[18:33] Story staff gingerly held by his tilted muzzle, Athechelt struggled to find a balance between a cautious ascent minimising the marks he would leave and firm grip. The effort rippling through his shoulders, he made it far enough to sling his right forearm around an overhanging branch and use that to take weight off the rest of his limbs.
One more swing and careful scramble later saw him bunched at the base of the sturdy branch Asraaban was using for his Watch, partly wrapped around his story staff, partly leant against the trunk of the tree.
[18:34] There he paused for a moment, catching his breath from the climb. Finally, he drew the staff out from between his limbs and settled it amongst nearby branches, taking care that wind would not easily dislodge it (or turn it into an unwitting musical instrument drawing attention to their position).
Quietly, he balanced his way over to Asraaban's position, near where the thick branch split, then tucked his muzzle in under the edge of the tarp Asraaban was draped in, sliding under the same cover. There was more than enough of it to accommodate both of them, letting Athechelt fuss over it a little longer, arrange his part as he imagined best.
Once he was settled down, hunkered into a stable perch that he could rest in, he glanced across the landscape thoughtfully. To Asraaban, in a weary voice, he said: "I don't mean to be rude or impose on your freedoms, but I owe this question to my people: I want your assurance that whatever it is you're withholding from us will do us no harm. Can you give me that assurance?"
[03:01] The local kavkema had been standoff-ish enough that Athechelt pressing so close him was a mild surprise. The interrogation was not, but neither was it particularly threatening. Still, it was an awkward question and one without simple answers; how did one explain Evenatra without direly offending Athechelt's customs?
By not explaining her at all, he decided. By explaining around her, describing the mere outlines of the shape she made in the world, and letting others fill in the form as they pleased.
"We mean and will bring you no direct or immediate harm," Asraaban offered at last. "Indirectly... the question is more complex. Evenatra is one of the... better known kavkema within Shyilun. She carries many stories and secrets for others, information that the Nayabaru would greatly love to tear from her. If they realise she is present the Hesha will focus all their efforts upon her, likely even ignoring the aliens to do so."
He shrugged and twisted to look at the other kavkem. "They will hunt us for being kavkem. They will hunt her for being Evenatra. That may put your people at more risk. But if it helps, it means that should we be identified, you can protect your people by running in a different direction; you'll be ignored."
[03:13] Athechelt considered the statements in silence for a while, his breath steady and his expression inscrutable. If it weren't for the words already exchanged, one might assume he was more interested in the landscape beyond their tree than in anything Asraaban had said.
Then his muzzle twisted downward and to the side in a gesture suspended between aborted affirmation and apology.
[03:14] "I appreciate your frankness," he said. "However, I believe you already understand that Shyilun is barely known along Idiishi and certainly considered no threat by the Tarnished here. Therefore I must ask: Why would Evenatra be known to the Tarnished? She is known not even to us."
[03:26] It was a reasonable objection, and once more difficult to explain. "While I agree with you on the knowledge of the local Tarnished -" he made a mental note to try and stick with the ryrhakenem's phrasing, "- the presence of the aliens changes things. Either they will be taken to the one who has been plotting the stars, or he will come to them. And THEY know of Evenatra, and will warn the Hesha."
[03:47] A subtle tension grasped at Athechelt's hands, pressing his claws more firmly against the bark of the tree, not quite chipping at the wood. His mind was full of questions he could ask, most of which would satisfy only his curiosity without giving him any further insight into how to behave.
'What makes Evenatra so notorious that she would be a priority target?', 'Why are there Nayabaru that have been tracking the stars, as you have?', 'What is the Nayabaru interest in the visitors?'.
[03:48] It took discipline and concentration to extract a worthwhile query from all his frothing concerns. "If Evenatra is sufficiently notorious as to attract attention this far from her usual prowl, what has driven her to come here? Judging by prior statements, this matter is likely to develop into a high-scrutiny scenario – surely not the best way to avoid escalation or jeopardy."
[13:38] "My understanding of the topic is limited," Asraaban cautioned, "but from what I understand, there is very little that our presence here can do to make things WORSE." At least not in the short term. The very short term. A terrifying unnatural spidermonster would come running the moment she heard of Evenatra's presence, but there was a strong chance she was planning on doing that anyway. "The presence of these hyuumans has already drawn as much attention as we could."
He tugged the edge of the tarp a little closer. "I'm better trained for countering Tarnished Nayabaru than I am diplomacy," he admitted, "but they will claim to want the aliens as allies until the moment they can weaponise them against us. And they will. These outsiders will be treated as poorly as kavkema as soon as they are seen as a threat. And they will be seen as a threat. Just look at their teeth."
[14:17] Their teeth. Mammals. That held no mythological significance to the Nayabaru as it did to the kavkema, but mammals were often omnivorous. Depending on their cultural habits, that would pose an insurmountable problem to the Nayabaru. To Athechelt, on the other hand, the Nayabaru were Tarnished, and needed no such excuse.
That Tarnished would want allies at all meshed poorly with Athechelt's preconceptions. He rolled the notion around in his mind. What would it mean for Tarnished to seek allies? Would they tie the visitors outside at daylight? If so, they were almost surely too late to rescue them already.
He was so preoccupied with these thoughts that he nearly forgot his initial line of inquiry. He blinked out of his fresh concerns and returned to the previous: "Neither I nor my people want to disrupt your pursuit of your goals. Still, grant me some more of your patience with me, a q'umok-ita.
[14:18] "Understand, we are not trained, as you are. My caution may be all my people have to protect them. You have told me Evenatra is of some fame beyond Idiishi. You don't think it will cause any additional problems and I have no cause to doubt your assessment on that matter is truthful.
"But a risk surely remains. You both come from a Shyilun shard with sufficient numbers that they could have sent someone else. I don't mean to be ungrateful for her presence or yours, but I want to understand the decision made.
"What skills does she bring that make this risk worthwhile?"
[17:20] 'Because she's Evenatra' was the raw truth, but meaningless to Athechelt. 'Because she is Tamas̈elu' was also truth, but would be met with – at best – him being declared insane and quite likely in ill-timed violence.
He settled on a partial truth: "She is the best we have at languages, and our best hope of convincing the aliens to let us help them save themselves." Asraaban paused and considered their journey. "Also we were by far the fastest team. There was a terrifying amount of leaping from tall places in our descent from the mountains, instead of sensible climbing." He'd already professed a willingness to physically attack Nayabaru, a little more evidence of crazy was not out of character.
[00:20] Evenatra had already proven her linguistic prowess, that much was true – but the comment on their descent only fed into Athechelt's unease. Neither of them made a superficial impression of recklessness, but if that was what they were, they could easily endanger the others.
He considered what Asraaban had told him in silence. There was a small chance they were already Tarnished – quite possibly without knowing it, depending on how careful coastal culture handled it. If the sunlight had eaten its way into them and was poisoning their thoughts, it was an unfortunate loss and a danger to his people.
He thought back to his dream, troubled by the parallels. The light had infected both him and Nadani in the dream. Neither of them had seen it coming. And yet, only Tarnished had something revealed itself to them, previously invisible; something important, something threatening.
Athechelt drew in on himself quietly, shifting into a posture he could sleep in.
"I thank you," he said, finally, almost muttering the words into the feathers of his mane and arms. "May neither of you regret your choice to come, and our people not regret working together. Chance tends not to be our friend, luck shies from our side, but we have our wits and our hearts. May that, then, be enough, and our story prevail."