I was in a dining hall. In Washington, D.C., of course, on my second outing. It had been a while since my last visit, but the memories were still so vivid that it felt like I had lived there my entire life. Buildings like great trees, car lights like the flickers of a campfire in the late evening.
This time, the city wasn't like wandering into a whole new universe where everything was new and exciting. Having become so heavily involved with the Human world back in and around Yellowstone, I had seen pretty much everything that I needed to see. I had played with computers, watched hours of television, taken taxi rides around my local town, interacted with Humans of all different vocations and backgrounds. I even had my own tablet.
Well, Clarissa let me borrow it. Sometimes. Maybe once a week…
In the end, she got frustrated with me for filling her tablet with distinctly unprofessional pictures of myself and random, indistinguishable pieces of furniture.
I digress. Washington had soon lost its charm, and now it just seemed like a kind of irritating noise. A chore that I had to muscle through. I was told that that was just the way that jobs were, but I didn't like considering it as a job. I wanted it to be an adventure. In many ways, it was, but was always more discomforting than exciting.
The reason I was in Washington again was to further push my reputation as a contact for our two peoples. I was still Toby's apprentice in more ways than I liked to admit, but more and more I was becoming "The New Toby". With that name sat upon my shoulders came the expectations, and I started attending meetings, conferences and, of course, dinners with various influential Humans.
That was what I was doing on that day. It was a dinner organised by a local politician who Toby and Cassie had been in talks with. It was about Yellowstone funding, I believe. Either way, I was dragged along because the Humans attending were eager to meet me, or so I was told.
Seating arrangements had placed me opposite to Toby somewhere near the end of the lengthy table. Seated beside me was Clarissa, feeling unnervingly like a translator. Cassie was sat beside Toby, and they spent most of their time in a whispered, private conversation.
I was in the midst of a conversation with the wife of the politician who was hosting the dinner. She was sat just within speaking distance, though Clarissa kept a firm grasp on my volume whenever I began speaking too loud.
"So, Mr Kelmut," Mrs Martins continued. "I can't imagine this is your first time in the capital."
She was an older Human. From previous encounters, I would estimate that she was between the ages of fifty and sixty. Humans grow to quite old ages, but when they do, their skin starts to sag and droop. Her hair was unusual: well-groomed, blonde and in a strange style that was neither held up or hanging down. She wore a black dress that reached to the higher areas of her chest, a perfect fit for a silver necklace asleep around her neck.
"It's my second time," I replied, getting a slight nudge from Clarissa to turn down my volume. "It is wonderful. A lot different from my home."
Mrs Martins smiled. "And you've settled in so well haven't you? It's such a pleasure to have you here tonight."
"Thank you, Mrs Martins." I said, returning a smile of my own.
Usually, in that situation, I found that Humans preferred to be called by their first names. It was almost a compulsory part of any conversation that I had with an influential Human. I would say their surname following a title, and they would reply with something along the lines of, Please, call me Harold.
Not this time. I shrugged it off.
Though I knew very few of those who joined me at the dinner table, I was very happy to be sat in such close proximity to my greatest allies this side of the country.
Toby and Cassie had momentarily ceased their exclusive chatter to assess the goings-on around them. Cassie - who I had been seeing much more of recently – smiled warmly to me, reassuringly.
It was deceiving. Though my recent visits with her had been pleasant affairs, this last week had seen a change in her. Perhaps it wasn't clear, because she hid it tremendously well, but I saw glimpses of anxiety behind her eyes. She was fearful, and her private talks with Toby did nothing to help her feel any better. Something was wrong.
It couldn't be told from Toby's face. She looked as stone cold as ever. It meant that she had things under some control, at least.
"Cosy?" Clarissa asked from my side, sat back in her seat with a satisfied grin on her face.
"I think so," I said, shuffling uneasily in my large fancy seat, my tail getting in the way as it so often did. "Starting to get a little hungry."
She rolled her eyes. "Is food all you think about? Damn Taku, it'll be here soon. Just mingle, okay?"
"Mingle? I don't really know what to say. I feel very awkward."
"Just roll with it," She suggested, staring at her highly polished nails. "You always seem to land on your feet. Just remember, this is high society again. Remember what I told you about table manners around these people?"
"I remember," I grunted. "We spent days going over those rules."
"And you'll see why," Clarissa told. "Go on. Enjoy yourself and make friends."
I sat back around in my seat, turning my head in both directions to look upon the approximately sixteen strange Humans that were busy chatting amongst themselves. I tapped my claws anxiously on the side of the table, and tried to ignore Clarissa as she watched me expectantly.
Then I was saved – I thought – by the tap-tapping of a spoon on a wine glass. Mr Martins, the host, rose from his seat at the end of the table as the rest fell silent. An introductory speech was undoubtedly commencing. Or rather, a pre-food one. I hoped for the latter as my tongue felt the cool whip of saliva invading my mouth.
"Ladies, Gentlemen, and alien friends," He began jauntily. "I hope you're all having a wonderful evening. I know that many of you have travelled long distances to be in the capital, and it warms my heart to know that you would come along to this, the newly restored hall where we are gathered, at my request. To think that, where we sit now, talking about fund-raising and mid-terms, about business and amendments, presidents from centuries ago walked on these floors and drank fine wine under this roof."
There were a few cheery mutterings at the mention of wine, and I noticed several glasses being raised as their owners were reminded of their presence.
"Now," Martins continued. "We don't have presidents in here tonight. Not yet, anyway. Who knows who the next president will be, or the president after that? Maybe Daniel will finally do what he's been promising us all for years!"
There was muffled laughter, so I assumed that it was a joke. Daniel himself – Mr Dorman – seemed to find it most amusing.
Martins chuckled to himself, leaning forward against the table. "I'm honoured that you join me tonight. I'm honoured that my friends have come, but also that there are some people here tonight who I have yet had the pleasure to meet personally. I suppose tonight is the night that that changes."
A few eyes glanced around the table, some landing on me and passing by. I knew that I was one of those people, but there were likely others.
"I hope you have fun tonight. Make new friends, new allies for you political futures," Martins nodded. "And I hope the food is to your satisfaction."
From behind the table erupted a series of clatters, and with them came the marching of three males in butler outfits. They carried large metal domes, which they deftly added to the already busy scene of our dinner table. A platter for each section that, when opened up with dramatic and timely aplomb, revealed patterns of finger food and cocktail sticks. Appetisers, I had come to know.
Not Hork-Bajir food, which caused me great disappointment. Though, perhaps I judged the situation too soon, because a fourth, slightly smaller platter was placed and opened before Toby and myself. Finger-sized slabs of bark, of course. Not on cocktail sticks, but I understood that that would be quite impractical. Clarissa nudged me roughly, and I wiped away some saliva that had appeared on my lower jaw.
Dinner was mostly uninteresting. Not the food (which was lovely), but the fact that everybody must have been so hungry that conversations were kept low and mumbled casually between little groups. The appetisers remained, but the starters and main courses went by surprisingly uneventfully. I was becoming very curious when I realised that nobody seemed to bring up any conversations with me. Human strangers would always try to talk to me, but these Humans were much, much different.
My friends, especially Cassie and Clarissa, were talking amongst themselves like any pair of good companions would. Typical Human conversations about shoes and holidays, and how much their peers at work irritated them. Toby got involved on occasion, but only when seemingly forced to.
"Hey, Taku," Clarissa interrupted as I was halfway through some delectable pine bark. "You seem quiet tonight."
"Yeah," Cassie agreed. "Not your usual hyperactive self."
I scratched lightly at my jaw. "I don't know many people here."
"That's never stopped you in the past." Clarissa commented, once again playing with her nails.
Cassie looked over knowingly, and I sensed her taking on a more serious stance. "Things are a bit different this time. They're different people."
I nodded, and it certainly felt like the right answer.
"You'll have to get used to it," Toby interjected quietly, sat back in her seat. "These are the people who you must try hardest to make allies with."
Clarissa grimaced at Toby, and her change in posture signalled an oncoming rant. But Cassie nodded in agreement, and that was enough to put Clarissa back into place.
"She's right," Cassie explained. "If you want to be around these sorts of people, then you should get to know them."
She put a very subtle exaggeration on the word "if". It was barely there, but it made her concerns clear.
With the backing of those two, and the half-backing of Clarissa, I made it my goal to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. The Human male to my immediate left was Mr Hampton, an acquaintance that I had met before, so he was not a contender. Nor was the female sat beside Toby, who had been with her during a few meetings that we had both attended.
The next person over, however, was an unfamiliar face. He was relatively young, at least to my limited knowledge of Human facial observation, and he had light, black stubble with short thick hair on his head. He appeared to be semi-involved in a conversation with Mr Hampton, but unencumbered enough for me to try my best at making a good introduction.
"Hello." I blurted. It wasn't the best introduction, I admit.
The male mustered a polite smile. "Hi. Taku Kelmut? I've heard quite a lot about you." He said, turning in his seat to face in my direction. I took that as a good sign that we had started on the right foot.
"What is your name?" I asked of him, keeping my voice down as the ambient volume was low enough for us to speak without issue.
He grinned, shiny white teeth gleaming. "Lakeston. You can call me Bill."
The mere fact that he offered a first name was definitely reassuring. "What do you do, Bill?"
He straightened in his chair, becoming more relaxed if it were possible, but also shimmering with a layer of self-importance that I had come to expect from that type of Human. "I thought you would have known, being around Toby all of the time."
The awkwardness had returned. Should I have known him? With a quick glance to Toby (who had been watching the whole time), I noticed her trying to subtly pass over an answer. Unfortunately, Humans were much more mobile with their lips, and trying to read Toby's was impossible.
Then I received some unwanted help. Mr Hampton chuckled, amused, and said, "Governor Lakeston is the governor of Wyoming."
It was nothing too serious, looking back. I had never met the man, but something about that situation was awful. I felt tremendously embarrassed and squirmed pathetically as Hampton and Lakeston laughed amongst themselves at my ignorance.
My brain abuzz with concern, I looked to Toby for any assistance. Much to my despair, all she could offer was a look of vague pity. Clearly, I was left to pick up the pieces.
"Sorry," I stuttered back to Lakeston. "Of course I knew that. I'm simply tired."
"Hey, don't worry about it," Lakeston said with a gulp of wine. "You know now."
My lie had not convinced anybody, but at least I had been given a pass.
"Anyway, Taku," Lakeston continued, making me thankful that he was still willing to talk to me. "I've heard quite a lot about you."
I blinked. "You have?"
Again came that laughter, another Human sat beside Mr Hampton joining.
"Of course!" Lakeston exclaimed. "You're The New Seer! Toby can retire now and not worry about working up till the grave."
Toby barely flinched; too busy listening in on the conversation to react to individual statements.
Mr Hampton added, "Only two seers. Who hasn't heard of you?"
And Lakeston nodded. "Nobody in the technological world has lived without hearing your name. What surprises me though, Taku, is how little we've seen."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He shrugged nonchalantly. "I don't know. I just thought we'd see you growing your influence."
Then Mrs Martins entered our conversation, "Yes, Taku, what have you been doing this past year?"
By this point, I was quickly becoming the focal point of the dining hall. Suddenly, I felt so tiny amid all those turning heads and glaring eyes.
"I've been working in Yellowstone," I informed correctly. "Helping Toby with some jobs."
"What kind of jobs have you been doing?" Lakeston pressed.
I was more than prepared to answer, and indeed I tried to. However, Toby got there first with a strange desire to answer in my place.
"Taku has been aiding me with the excess duties in Yellowstone that I cannot otherwise find time to do myself. He has been given tasks suitable for one of his age and skill, and he has done exceptionally well."
Mrs Martins giggled, but waved a hand dismissively at Toby. "Shush, you! Let Taku answer for himself."
Though Toby had been put in her place, the motives for her intrusion became clear, and I used it to my advantage.
"I do some important tasks in the Yellowstone park offices," I said confidently, following Toby's lead. "And I handle a lot of people who wish to utilise and invest in the park."
"That sounds very interesting," Lakeston commented with a swirl of his wine glass. "What tasks? I hope you don't mind me asking."
I smiled, naively explaining, "I'm in charge of media in the park. Well… sort of in charge. I judge whether a company is eligible to enter the park for media-related purposes."
I didn't expect derisive laughter again, but it came even louder than before. I wondered what I had said wrong, only for Lakeston to detail the issues, saying, "Media in the park? Well, I suppose somebody's got to do it."
"You've been working with the media for how long?" Hampton asked, the same cruel smile on his face.
"Oh," I sighed. "Nearly a year?"
"You know," Mrs Martins started, not so much talking to me but to the entire table. "I haven't seen much out of Yellowstone recently."
"Didn't that CrescentCreations sign a contract? That group that Toby's always been moaning about?" Another Human added.
I couldn't have sunk any lower into my seat if I tried. How could it have backfired so badly? If I'd have known I would become the table joke, I would have stayed at the hotel watching uninteresting night-time television.
Thankfully, my friends were there to back me up. Cassie, noticing my distress, leant forward and said, "Taku's been doing a lot of work for the park, and I think that he deserves a lot of respect for offering his help at such a young age when there's been nobody else around to do it. Would anyone of us do it, considering he doesn't actually get paid?"
That went some way to relieve the atmosphere, and I thanked Cassie with a smile. She winked back.
"We're sure you're doing a wonderful job." Mrs Martins said, and it felt so much like a reluctant apology.
Lakeston smiled, silent for a short while. Then he decided to quiz me again, but this time dispensing with the mocking tone. "What are your plans for the future, Taku?"
I waited, unsure whether Toby would interject again to provide a suitable response. But then I realised that this question was too personal. That, and I needed to show at least some independence. I cleared my throat, and said, "I want to help our people, like Toby does now. And I want to see many places. Not just Washington and New York, but places like… I don't know… The Grand Canyon, the Egyptian pyramids, Hyperion…"
"Hyperion?" Clarissa intruded.
"It's a Redwood tree in California," Cassie explained. "The tallest living tree in the world, I think."
Clarissa rolled her eyes. "That makes sense."
Lakeston coughed to re-grab my attention. "I'm sure there are many places you'd like to go. And, if you end up working in the same position as Toby, you might be able to see all those places. But first, you need to be in that position."
"I understand that," I uttered. "But I know that I can do it. I've been learning from Toby for a long time now."
"How long, Taku?" He asked.
"Oh," I stumbled, searching my head for an approximate answer. "Around one-and-a-half years now, I think."
The mocking, light laughter returned. I didn't know why, but suddenly the relaxation that I was slowly building back was destroyed, and I slumped back into my chair.
"That's not very long." Mrs Martins pointed out, taking a sip of her own wine.
"Taku," Lakeston continued, clasping his hands together as he leant forward onto the table. "It took me twenty-three years to get to where I am today, and I got here quickly."
I wanted to say something, to rectify the situation and come back at him with a smart retort to show them that I was capable. But nothing came from my mouth. It was clamped shut, and it refused to open.
Then it was Hampton's turn, apparently. "You say that you're involved with the whole media side of the park?" He asked.
I managed to reply, "Yes."
"What involvement have you had with the media so far?"
I seemed like a genuine question, and the small pockets of laughter had died off. Therefore, I felt it necessary to answer, knowing all too well that I was again throwing myself from a cliff of unknown depth. "I've allowed a couple of companies into the park, done some research into what they have planned and funding. I've supervised every camera crew that has entered the park."
"So you work a lot around camera crews, huh?" Hampton nodded. "Hey, how come I haven't seen you on television yet? You know, The New Seer and all that… Actually, I take that back, I saw you once."
"I remember that," Lakeston acknowledged. "That was when we first found out about you. Your interview was shown on every station."
"So how come that's all we've seen, Taku?"
I shrugged, firstly. "Well… Do I need to be on television?"
Success! I thought… They all seemed to nod and momentarily release their stares. Nevertheless, they wanted more, and came back with something new.
"Have you seen Toby on television?" Lakeston quizzed.
"Yes, I have." I replied with a nod.
He grinned, showing his gnawing teeth as he chewed on a leftover appetiser. "She's a real machine with those TV interviews, don't you think? Nobody leaves a debate with her in one piece, huh."
In the corner of my eye, I saw Toby smirk. She rarely expressed her pride, but in that particular setting, it seemed so much more valuable.
I agreed with him. "I have seen her many times."
"I've always wondered," Lakeston coughed. "Whether you would be just like Toby. Fiery, face like a brick wall. But then, we've never seen you on television. Why don't you do interviews like Toby?"
It was some kind of game. I could tell. He was perhaps trying to provoke a response, more ammunition for him and his friends to have five seconds of cheap laughter.
"I have other things to do." I said blankly.
"You're right," He agreed with an expressive hand gesture. "You should concentrate on other things. You're probably too young for it anyway. And…" His eyes narrowed, and he gazed over my face. "I don't think you're the right person for it."
It was childish, what I did next, and it was something that I really shouldn't have done. But I felt so utterly demolished. It was as if, with one look into my eyes, he cast me aside as somebody unworthy of his standard. I had felt that way all night.
I just wanted to show them that I wasn't there for them to walk all over me, and I accepted their unspoken challenge.
"I can do interviews just as well as Toby," I huffed. "I just haven't had time to do any yet."
A great big smile spread on Lakeston's face. "Oh really? That's quite a bold statement."
In the midst of his reply, I glanced to my three friends. They were all sat slumped with their heads in their hands. I got the feeling that they didn't share in my confidence.
"And it's true." I announced, sitting straight in my seat and grabbing at the edge of the table with both hands.
"I don't doubt it for a second," He said calmly. "I tell you what, why don't we arrange for it then? A good old fashioned television interview? You can pick which network, and I'll arrange it for you."
And back into the chair I slumped. I was up and down like a yo-yo that night. "You can do that?"
"Of course I can. If I can win a state election, I can pay a network to get you on television."
"Oh…" I stuttered, the edge of a sticky situation rearing its ugly head once again. I didn't know how to react. "I guess that would be okay."
He didn't give me any time for second thoughts. "Great! It's settled. I'm looking forward to seeing you in action, Mr Kelmut."
And on that, the table returned to normal, as if nothing at all had happened. The guests went back to casual mingling in their own small pockets, the host ordered more food out (including more bark chips for us), and our little group…
Well, I guess we weren't back to normal.
Toby would not stop staring disapprovingly at me, and Cassie kept giving me sympathetic looks of concern. Clarissa was fussing about her hair to the pair of them, but didn't seem to notice that nobody was paying attention.
For ten minutes Toby remained silently criticising me. Eventually, I decided that it was enough, and asked, "What's wrong?"
She sighed so heavily that I thought the attention of the whole table would be distracted. "Nothing for you to concern yourself about, Taku."
I narrowed my eyes, unconvinced. "So why are you staring? Why are you staring at me like I'm an idiot?"
"Because you are." Clarissa answered, stating it as bluntly as I would expect from her.
My mouth dropped, and in a strange whisper-shout combination, I rebutted, "I am not!"
"Maybe not an idiot," Toby mumbled. "But definitely a fool."
At least I had one to defend me. Cassie exhaled curtly, and said, "He's neither. This could be a good opportunity for Taku to gain experience. Everyone starts somewhere."
"That's not the point," Toby contended. Turning to me, she said, "The only thing that you'll learn from this experience is what you've done wrong here tonight."
I dipped my head as the berating approached. I glanced around the table to see if any other Humans had picked up on it, but Toby was being subtle enough not to draw attention. I was terribly thankful for her restraint.
She continued. "I brought you here with intent that you would meet the kind of people that you would be dealing with in the future. Potentially. I hoped that you would have paid attention to the lessons that Clarissa and I have given you when it comes to group Human interaction, but you appear to have forgotten something very important. Do you know what that is?"
I cringed. "No…"
"You let them pressure you, and they pressured you into making a stupid decision. Now you are in an agreement to go on national television when you have little to no experience doing so. We can only hope that the wine makes him forget!"
"Or I could change my mind." I debated pitifully.
I wanted Cassie to agree with me. After all, she was the only one there that night that seemed to want to defend me. However, she averted her gaze when our eyes met, and I knew that I was alone from then on.
Toby calmed, and spoke softly, "You still have so much to learn."