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marthawells

Martha Wells

My Flying Lizard Circus


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The Cloud Roads
marthawells

Raksura Snippet Post

Okay, because it's Friday, here's a Raksura snippet. This is the scene I said I was writing the other day: Moon and Stone go into a dive bar.

Note, this is from something that hasn't been sold yet, but the scene is sort of almost complete in itself, so I think it makes a nice little story.

Also Note, Kalam and the other people they are with know they are Raksura and know what Raksura are, etc, but the people in the port don't, and would probably mistake them for Fell if they shifted.






As they came around the last curve it was obvious that the nearest buildings all seemed to be selling food, and the smell of frying oil and grilled fish and sugar hung in the air. Moon's stomach grumbled, even though he wasn't hungry; groundling food tended to affect him that way. Callumkal and the others went past the food stalls and Moon stopped by one of the pillars at the base of the ramp to watch them.

The tower was on higher ground and the slight elevation let him see that the Kishan were taking a turn off the main road into a compound of larger, more substantial buildings. From the wrapped bundles, bags, and crates piled up in the yard, it was a trading factor and was probably where Callumkal meant to buy supplies. He turned to say that to Stone, and found Stone had disappeared.

Moon gritted his teeth to suppress an annoyed hiss. This went wrong fast. But a moment later, Stone stepped out of a food stall across from the end of the ramp. Relieved, Moon went to meet him.

Stone had a paper wrap filled with fried lumps of something that smelled intoxicating. Stone said, "Want some?"

"No." Moon was still mad about that moment of worry Stone had given him. "How did you buy it?"

"Traded an opal." At Moon's incredulous expression, he said, exasperated, "They change currency for trade too. They gave me a sack of metal bits that are good in most of the trading ports around here."

Moon grimaced in annoyance. "You don't go to the first place. They'll charge more than the others further away."

Stone sighed with weary patience. None of the Raksura understood trading or barter the way groundlings did it, and none of them understood why Moon cared. None of them had ever been stuck in a groundling city where they had to trade for food or not eat. Stone said, "So? If we need more metal bits, we'll get more." He held out the paper again and this time Moon gave in and took one. They were fried lumps of sweet dough, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Chewing, Moon said, "Callumkal and the others went to a trading factor over there." He turned in time to see Kalan walk out of the compound's entrance and head down the road toward the docks.

"Now where's he going?" Stone said, eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

Moon took another piece of fried dough. They had speculated that one of the Kishan close to the expedition might have been infected by the Fell, might be spying for a ruler without knowing it. "Let's see."


***


They set off at an easy pace, following Kalan at a distance.

Fortunately there were just enough groundlings out on the street to blend in with, but not so many that it was hard to keep track of Kalam. Most of the groundlings were going in and out of the market stalls, or occupied with moving cargo toward the port on the bird-thing carts. There was even more variety of species the closer they got to the port, though the Coastal species was still in the majority. The gray people with the weirdly-jointed limbs were even stranger close up, with bulging eyes that were set wide apart. Moon didn't see any blue-skinned Serican traders, but there were pale green people with the faint glint of scales on their skin, usually a sign that there were sealings in their ancestry somewhere. No one seemed unduly interested in Moon and Stone, or Kalam for that matter, beyond the occasional curious glance. Moon had always preferred this type of groundling city, where everyone was occupied with their own business and expected to see different species. He hated any place where he was stared at, hated to be singled out for scrutiny that might lead to suspicion that might lead to fleeing for his life.

The ground sloped slightly as it curved down toward the harbor. Over the low rooftops, Moon spotted the masts of the larger ships and the jungle-covered peaks of the closer islands. Moon circled a group of groundlings unloading a wagon, the bird-thing turning its head to glare at him as they passed. The road curved around another large cargo yard and opened out into the harbor front, a maze of walkways built atop the piled-up rocks covering the beach. The wind was stronger here and heavier with the scents of salt and dead fish and sea wrack. At a set of docks a little way down, groundlings loaded or unloaded big sailing vessels, and several shallow-draft barges floated further out. Down toward the other end of the harbor, the walkways curved back from the beach and naked groundlings were playing in the waves. It was too bad they couldn't bring the Arbora and the warriors down here, but there was no time, and they would want to shift and swim in their scaled forms. Even in a place like this, shifting would cause a riot.

Not far from the sailing docks, one of the broader walkways led out to several interlinked docks built of the same material as the towers. They extended out away from the shallow area into the deeper water, and Moon thought at first that there were several low-lying barges tied up there. But a closer look showed that they were structures sitting in the water.

And Kalam was heading for the walkway. Moon said, "I think he's going where we were going."

"To see the sealings?" Stone leaned on a piling. "If he was meaning to follow us, he did a bad job of it."

Kalam walked along the walkway, pausing to watch a large vessel lowering its butterfly-shaped sails as it angled in toward the next set of docks. The boy didn't look like he was doing anything surreptitious, and he didn't look like he was being compelled to go to a Fell ruler, either. "I don't think so. Callumkal told me about the sealing traders, I bet he told Kalam too. Maybe he just came down here to see them."

Stone made an annoyed noise. Kalam was moving again, out onto the docks with the trading station. Stone said, "Come on. If he's sightseeing, we're sightseeing too."

Moon followed, only a little reluctantly. If Kalam saw them he was sure to tell Callumkal, and Moon didn't want the whole crew to know their business. Because Kalam wasn't speaking to Fell didn't mean no one else was.

They went down the walkway and out onto the first dock. Moon saw he was right, that unlike the others which all looked to be wood and cut rocks, these were the same metallic stone as the towers. And the several structures standing only a few paces above the waves were built of the same material. So whoever had built the towers had built the trading station for the sealings. Or for whatever had lived in the water back then.

Moon was prepared to wave and look innocent if Kalam glanced back and saw them, but Kalam was heading for the outer dock, slipping past the other parties of groundlings who were coming and going. There were five structures partially above the water, and at least two further out that sat lower, their roofs just below the waves. The largest had heavy clear crystals set into windows along the sides, and two entrances, where stone steps led down into wells in the sides of the building. It also looked the most crowded, as both entrances were temporarily blocked, one by groundlings trying to carry large pottery jars down into the structure, the other by a Coastal who had a twisted leg joint and was being helped up the stairs by a companion.

The other groundlings on that part of the dock just milled around, waiting for the entrances to clear, but Kalam hesitated, then started for the smaller structures further down the dock. "No," Moon muttered, "He's going to the wrong one."

"What?" Stone squinted against the salt spray in the air.

"That's the trading station." Moon jerked his chin toward the large structure. "The one those groundlings are waiting to get into. I don't know what those are."

Those blocky structures were smaller, further underwater, and didn't have any sky lights. A few groundlings were going down into their stairwells, or making their way toward them along the dock. Moon's instincts for navigating groundling cities had all been gained the hard way, and they told him that while the trading station looked like a relatively safe prospect, those places didn't.

"Huh," Stone commented, and strolled after Kalam.

Kalam picked the first structure he came to and started down the steps into the entrance well, which again didn't bode well for the theory that he had been unconsciously compelled to meet a Fell ruler and wasn't just exploring a strange city. Moon was half-inclined to give up on Kalam and just go to the trading station where they were more likely to hear news of the sel-Selatra. But Stone was already following Kalam down the stairs, so Moon suppressed an annoyed hiss and went after him.

It was dark inside after the bright morning sun, but Moon's eyes adjusted quickly. It was a big oblong room, the walls of something that looked like light-colored stone, and there were long crystal windows, all below the surface so the light was dim and constantly changing as the waves crashed over the roof above. The artificial light came from glass lamps, placed on small shelves randomly studding the walls. Moon couldn't tell what was inside the lamps, if it was magical illumination or just a glowing mineral or plant material, but the light was white and not strong. The air was intensely damp and the place was also bigger than it looked on the outside. This was only the first level, and Moon spotted Kalam's head going down the circular stairwell in the middle of the floor.

There were only a few groundlings here, standing in groups and talking, and no one who looked like a sealing of any kind. A Coastal with patchy scales was selling cups of various caustic-scented liquids from a set of pottery urns in the far corner of the room, and that was the only activity taking place. Stone barely bothered to glance around and followed Kalam.

The stairs curved down into a bigger lower level, where the dim white light was even more murky and the view through the windows was darker, except for the occasional silver flicker of a fish, or the little blue shellfish clinging to the crystal. This room was much larger than the one above, and had doorways in the far walls leading to other chambers.

There were more groundlings here, standing and talking or sitting on cushions on the floor. And finally there were sealings.

There were a dozen round pools cut into the floor, that must have some passage outside, because the water scent was fresh and salty. The sealings swam or lounged on the edges of the pools, speaking to the groundlings gathered around. They had green scaled skin and long dark green hair that looked like heavy lengths of water weeds. Their hands and feet were heavily webbed and they had long prominent claws, and filmy fins along their arms and legs. Most were wearing jewelry, unpolished lumps of pearl and jasper in nets of braided cord. "Finally," Stone muttered, and wandered into the crowd, heading for the pools.

There were Coastals selling various things, mostly more caustic drinks and little glass cups that emitted vapor and were meant to be held under the nose. It competed with the more attractive scents of the water and the sealings themselves.

Moon looked for Kalam and spotted him partway across the room. Most of the crowd was dressed in lighter fabrics, and Kalam's reddish brown skin and dark hair stood out among all the grays and greens. He was trying to circle around a group to get closer to the pools, but suddenly the group circled him.

It had occurred to Moon that if Kalam had been compelled by the Fell, the rulers might have sent another infected groundling into the port to talk to him. He moved closer, trying to see what was happening. One of the groundlings, a tall gray male with a long head and limbs that made him look as if he might be related to the Aventerans, stooped over Kalan.

But as Moon stepped closer, Kalam tried to back away from the group. Kalam, clearly uncomfortable, said in careful Altanic, "I'm just here to look around. I'm not interested in company."

Moon hissed under his breath, annoyed. Kalam had picked the wrong place, all right; this structure must be mainly for getting intoxicated and meeting people to have sex with. Moon pushed forward and elbowed aside the groundling blocking Kalam's retreat. He said, "He said he's not interested."

The group edged back a little. The one Moon had elbowed fell back against the wall and was clutching his middle. Moon had gotten used to elbowing warriors and had lost the habit for being more careful with groundlings. The maybe-Aventeran jerked back a little, startled. In badly slurred Altanic, he demanded, "Who are you?"

Moon showed his teeth in an expression that was not a smile. "I'm a friend of his father's."

The maybe-Aventeran's companions and the other groundlings who had been gathering to see the fight immediately started to back away.

"How should I know that?" the maybe-Aventeran demanded again, hesitated in confusion as his support retreated, then hurriedly followed them across the room.

"Thank you." Kalam turned to Moon, a little breathlessly. "I didn't know what to do."

"Why are you here?" Moon hoped Kalam wouldn't ask why Moon was here.

Kalam, being young and flustered, didn't think to question Moon's sudden appearance. "I wanted to see the trading station. My father gave me permission. The people at the supply factor said it was safe."

Moon drew on the ability he had cultivated while raising fledglings to be patient in the face of the most willfully ignorant behavior. "Yes, but this isn't the trading station."

"I know, but it was crowded, and I thought this would be quicker. I'm not supposed to be gone too long."

Kids, Moon thought, exasperated. Kalam was probably old enough to be let out alone in a Kishan academic enclave, but maybe not old enough to wander a busy port city. "The next time you tell your father you're going to the trading station, you go to the trading station. You have to be careful in strange places."

"I know." Kalam's expression was a convincing combination of embarrassed and miserable. "I will."

Moon said, "Just stay with us." He looked for Stone and saw him sitting by one of the pools toward the center of the room, with a couple of other groundlings and a Coastal. A sealing floated in the pool, speaking to the Coastal.

Moon made his way through the sparse crowd, aware Kalam was sticking obediently close. He sat next to Stone as the Coastal and the other groundlings left. Kalam took a seat on the opposite side of the pool.

The sealing, a young female, stared at Moon in what was probably supposed to be a provocative way. Moon was still irritated from the encounter with the maybe-Aventeran, and it just made him want to bite through someone's neck artery.

Apparently this was obvious. The sealing turned to Stone and said in Altanic, "What's wrong with him?"

"He's in a bad mood," Stone explained, "He was born that way. Does the one who's down there with you want to talk too?"

The sealing sank into the water a little, swishing her fins in exasperation. "I take it you're not here for the usual."

Stone said, "I don't know what that is. I want to know if you've had any news from the waters in the direction of the place the groundlings call sel-Selatra."

Scaled brows drew down in thought. "Towards the wind passage? The land of the sea-mounts?"

"That's it."

"There was some--" The sealing's whole body jerked, as if something had grabbed her from below and tugged. Moon's brain said predator and he almost shifted, catching himself just in time. The sealing said, "Ah, someone else wants to talk to you," and sank below the surface and out of sight.

Stone gritted his teeth and gazed up at the damp ceiling. He said in Raksuran, "I hate talking to sealings. Everything's a damn bargain."

"You hate talking to everybody," Moon said, in the same language. It didn't help, but Moon felt he had to point it out.

"Shut up. Why is he here?" Stone jerked his head toward Kalam.

Moon said, through gritted teeth, "So I don't have to shift and kill everybody in this stupid stinking place."

Stone sighed. Another sealing broke the surface, and water lapped up over the edge of the pool. This was a female, older, or at least the faint dull sheen at the edge of her scales made her look older.

She studied them both thoughtfully, with an edge of contempt in her expression, then said in Altanic, "We sell isteen. If you want to buy that, stay. If you don't, get out before you regret it." She bared fangs. "We don't sell information."

Moon didn't know what isteen was and he didn't care. Considering the other groundlings in here, it was probably a simple that made you stupid. Stone just said, "That's good, because I wasn't planning to pay you."

She swayed in the water, as if considering. "Buy isteen, and perhaps I'll give you the information you want."

Stone said, "I don't want isteen, and I'm not giving you anything."

"If I give you information, I need to be paid." She nodded toward Moon. "I'll take that one."

After having to rescue Kalam from drunken groundlings who couldn't control their own genitals, this was too much. Moon said, "Try."

The sealing focused on him, really looking at him for the first time. Whatever she saw made her scales ripple. Whether it was aggressive or defensive, Moon didn't know, but it nearly set off his predator reflex. Stone tilted a sideways look at him and made a noise in his throat, just a faint growl, not enough to vibrate through the floor. "Moon. No."

The message was clear. Moon hissed at him, and lay down on the damp floor, head propped on his hand, as if prepared to wait as long as it took.

The sealing relaxed a little, the water splashing toward Kalam's side of the pool as she flexed her fins. She said, "I had to ask. What else have you got to pay me with?"

Stone smiled. Most groundlings wouldn't have recognized what was behind that expression but it would have made the warriors scatter like startled lizards. "You want me to come down there and ask?" he said.

The sealing stared hard at him, eyes narrowed, as if trying see past his skin. "What are you?"

Moon swallowed an annoyed snarl and said, "She wants to scare us. Why don't you just act scared?"

Kalam kept looking from Moon to Stone to the sealing, wide-eyed and deeply fascinated. At least somebody was having fun.

Still smiling easily, not betraying any impatience, Stone said, "I'm terrified. Want me to come down there and be terrified?"

The sealing looked from Stone to Moon to Kalam. Then she kicked once to glide to the far side of the pool. She leaned back against the edge and stretched her arms along it, claws displayed but relaxed. "Most of the groundling traders who come here defer to us. They're afraid of sealing females."

No one said we're not groundlings though Moon felt it hang in the air. He said, "Our females would have pulled you out of there and ripped your skin off by now."

"And that's why we can't be friends," Stone said. "Now do you know anything about the waters in the sel-Selatra or do I need to go to the next pool and start over?"

She exhaled, a salty breath that made Moon wince. "We speak to the Viar, who live mostly on the surface, in floating colonies. They say they've seen an island that should have groundlings that is now empty. It was on the edge of the first sea-mount. The Viar are not..." She made an elegant gesture with her claws. "Like us. They have no limbs or ears, they see in different ways, they care about different things. But these groundlings gave them powdered grain they like in exchange for driving fish into their nets during a certain season, so the Viar noticed when they went there and found them gone. There is no taste of them in the water anymore. It was a strange story to hear, so it was passed on through our nets of speech."

Moon thought that it meshed unpleasantly well with what they had already heard. Stone took it in thoughtfully. "Where did this happen?"

It took some time to figure out the location, as the directions and landmarks the sealings used were completely different from those used by water or air vessels, and were often seen only from below the surface. Both Stone and Moon had to ask a lot of questions, and Moon just hoped Kalam didn't realize that they had a suspiciously accurate picture of the sel-Selatra considering they were only supposed to have seen the map once and briefly. But Kalam seemed more interested in the sealing's descriptions of the sea bottom.

Finally they were able to leave, and climbing back up the stairs into the sunlight and clean wind and the crash of waves against the dock felt like stepping into a completely different world. It made Moon feel like they might just escape the port without anyone being murdered.

On the dock, Kalam hesitated. "Can we go to the trading station too? We're so close and I hate to miss it--"

Moon started to say no but just then a groundling walked up from the station's nearest stairwell carrying a paper wrap of something that smelled of sweet grease and salt. Stone shrugged and turned toward the station. "Sure."

Moon was about to protest, but inspiration struck. He caught up with them and said, "If the Arbora find out we took Kalam to the trading station and not them, they'll be furious." This had the virtue of being completely true.

Stone paused, catching on immediately. He told Kalam, "You have to promise not to tell anybody we were here with you."

Kalam, wisely realizing this would mean his father wouldn't hear about his adventure in the sealing drug bar, nodded. "I won't say anything to anyone."

***

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Oh, how fun! Thanks for sharing this, Martha!

Thank you, that started the day off right!

oh, this was just marvelous! I love that they're back amongst groundlings, and the mystery is just so tantalizing. the scene of back-and-forth threats with the sealing was so delicious.

it just made him want to bite through someone’s neck artery. HA oh Moon.

"He's in a bad mood," Stone explained, "He was born that way." STONE! <3

I'm so grateful you shared this with us!




(Deleted comment)
Thank you! Hopefully, if it sells, it'll be in the next novel.

Thanks so much for this! I love how complex the societies of the Raksura world are.

Thank you. Is this for the next Raksura collection?
He said, "Our females would have pulled you out of there and ripped your skin off by now."
And I don't know why, but that tickles the cockles of my black little heart.

Edited at 2014-09-19 05:36 pm (UTC)

Thank you! If it sells, it'll be part of the next novel.

Then I hope it sells. The possibility of a new Raksura novel gladdens that same black little heart.

OMG That was amazing. Stone is my favourite for ever! I love seeing him and Moon play off each other's continuous grumpiness.

"I'm terrified. Would you like me to come down there and be terrified?"

As a side note, I read this aloud to a friend, and 'sealings' caused some initial amusing confusion :3

I reaaaaally hope to see more of this and now I am even more excited for my book to come so I can read more Raksura adventures!

I just got an email from Amazon giving an estimated delivery date for my book of September 26 :)

Oh, yay! I just checked and it looks like they're showing it in stock on the 24th.

Moon and Stone are always a hoot. Good to see they are still annoying each other in amusing ways.

Potentially another full novel? *jumping for joy*

Thanks so much for sharing it. I was starting to feel the need for another Moon fix, and this did nicely.

yay!

(amazon sent me a note saying i can expect to receive Stories of the Raksura v 1 on or around the 26th, by the way!)

Thanks! And yes, it looks like ti's finally shipping! That's a big relief.

LOVE. I love Moon's separation anxiety and Stone's complete ease wherever he is; I love the new place and people and society!

I really really hope the piece this is from sells - another book would be so freaking awesome!!!

Thank you! Yeah, I really hope so too. I'm having fun with this one.

Hey, are they in Kish? Are they going to run into Selis? Selis was awesome. :D

They're actually on the edge of Kish, so they probably won't run into her. I need to do a separate Selis story at some point.

That would be great! Whenever I go back to "The Cloud Roads" I wonder what happened to Selis, and if she ever found her place to belong.

Late to the party, but I really enjoyed this, and fingers crossed that it sells!

I love these stories and this world so much. Thanks for sharing!

Awesome! I wish we could read the whole thing. I hope it's sold soon! I love Stone and Moon.

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