Chapter 23

The decisions were entirely up to me. The message of CrescentCreations proposals eventually reached Toby, but her spontaneous reply was essentially to leave all responsibility at my feet. It irked me a little, but with her on a long emergency trip to Washington D.C., I understood enough not to bother her.

It made me prideful, too. I read through all of the paperwork and took whatever gripes I had to the company's official, who went over a few extra details with me. Some money would go to the park, with a percentage that they estimated would bring in a few hundred-thousand dollars in the first year. I couldn't say no, especially with the park in need of some improvements here and there.

I was adapting to the role well, and the first nerves were long gone. Now even Clarissa left me to my own devices, though she did still visit me often in my office. She was with Toby in Washington, as was Cassie. Things were getting serious for those friends, with several new bills being proposed that would limit our people, as well as threats brought about by the ongoing Kelbrid war. While they dealt with those matters, I was left to watch over our totally peaceful population. Not that it didn't have some stresses of its own.

CrescentCreations were setting up for their first trial shooting. It was somewhere south of where I lived, nearer to where Toby resided. The location was chosen for several reasons, including the proximity to the large river running by, the patches of dense trees running by open stretches, the population size, and the beauty of the area in general. Though I presumed that they would bring a couple of cameras and a producer of two, I didn't really understand the actual scope of it all.

The director (whose name was never mentioned to me, and who never seemed to have the time to tell me it himself) seemed to want me there, but not as an advisor or an expert. He talked to me like a translator, as if he thought speaking to our people was too much of a task to undertake himself.

"Hey, you!" He blurted as I passed by at the whim of a cameraman who had lost his soda. "Yeah, you!"

"Me?" I responded, placing a claw to my chest.

He rolled his eyes and sat back heavily on his fold-away chair, clutching eagerly to a cardboard hot-drinks container. "Yeah. Get over here."

I obeyed reluctantly and stood tall over him. He didn't flinch, nor did he make eye contact, preferring instead to wave a hand dismissively at something behind me. "Could you make them, you know, gather? We wanna get as many in one shot as we can."

The request puzzled me, and I turned around to see a few of our people going about their daily routines in the distant trees. A few were in our clearing, shifting some branches. As expected, they had accepted the entire filming crew and were too polite to get in their way, ignorant of the fact that they were actually the ones being filmed. Nevertheless, it seemed silly to drag them all over to the clearing for a few snapshots and whatever else the director wanted.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," I suggested sorrowfully. "They seem to be busy tending to the tr-"

"You wanna make money?!" He interrupted forcefully.

"Do I… Well, yes. For the park. I just-"

"Bring them over," He said quite conclusively. "Don't you reptiles bask or something? Get them out into the Sun. I don't really care if it's cold."

I cleared my throat anxiously. "Technically, we are not reptiles. We don't fit into Earth classifications, so w-"

"I wanna see basking." He ordered, practically ending the discussion.

Orders were orders, and I did not wish to argue with somebody who could easily intimidate Pluk. Toby would have had a hard time, even. Although we were slowly entering my third autumn, and the temperature was rapidly declining, I decided that the momentary and uncomfortable distraction for my people would justify what it would eventually achieve.

Our people were reluctant, but more than happy to help. Without order, they began to start a small campfire in the clearing, which the director was pleased about. He said it felt more relatable, whatever that meant.

So our people, finally getting some warmth and being their usual polite and social selves, started to mingle with the crew. I was okay with that, and in fact overjoyed that they approached on their own accord. However, the director was not so impressed.

"Can you guys quit messing around?!" He yelped to his fellow Humans. "Why are you standing around talking to them?! We're here to film and then go home! I don't want to be here another three hours!"

With a screechy voice like his, one that tore through the brain like a key on a car bonnet, nobody wanted to answer back. Human and Hork-Bajir alike ceased chatting and nervously separated into the appropriate positions. I didn't really know what mine was, so I stood aside and between.

"What are you doing?!"

I cringed as the penetrating voice returned, and noticed that it was directed at me. I recovered, and said, "I'm just standing over here to-"

"No, you're not," He exclaimed. "Go over there where the cameras can see you! You're not here to stand around!"

I did what he told reluctantly, mumbling under my breath as I went to sit with my brothers and sisters. They were equally peeved, but compliant, and were now sat as one large group around the growing campfire, chattering amongst themselves.

"I like it!" The director's voice announced somewhere behind us. "Let's do this before they move!"

It could have been worse. At least we were allowed to speak amongst ourselves. The packed-in members of the community got to talking about the usual things: What kind of trees they had found, what new landmarks they had spotted. Nothing really out of the ordinary.

However, my presence added a little buzz to the crowd. I quickly found that a lot of the attention was directed to me, and I was learning the names of this previously foreign group. They had heard of me before, and weren't afraid to say so.

"Happy see Taku Kelmut," An acquaintance informed. He was planted down beside me, trying to avoid his elbow blade pressing too sharply against my right arm. "Taku Kelmut like Toby Hamee. Different."

"Taku different." One of his friends confirmed.

I blinked and considered. "How do you know of me? I have never been this way before?"

"Story," One commented. "Story of new seer."

"Bring Humans with strange magic trees." Another said, indicating the crewmen with their large cameras.

I shook my head. "I didn't bring them. I'm just here to advise them. I thought I was, anyway…"

It came to my attention after a few more exchanges that nobody had any idea why the Humans were there, and why they had pulled the community into a dense group. What irked me most of all was that despite the lack of knowledge, the community was happy to oblige with anything that the Humans requested of them. I was almost inclined to instruct them to make their own decisions, but then I would be at the mercy of the unwavering director.

They didn't keep us for too long, and we were allowed to disperse to our previous positions. Instead of returning to the Humans (where, to be honest, I felt completely ineffectual), I stuck around with the local inhabitants, sharing with them some food and a few oft-heard anecdotes. They were genuinely pleased to see the new seer, and by far the majority of them knew my name even before my arrival.

There was one family that was very eager to see me. They caught me just as I was about to leave, and called me up into their tree that rose over the river's edge. I pulled myself up the trunk, following close behind the female who had invited me up. I got the distinct sense that it wasn't merely a friendly hello visit, and when I flipped up over the platform and saw an anxious family awaiting me, my suspicions were confirmed.

Five individuals stood around. Two parents from what I could see, including the female who had led me up, with two kawatnoj. With them was another female, who I assumed to be the mother of one of the parents. Below all five of them, slumped up against the main trunk of the tree, sat a male whose body was ragged and scarred.

"Oh, um," I stuttered, bumbling oafishly towards the downed individual. "What's happened here?"

The father of the group filled me in with a few details. "Father-father sick. Fall. Put by tree."

"Okay…" I sighed, accepting that said details were always likely to be vague. "Can you tell me what kind of sickness he has?"

The male nodded. "Father-father chest move bad. Make breathe hard."

I stared down to my fallen brother, and his breath was indeed weak. He gazed up at me, and I noticed him smiling.

"Toby Hamee?" He whispered eerily, eyes blinking and unfocused.

"No," I replied, kneeling down beside him as his family watched. "My name is Taku Kelmut."

"Hear of Taku Kelmut," He muttered. "Taku like Toby Hamee. Different."

I made myself a little more comfortable and tried to check for other signs of illness. "Do you know Toby Hamee?" I said, making some small talk while I observed.

"Yes. Know Toby Hamee long," He mused. "Toby Hamee friend."

He bore many scars on his body, moreso than any active Hork-Bajir would ever get by simply running through trees. A realisation dawned on me. "You must have known her during the war."

He smiled weakly, but assuredly. "Yes. Since war. That why Mit sick."

"Because of something that happened during the war?" I asked, surprised.

"Yes. Mit hit here," He explained, holding his chest. "Hard."

I would not tell him that I had any expertise in physical issues, because I really didn't. I knew nothing of it, but I looked around at all of their faces, and I felt the hope radiating from them, as if I were some miracle-worker here to save the life of their crippled father. I felt immense guilt, as if the mere action of inspecting him would give them that false-hope.

"Taku help Father-father?" One of the children pleaded, tugging at my arm. "Taku see far. Know much."

"See what Hork-Bajir not see." Her mother added.

It wasn't true at all. I saw exactly what they saw: A crippled war veteran struggling from the injuries he received in some battle years ago. I couldn't help him, I couldn't diagnose him. But there was something I could do.

"Do you know where Jackson is?" I quizzed the family.

"Jack-son?" One replied. The rest looked down, puzzled.

"The Human town near here. Where the Humans live in their big square trees."

To my relief, the mother perked up. "Know! See from mountain."

"There is a place there where your Father-father can be treated. A medical centre specifically for Hork-Bajir. If you take Mit there, the Humans will direct you. I'm sure."

Their faces lit up, and it took me completely by surprise. It was not as if I did much to help other than push them onto the Humans.

"We fellana!" The mother chirped. "Fellana Taku Kelmut!"

"Take to Humans," The father agreed. "Take Father-father to Jack-son."

I travelled home in a contemplative mood. It occurred that more and more of our people were beginning to look to me as something much more than a stranger. It was happening everywhere, and very few people, if any, weren't aware of my presence in the park, my name, and what was different about me. People would ask of me things that they would probably never think to ask anybody else, and often they would request things that I simply could not provide. They saw me to be like Toby, and in so many ways, I was not like her at all.

I did my best for them all, because they only ever had good intentions. But it became ever more difficult to keep up with the demands, especially when, for example, my neighbours would always come to me first when they had questions that they could not answer. Most of the time, I had to admit ignorance, but every time that I found an answer, it would only solidify their view of me as a kind of prophet.

The pressure was starting to apply, and I could better appreciate why Toby would so often isolate herself, even from her family. It was very tiring for just one person to take on such responsibility.

But I loved our people, and their problems were mostly ones that we shared. It felt very satisfying to help them in any way that I could, even if my help was only minor.

My relationship to the Humans was similar in many ways, but majorly different in others. Like our people, my name was known in places where I had never even dreamt of visiting. But they didn't call on me for help, or ask for my advice when they were unsure. In fact, it was completely the other way around.

In the end, the Humans weren't my responsibility. I just had to make certain that our people weren't damaged by their actions, and that wasn't something I really saw happening.

Then I would remember Lieutenant Matthews, and I would again be thrown to a pit of self-doubting.

I arrived back in my home community as the sunset began to make its presence known on the mountainous horizon. Everything was being packed up, readied for the next morning when activities would resume. The campfire, growing more important as the nights grew colder, was already well under way.

Eager to make the most of the evening, I saved dinner for the usual feast that would consist of bark that the harvesters considered the finest cut of the day. With the expertise that came naturally, it always made for a wonderful meal.

I was nearly there.

"Find Taku!"

I jumped at the noise, swivelling as the voice registered as Relk's. "Oh, hello! I didn't expect to see you."

She was sat atop a fallen trunk, two piles of leaves sat on the ground before her. One was green, the other brown, and from the distribution, it was obvious that she had been organising them.

She smiled at me childishly. "Taku not say long words. Long word make Relk head stuck." She complained, holding her head.

"I try to make it as easy as I can," I excused as I moved to sit beside her. "I was going to look for you. The feast will start soon."

"Feast boring," She giggled. "Something else. Play."

I scratched at my neck, still staring curiously at the two piles of leaves. "Play? Aren't you hungry?"

"Relk eat." She explained cheerily.

"Oh. I haven't eaten dinner yet, but I should be fine for a while," I muttered awkwardly, slumping into a hunched position as she sat proudly above me, also gloatingly as I finally had to give in. "Relk, what are you doing with these leaves?"

Maybe it was obvious. When she started to laugh, I definitely got that impression. She joined me in staring, using the tip of her tail to ruffle the brown pile. "Taku not know? Relk bring leaves. Green. Brown."

"I can see that… But why?"

Relk stopped giggling and stared blankly at me. Such conversations were frustrating, but answers always come eventually. "Why?"

I blinked. "Yes, why?"

She shrugged and smiled wider. "Why why?"

"Why why?"

Totally convinced, she nodded. "Why why?"

"So…" I grunted, nudging at the other pile. "You had no reason to do this?"

Relk shook her head, and kicked the brown pile of leaves so that they scattered before her. "Why need reason?"

That statement didn't sit right with me. "Everything needs a reason, Relk. Everything is done with some purpose in mind."

"Taku make big words," She retorted. "What reason?"

"So that you can understand me." I explained.

"But Relk not understand."

I sighed, and picked myself up from the downed trunk. My brain was too drained to consider the problem. "Shall we play now?"

She grinned mischievously, having clearly gotten her wish. "Yes, Taku Kelmut."

We went for no direction in particular, under Relk's guidance of using absolutely no reason to get to whatever destination it was that we had no reason to go to. I followed her for the entire time, thinking too hard, contemplating things that I felt needed contemplating. Relk would stop and tell me to speed up whenever my speed declined.

This time, I wasn't thinking about the little plights of our people, or the various Humans that I was forced into contact with. I was thinking of her. It was a curious predicament that only served to fuel my high-speed brain. I had never looked at her that way before then, watching her swing through the trees effortlessly, clutching to rogue branches high above to swing herself to the next trunk over, fastidiously bouncing to the next, and the next…

It was all falling into place. Mother and Father were a couple, as were the parents of all my peers. As were my Father-fathers and Mother-mothers. Kawatnoj never behaved in such a way, never paired off like that. Most certainly, kawatnoj didn't do the things that I had often and unintentionally caught my parents doing late at night in the home tree.

There was a shift in preference there somewhere, and I was becoming very sure that said shift was pulling at my tail.

That conclusion was further proved when I realised that never before had I been so fascinated with Relk's rear end. How peculiar it was.

We slowed to a stop nearby the campsite, but far enough into the trees that we would likely go undisturbed. Relk perched herself up against a pine tree and, having spent a considerable amount of energy, began a feast of her own. I wasn't far behind, and I was even hungrier. I had barely eaten at all, and after such a long day, it was becoming a necessity that I get some nutrition.

"Fire boring," Relk commented as the relaxation period begun. "Better be with Taku to play."

"I think you're right," I commented. "It's a lot of fun. We should do it again sometime."

She nodded eagerly, tiny shards of wood being flung from her snout. "Again. Just as warm."

"Maybe not during the winter. I think we'll have to be by the fire during the colder months."

Relk paused awkwardly, and gazed at me with narrow, curious eyes. "Taku change a lot. Taku not speak like Hork-Bajir. Big words. Strange words."

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to confuse you…"

She squeaked, and warmly handed me a great big slab of bark. "Relk think know what Taku say, even if not know what Taku say."

I chuckled lightly, and began the challenge of eating such a great chunk of pine. "I guess that's pretty useful…" I didn't really know what else to say.

"Taku talk like Human."

"Yes, that's true." I replied.

"Be like Human."

"In some ways, maybe," I shrugged. "But I am much more like you."

"Taku like Human." She insisted.

I scratched at my neck gauchely. "They are quite nice. Most of the time."

"No," She grunted, shaking her head roughly. "Like Humans."

Now it was my turn to feel stupid, and I squirmed even more embarrassingly. "My brain is more like a Human's, but the rest of me is definitely Hork-Bajir. That's how I like it." I couldn't believe, once I was done speaking, how defensive I was becoming about it. I played anxiously with the tip of my tail, my father's uneasy habit.

Relk grinned and moved closer to me, gifting to me a fraction more comfort in the situation. Her beautiful snout nearly contacted my own, and she locked her eyes to mine with irresistible chains. It was an inspection, sophisticated and astute. Traits not commonly associated with our people, but something we were infrequently capable of. She pulled my soul up through my pupils, magnifying glasses that delved into all of my being.

"Relk like, too." Was her deceivingly simple response. She backed away, and resumed her meal.