[01:18] In the Karesejat's patient and silent presence, various details were discussed. Valcen drew a schematic into the dust of how he wanted the room compartmentalised.
He explained, uneasily, some of the prototype's features – it was clear to Tanak even without that anyone explicitly said so that Valcen might need a bit of encouragement to make it, that there was a chance he might artificially delay the project.
He explained, plausibly and with Karesejat's implicit acknowledgement, that he was going to be only one that could use the machinery.
They sketched out what Nayabaru he would need to be allowed to talk to and which not. They sketched out what Valcen would try to do entirely on his own – the recruitment, specifically, even if it took him up and out of his den and forced him to interact with more sceptical Hesha – and what Tanak would do for him, such as the procurement of decent food.
They established that the Karesejat could come any time and would inspect progress with all projects when she did.
And ultimately, the Karesejat bid them farewell for the day, promising to speak to the Darhala herself about matters relating to the projects, paving the way for Valcen's interaction with them in future.
Valcen blinked a bit, rubbing the back of a forepaw against his eyes. Something twitched through him as the Karesejat left, perhaps a lingering worry that Tanak might yet assault him in her absence. Of course, if he thought so, it showed that he didn't know Nayabaru culture very well. But could one honestly expect anything different from one in the guise of a kavkem?
Although it truly was amusing that he looked like a kavkem, given everything he had planned.
[23:57] With the departure of Karesejat, Tanak clearly relaxed a bit, rising from his seated position to walk around the room. "So, Valcen, how did you end up in this position, anyway? What happened?" He wasn't looking at him, but at the ancient equipment that needed to be removed. One hand brushed some dust off then wrenched the device around from the place it had nearly rusted to. A glance up at Valcen. "I'm betting it's quite the story."
[00:08] Valcen glanced up at Tanak with something approaching carefully metered venom. "None of that would make any sense to you if I told you about it – and, for that matter, your Karesejat would not approve of me telling that tale," he insisted. "But I'll tell you something else that should give you pause.
"I understand you're not a Darhal, and you spend much of your days here in the depths of Katal's Pens... but even you must have noticed that the sky changed several weeks ago.
"What do you suppose happened there?" Valcen asked. It was an aggravating question for anyone to ask – this wasn't for Hesha to analyse. To demand he think of some explanation for the motions of the cosmos bordered on insult to his profession as a guard, tying up his thought processes with puzzles that Darhala were infinitely better equipped to unpick.
But Valcen at least seemed aware of the breach of protocol, for he added: "I realise this is well outside of your usual... scope, and you'd rather leave the Darhala to analyse such problems, but surely you have some thoughts of your own about it?"
[00:34] Tanak snorted, "It is your matter, then. My thoughts on it are already inadequate, so reviewing them certainly won't help." A swift kick into the side of the machine rang it like a bell, revealing it was both heavier than it appeared and likely stubbed Tanak's toe slightly. "Your situation is unique, and thus, so is mine. My hope was to hear your perspective in it all, maybe understand you better." He actually smiled, looking up. "Of course, perhaps you'd rather not let your guard and servant know. I probably wouldn't either."
[01:02] Right. Getting a Hesh to comment on Darhal matters was like drawing blood from a stone, even if they were somehow inclined to be cooperative. And for the time being, Tanak was likely interested only in the letter of the law set down by the Karesejat, give or take some token spirit of the law footnotes.
The smile struck Valcen as such a strange expression, coming from a Nayabaru. He could read it fine – he'd studied the Nayabaru for long enough, devoured everything in the Commons about them when he decided to come here, so their facial expressions were entirely comprehensible – but he wasn't sure why Tanak would bother.
Another sneeze interrupted his thought processes and he gave himself a light shake. Then, having recovered, he offered up a few wisps of diplomacy: "There are a few things you don't know about your Karesejat. They're not important for your interactions with her, but they might poison how you think about her. I have enough respect for her that I don't want to be the cause of that.
"The short version, however, is that Tkanetar and I were travelling together, with the intention of watching each others' backs. We were terrible at that, so I paid the price for it. Tkanetar, meanwhile," ran away and abandoned me, not that I blame ver, and "responded by trying to destroy this planet with its sun.
"Understand this – he would've managed, if your Karesejat and I hadn't moved this planet elsewhere. Which is why I asked you about the skies. It relates. The skies changed because one of my kind decided that they would rather destroy this whole world than let the Karesejat Terenyira live. Because he got spooked. Tells you a little bit about the forces we're messing with."
There it was, then, the mention of murderous intent, if from the other side of the equation. How would Tanak react to his Karesejat being threatened by some anonymous Threadwielder, without knowing what a Threadwielder was, or why the Karesejat was such a threat to them? Did it matter?
[01:29] Tanak listened to the story intently, taking it seriously even with how implausible it seemed to be. Still, Terenyira had, effectively, vouched for some version of this story. And if that were the case, there was at least sufficient truth to cause this entire odd arrangement. Credence, even if not confirmation, to the narrative. He had, of course, noted the change in the skies, but such was not his concern... except once, right after the change. "I'll need to ponder that for a while, I think. It's... interesting." The machine is wrestled around and to a new position. "Though, the night after things changed, I spent the night lost. I had been navigating by the stars... it was... not the most pleasant of nights." He finally glanced up and said, "You have sneezed several times. Perhaps we should get you some warmth and a place to rest?"
[01:43] Valcen grimaced at 'warmth' – with his feather coat, the Pens were subtly warmer than strictly comfortable. Tanak, bare down to a skin with only soft, tiny scales to separate him from the air, likely felt the air was a little bit chilly down here.
"No warmth," Valcen said. "A dust-free place to rest would be appreciated, but only if it's not one of your cells." He'd been in one of those until recently and they were, unsurprisingly, not laid out for kavkem comfort.
[02:04] "Probably... probably not. I can get cleaners in here, but it probably won't be cleared for several hours. However, come with me, we don't need to stay in this room. A meal would be good for your tiny body, anyway."
[02:13] Valcen was about to object that he wasn't exactly vegetarian, but stopped himself – he was omnivorous enough that a meatless meal wasn't going to kill him. He could probably subsist on vegetables for a few months before the lack of meat would do this body in. Even his paranoia about his mortality did not extend that far.
"Please," he said, huffing the word as if in exhaustion. "And please," he added, unsure whether the offer to clean the place up needed additional confirmation before Tanak was going to go through the motions.
[01:01] Departing from the storeroom was uneventful, and while the traffic in the area they were in was still light, they still passed several others as they proceeded. A stop along the way arranged for cleaners to empty the storeroom and begin the preparations for the room. It wasn't until they had found the right food service area that Tanak finally addressed Valcen again. "Any preference on what you'd like to eat today? Proper supplements may not be in this section just yet, but I'll arrange those for your normal meals."
[01:48] Valcen knew the high-protein paste that Nayabaru fed to their kavkem captives all too well – it wasn't particularly offensive to the pallate, but that was largely because it simplly didn't register as having much of any taste at all, just a somewhat unpleasant greasy consistency.
For now, he'd be happy with anything even marginally better, as long as he wasn't expected to chew it. Nayabaru teeth might be laid out to grind plant matter into its constituent fibres, but kavkem teeth were designed to rend and tear, not to grind.
"I have so many requirements," he commented, with a tired kind of sarcasm. "Not the standard paste and something requiring minimal chewing. Believe it or not, taste is optional, although in all honesty, I think I prefer 'bitter' over 'none'."
[01:56] Tanak raised one eyebrow, murmured, "Wait here," and headed in to speak to the Nayabaru that would be providing the culinary experience today. He returned a few minutes later with a somewhat horribly colored blended gruel in a bowl. While not visually appetizing, it did at least smell halfway decent for what it was, some absurd blend of leaves and shoots slurried together in a fine texture that would require no chewing to consume. Overkill, perhaps, but it met the requirements. He offered the bowl to Valcen.
[02:05] 'Wait here' was the bizarrest statement Valcen reasoned he was likely to hear from a Hesh in his lifetime. Whether it meant Tanak was quick in the uptake and already understood that Valcen was neither planning to destroy anything in the Katal Pens nor attempt escape, or if it just meant Tanak was a bit dense, he wasn't yet sure.
When Tanak returned with food, Valcen allowed himself a second moment of surprise – Tanak had indeed brought him something that was not the standard paste and judging by the smell, it might even have a taste. That was impressively forthcoming.
By the looks of things, Tanak was indeed more of a spirit-of-the-law kind of guy.
He might actually be useful.
"...thank you," Valcen said, grasping the bowl with his forepaws, then setting it on the ground to sample the contents. His limited facial muscles scrunched up – oh, it definitely had taste. Enough that he had to get used to it and ignore his body's pleading that this was probably poison. He was willing to rule out poison, anyway. Too much hassle for the Yeresoa.
[02:17] Tanak's nod indicated all the acknowledgement he intended to give for the gratitude. Not that it wasn't appreciated, but he wasn't a naturally expressive individual in such cultural nicities. Just doing his duty and all that schtick. "Would you prefer meals along these lines, or shall I have the cooks work on something a bit more like meat? Well, it won't be meat, but it'll be protein and more textured like meat, at least."
[00:02] "No, I don't need the texture of meat," Valcen dismissed. "Just chewing is a problem," he said, opening his maw and hooking one digit against his sharp teeth to indicate them. Then his tongue ran across the spot and he said: "Although the fewer needles are involved in supplying the supplements, the better."
For the brunt of them, it was wishful thinking, certainly, since edible variants, if they existed, probably suffered from a poor sample size as to their effectiveness. Sticking needles into kavkema was a favourite Nayabaru past time (or so one might sarcastically observe), meaning they hardly had many incentives to change things.
And in any case, a Hesh would not get it changed; it was Yereso territory.
"Is this what you eat – before it's turned into a slushie, that is?" he asked, then drew another helping of the bitter meal through his teeth. He wasn't sure why he was asking – their tastebuds weren't nearly alike enough for the answer to tell him anything, other than perhaps suggesting that it didn't taste as bitter to the Nayabaru.
[01:42] "It's basic food, nothing special about it except for blending it into... well, that. Nothing I can do about the nutrition supplements being delivered, though I can ask." He shrugged a little, leaning against the wall while Valcen ate. "I don't really know what kavkema like to eat that isn't murdering hapless creatures they can chase down, but at least it seems safe enough to me. And not pasty."
[02:00] Valcen continued to eat for a while, running Tanak's last statement through his mind a few times. Finally, he paused, raising his muzzle, tilting it slightly to peer up at Tanak sceptically. "Just out of curiosity – you do know kavkema don't hunt Nayabaru, nor the beasts they keep, right?"
[19:04] "Just because what the kavkem hunt doesn't directly inconvenience us is no reason not to defend the creatures they do hunt." He picked at the wall idly, pondering the things he'd learned over the years. "And clearly the creatures aren't able to defend themselves, thus..." He trailed off with a glance at Valcen.
[19:18] The idea that the Nayabaru were on some level incarcerating kavkema for the sake of creatures not part of their culture seemed ludicrous to Valcen, from all he knew about the two cultures, but there was likely no point arguing about it. Tanak clearly believed it was a factor, or at least an argument to be made.
Valcen's stare lingered for a moment, before he resumed his meal. There was no reason to provoke his purported body guard; the Nayabaru was some degree of friendly so far, but all of it overlapped neatly with professionalism. Valcen knew better than to mistake it for kindness.
[19:19] And yet, he thought, picking at his teeth with precise motions of his tongue. "...have you ever wondered how you ended up with a creature such as Terenyira as your Karesejat, your Havhesh?" he asked.
He'd mentioned that she was a weapon designed against his kind – where 'his kind' was not the kavkema, but some indeterminate other species that encompassed at least the kavkem pantheon – but not by whom or from what motivation.
Of course, to Tanak, it most likely seemed highly dubious Valcen was right even about the 'weapon' part, much less about the 'designed' part.
[00:02] "Is it important? It is what it is. My part is but a small one." He shrugged inasmuch as he could.
[00:14] Perhaps it had been a bit too ambitious of Valcen to expect curiosity from a Nayabaru. Tradition, routine, mutual support – those were values the Nayabaru embraced. None of their social structure made curiosity the best of traits and there was no predatory nature to otherwise enkindle it.
Valcen wanted to respond with an incredulous 'and you're happy to play that part indefinitely?', but he didn't have to speak it to know the answer. Yes. Of course. Anything else would be obscene.
"I suppose if I were you I'd wonder why my boss's boss's boss looked absolutely nothing like any other Nayabaru," Valcen offered. "I know your culture is big on reputation and the Karesejat has a flawless reputation that I don't mean to tarnish, but does her shape not give you any pause? There's literally no other creature like her."
[00:31] "And I suppose I'm also meant to wonder why you, a not-a-kavkem, claim to be not-a-kavkem despite clearly looking like one? Putting all one's stock in appearance rather than behavior is just another way of being deceived."
[00:34] "Well, no, sure," Valcen remarked, between licks that drew the rest of his bitter meal out of his bowl. "As I said, I'm not trying to tarnish your Karesejat's reputation. But is it not strange to you that she is here? That she exists? There are many kavkema and many Nayabaru. There are many of nearly any species you could think to name. But there is only one of Terenyira's kind."
[00:43] "And to my knowledge, there is only one of your kind. Does not mean there may not be more. And if there are, then I will deal with that possibility. Until then, it is. I will deal with what is, and not with what is in question." He waved one hand towards the bowl, "Did you get enough to eat, or do you need more?"
[01:08] I did literally claim to be of Tamachelu's kin, Valcen thought, but realised it wasn't much of an argument. He could claim to be Tanak's second cousin twice removed and it wouldn't matter – the Karesejat's description mattered, all else was potential embellishment on his part. The Nayabaru did not trust the kavkema and presumably this extended to things wearing kavkem bodies.
In either case, it was illuminating – Tanak presumed there were perhaps more of Terenyira's kin. It was an understandable misconception and explained his complete lack of interest in her origin story.
In the end, perhaps that was for the best. Valcen could hardly tell the origin story without getting very explicit about the Karesejat's murders. While, judging by appearances so far, Tanak would likely not believe those parts of the story, it might still cause a stir enough for a Title challenge or some other social mishap that would endanger Valcen's sanctuary.
"I'm fine for now, thank you," Valcen said.
He stared up at Tanak for a moment, gathering stray thoughts.
Then: "And you'll be all right with me having two kavkem assistants?" It was too late to have doubts about that, the Karesejat Terenyira would likely not issue him a new Hesh if he misplaced this one, but it seemed so bizarrely contrary to Tanak's Nayabaruness that Valcen couldn't suppress his interest.
[01:14] "That is what you've been permitted, of course. Certainly I'm not going to countermand Terenyira, and, thus far, I've seen no reason to do so." He smiled a bit, "Just pick ones that won't try anything... stupid."
[01:30] Valcen had to force himself not to wince at the characterisation, translating 'stupid' to 'desperate' in his head.
Most kavkema he'd ever interacted with had been highly intelligent – the detail that nearly all so-called wild kavkema were proficient in Kendaneivash at least and often Naya additionally showed that, as did the fact they were quick to pick out on inconsistencies even in brand new topics presented to them.
It was that intelligence that had kept them from having long since died out completely at the hands of the Nayabaru. Within each kavkem was an immense potential to understand technology they themselves did not have the resources to wield.
In a way, it was the opposite of the Nayabaru, who rejected nearly everything that was foreign to them, and if they did not reject it certainly did not display curiosity about it.
Although Valcen wasn't so disconnected from reality as to confuse the rigid thought patterns of the Nayabaru for outright stupidity. They excelled on other axes; they made far fewer mistakes than kavkema, their near-religious devotion to their role driving a perfectionism with tangible benefits. They would not have been able to save the planet without the rigor of the Darhala.
Not that he was going to say that out loud any time soon.
"Could you specify what kind of stupidity you mean? Just so I can keep it in mind while I look for candidates," Valcen commented cautiously.
[01:55] "Don't attack me. Don't attack you. Don't attack other Nayabaru. Don't break things that shouldn't be broken. Don't try to escape."
[02:09] It was a surprisingly straight-forward list – Valcen found himself instantly suspicious of other buttons Tanak might have that might bring out the sadist in him. Were there Hesha that were not sadists? Thus far, Valcen had presumed the answer was 'no', but he reasoned he could be wrong about that.
"Ah," Valcen remarked. "Fortunately, I too find those attributes important. You should have no trouble with my assistants once I've chosen them – and you are more than welcome to put them in their place if they do any of those things despite my efforts."
Had he a human face, he might have opted to twisted it into a pained smile, but there was no equivalent in kavkem body language.
Of course, given Valcen's spiel about how he was going to read and write kavkem minds for the benefit of the Nayabaru, 'despite my efforts' seemed like a strange phrase to tack on. If they truly became troublesome, formally, he ought to be able to fix whatever poor thought processes had caused the behaviour.
[02:16] "Then we shouldn't have problems." He added, helpfully, "Those that look for an excuse to punish kavkema for no real reason should not be placed in charge of them, but that is what it is at times."
[02:52] Inwardly, Valcen gagged. As admirable as Tanak's attitude was, the choice was usually specifically the opposite – as far as the Lashala were concerned, the less empathy a Nayabaru had for the kavkema, the better-suited it was for the role of Hesh. Having a demonstrable vicious streak toward kavkema certainly guaranteed 'no empathy' far more effectively than any other attribute.
But none of that was helpful from the inside of Nayabaru culture. "Yeah," Valcen said. "I appreciate your professionalism." High praise. Maybe flattery would eventually get him somewhere – or at least ensure that Tanak wouldn't at some point look for an excuse to make Valcen's life miserable.
[03:08] Tanak shrugged. "Let's go get your assistants, then."
[03:23] Valcen grimaced mildly. "It's not going to be that easy. I do need to do some vetting, here. I expect this will take a few weeks. The idea of assistants is to have volunteers, not slaves, so I'll be trying to... explain my situation... to these kavkema."
A pregnant pause.
"I rather don't expect they'll leap with joy at the opportunity of, in a roundabout way, helping me with my forays into kavkem neurology. That said, it should be possible to find volunteers, as long as I explain things clearly."
[03:25] "I expect as much, but starting later won't make things any faster. Unless you'd prefer to get your workspace set up first."
[03:31] Valcen stared at Tanak for a moment, once more baffled at the inferential distance between the various cultures – although in this case, that of Threadwielders and Nayabaru. "...I would," he said.