blades were bent slightly and covered with hooks and gaps.
Khiray couldn't imagine how to wield a weapon like this -- it was quite heavy, and the two blades seemed to threaten rather the wielder than the opponent.
But the Foxtaurs used their weapons skilfully. They swang them in circles over their heads, in front of their bodies and around the upper torso. Every now and then they carried out a feigned attack, just to avert the weapons in the last possible moment and rush past each other.
Khiray now recognized Saljin and her brother Dek. Both seemed to be masters of that weapon: after a few minutes their movement had become too fast to follow. They had a great advantage in using the Dekka'shin, of course: they possessed four legs and therefore a better stand. The fast rotation and movement of the blade staffs could not impair their balance.
But this did not disparage the performance of the Foxtaurs. The precision of their control over the weapons was admirable. After all, they had not only to miss their partner but themselves too, and considering their long stretched bodies it was pure art to leave the battlefield with tails intact.
Suddenly, Dek's head jerked around, and the eyes of the Foxtaur turned towards the silent watcher. Dek let out a shout of fury and began to charge into Khiray's direction.
For one second Khiray considered escaping... leaving in a hurry. The Foxtaur could not mean it. He could not expect to get away with killing a citizen of Sookandil... and Khiray was a citizen of the town, even if he lived on the ship. Galbren would have him hanged.
But Dek did not break off his attack. He dashed onwards in full gallop, the weapon levelled at the Fox. He jumped a fence and was only a throw away before Khiray could lift his feet from the ground.
Madness! He thought of fleeing, but the Foxtaur could outrun him easily. It had to be a mock attack. Khiray had seen Dek missing Saljin on purpose. A test of courage. Nothing else.
Dek's paws seemed to thunder on the ground. Moonlight dripped off the blade like blood.
Khiray could not run, even if he had tried to.
Centimeters from his face the blade cut thin air. Khiray could feel the draft on his muzzle. Dek passed him, returned, struck again, and for a second time the Dekka'shin whirled past Khiray's fur. Had he moved just a little, the weapon would have caused a deep wound.
Disappointed, Dek stopped and grunted. "Townspeople!"
Saljin arrived in a hurry and threw a bag in Dek's direction. "You crazy braggart! You call down shame upon all the tribe!" She added something in a musical, singing language which sounded nevertheless like an insult.
Calmly Dek fished two leather sheaths out of the bag, slipped them on the blades and trotted away without a word.
"Please excuse my brother." Saljin lowered her eyes. "He is not like himself. A good hiding would serve him well."
"I cannot contradict you in this", Khiray sighed. One more feigned attack, and he would have been in dire need of a fresh loincloth. He was surprised how normal his voice still sounded. "I watched your fight play. Very impressive. I don't think a two-legger could wield the Dekka'shin in that way."
Saljin inspected him up and down. "Maybe... maybe not. It would be worth a try." She turned to leave.
Khiray cleared his throat. "Tomorrow... tomorrow I'll visit you again. I think I am interested in... some sculptures."
"The prices have increased during the last days", Saljin said.
Khiray shrugged. "I am a merchant. I can still make a good profit."
Saljin lokked at him with a mixture of amusement and aversion. "I can imagine that." Then she trotted after her brother.
Khiray shook his head. It should not bother him what Saljin might think of him, but that was not the case. She disliked him, and he was angry about her attitude.
Why? He looked after her -- admired her rhythmic, dancelike trot, her flowing tail -- and felt disgusted by himself. The Foxtaurs were strangers. They did not belong here. They were furry, but no Furrys; they might resemble Foxes in part, but were indeed half animals. At least the parts that counted. Savages who waved weapons in the faces of honorable citizens, trying to intimidate them.
A wave of anger rushed through his blood. Dek should better watch out! This was a civilized country! Somewhat belated the battle fury burned in his veins. He breathed deeply.
The lingering scent of Saljin's fur got into his nostrils. Conflicting emotions seized him. The Foxtauress did not like him. Dek did not like him. But he felt attracted towards the Foxtaurs. They represented his dream of faraway lands, of excitement and adventure.
Damn her, she was an animal! A savage from some gods-forsaken country without decent civilization! Probably they still lived in caves...
He caught himself sniffing the air as if to conjure Saljin by her smell. Hastily he wrapped his arms around the body and ran back all the way to the city. He made a circle round the spot where the Foxtaurs had their booth. A big circle.
That night he tried to relieve himself from the tension mounting inside him. He thought of Lysh and their shared nights... and what he would do now if she just were here... but even in his fantasy Lysh became Saljin, and his eyes wandered again and again to the statuette of the Foxtauress. And when he finally gave in to the temptation and let his mind wander, he felt tired and miserable afterwards.