OT: Summer Nights (Or, A Friend By Any Other Name)

on September 18, 2011 in How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Other Tales


Nights on the mountain could be chilly, even during the summer. Cetea laid in the midst of a circle of stones that had been enchanted to soak up the heat of the sun during the day and release it at night. They were a permanent installation, meant to serve as a beacon to the heat-sensing organs her kind used in the absence of light. Now they kept the area around her comfortable, giving her all the warmth of the sun and none of its glare.

She felt a presence like a light touch on her mind, which she thought of as a telepath’s knock… a polite way for the mentally gifted to let others know they were approaching. As always, it felt somewhat scattered, like she were hearing fragments of a single sound in the form of echoes. She understood this to be the effect of the minds of the snakes that wreathed her head. Any contact with her mind had to get past them as well.

She understood that it was considered polite among the elven telepaths, but her wreath-snakes didn’t understand about manners or subtle arts… they only knew that they’d heard felt something weird and didn’t know where it had come from, and they went wild looking for the source.

“I apologize, I did not mean to startle you,” Dee said out loud, coming around the set of large stones that concealed the exit shaft. She was wearing a long, shapeless woolen tunic that came to below her knees. It still left much more of her skin exposed compared to the full-body robes and cloaks that most of the subterranean elves wore. Cetea, in contrast, wore nothing over her glistening yellow-green scales except for a belt-like harness across her flat chest that held a series of pouches for convenient carrying of small items or animals.

“It’s not me you startled,” Cetea said, wincing as one of the snakes bit the side of her face in the sensitive area right around her tympanum. Gorgon manners said you didn’t react to your own bites, or mention anybody else’s. They were biting each other, too. She felt that more dully than her own bit, and at least it might knock a few of them out. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“It is not my sleep shift,” Dee said. “But they are re-consecrating the temple, and in my current state I cannot participate.”

“Don’t you outrank them?”

“I was little more than a novice before my… temporary reassignment of status.”

“I mean, socially,” Cetea said. “You told me you’re in line for your house’s seat. I doubt anyone else here could say the same.”

“Ah. I see what you mean,” Dee said. “It might be said that I am more important in the hierarchy of my house than any of the Ceilos delegates are in the hierarchies of theirs, but as we don’t belong to the same house or even hail from the same city that is not of consequence. Even within my house, my ‘rank’ has more to do with what is expected of me than any actual authority I wield.”

“I just think it molts that you’re being punished so harshly for something that you did at school,” Cetea said.

“The priestesses here have authority over me because I’ve been given over to their keeping,” Dee said. “It does not seem so harsh to me.”

“They took away all your robes and make you wear that scratchy thing,” Cetea said.

“You often do not wear any clothes,” Dee said.

“Yes, which makes uncomfortable ones seem all the worse,” Cetea said.

She could still feel the anger and confusion of her snakes, but it seemed to be abating. She cautiously raised one taloned hand up near her head, just out of reach. She was rewarded with a snapping lunge that jerked her head to the side.

“Girls are restless tonight,” she said. “Does cold bother you? A walk out in the air ought to quiet them down.”

“And it will not put you out as well?”

“Not as quickly as them,” Cetea said. “But I wouldn’t want to do it unescorted. The thing about torpor is it makes my brain slow, to the point that I’m not a great judge of whether I’m falling into it or not.”

“For my part, I had not expected to find much warmth on the surface, so I will not miss it,” Dee said.

Cetea got to her feet carefully, trying to avoid moving her head too quickly and further riling her snakes.

“I cannot imagine what it would be like to have several animal creatures conjoined to my skull.”

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to not,” Cetea said. “Or to have big fleshy sacs full of baby food attached to my chest.”

“They are not always full of milk.”

“Celia called it ‘cow venom’,” Cetea said. “It was funny, after she explained what a cow was.”

“Celia knows a great many humorous terms for the differences between mammals and reptiles,” Dee said.

“I don’t understand most of them,” Cetea admitted.

“Your live is not measurably impovershed by this.”

“Let’s walk up the trail,” Cetea said. “I’m going to be sleepy on the way back, so I’d rather it be downhill.”

“That is sensible,” Dee said, and they started out up the mountain trail. Cetea walked slowly, holding her head erect.

“Do you often come out here at night?” Dee asked her.

“My summer… tutor, I guess… wants me to spend at least three hours up top. I had some issues last year with re-adjusting to the underground too quickly and then having to learn to cope up here. It’s not always at night, but it was raining during the day. It’s nice to not have to deal with the sun, but it’s not like I can take all my classes at night.”

“That is indeed a shame,” Dee said.

“Yeah,” Cetea said. “I heard someone talking about night school one time and got excited for a moment… but it turns out there is some kind of social gap between the kind of schools that offer everything as a night course and a university, and they don’t have the whole student accommodation thing… it seems like such a lost opportunity. Half the humans I met seem to stay up all night, anyway.”

“I am not certain if I would prefer night school to day,” Dee said. “If the sun makes it uncomfortable to be abroad during the day, it also makes it difficult to sleep during it. And physical discomfort aside, the sun does not bother me half as much as the stars at night do.”

“Why’s that?”

“They are so very… numerous,” Dee said. “Like a thousand glittering eyes in the dark, or slivers of light glinting off of teeth or blades. And they are so far away.”

“Isn’t that reassuring?”

“No,” Dee said. “You might think it would be, but… when the sun is in the sky, I feel like I can see the vault of the world. The ceiling is there. I know it, and I feel secure. At night, in the darkness… it’s like there is nothing to see. Like the sky goes on forever.”

“It doesn’t, though,” Cetea said. “The sky is… the sky. It’s up there. Solid as a ceiling of rock, or more so.”

“I know that,” Dee said. “One of my dormmates was more than slightly inclined to pontificate on facts such as that, when the topic arose. She told me that at night when I look up and see black, I am seeing the sky… I lacked the nuance of language to articulate how untrue that is.”

“What do you mean?”

“I see darkness,” she said. “When darkness falls on the bottom of a pit, I see the bottom by that darkness. Where the vault of a chamber is lost in darkness to light-seeking eyes, mine see it by that darkness. When I look up into the sky at night, I do not see darkness. I do not see the sky. I see nothing… nothing dotted with stars.”

Cetea shivered, an action that made her wreath of snakes rattle against each other and hiss in complaint.

“My former neighbor told me that the sun used to be a portal,” Dee said. “In the days when the gods would walk the physical realms freely and at will. In those days, the light of the sun was divine and would burn infernal creatures upon whom it fell. It was despised by creatures of chaos, though it held no power over them.”

“I’ve heard that,” Cetea said. “Or part of it, anyway. As part of Khersian myth. Humans say he became human in order to walk the world without restriction, and to become a ‘new sun’ for his people. I didn’t know how much of the portal stuff was real, and how much was just backstory for their myth.”

“I do not know either,” Dee said. “The celestial reaches are not a significant area of study among my people, and my informer on the subject would not be well-suited for investigating the truth of the matter. But it unnerves me to contemplate the matter, because if the sun is or has been a gateway to other realms, might not the stars be as well?”

“That’s crazy,” Cetea said. “Where would they all lead?”

“That is what I find unnerving.”

“I think the night just got colder,” Cetea said. “So why did you come up here tonight? I know about the re-consecrating, but the whole elven wing isn’t one big temple, is it?”

“No,” Dee said. “But… since I have a rare shift at liberty, I thought I would seek out your company.”

“Me? Why?”

“We… share experiences,” Dee said. “A frame of reference. And you are accustomed to speaking in Pax.”

“Most of the residents of Ceilos speak Pax.”

“But not habitually among themselves,” Dee said. “The elves who have been here longer can speak the gorgon tongue, and vice-versa. Going into the other races’ quarters in search of company feels like an awkward intrusion as it is.”

“Why do you need to leave the elven quarter for company?”

“I have never made friends easily, among my own people,” Dee said. “The station I occupy is not exactly the most crowded one.”

“And it’s not allowed for you to socialize with people outside it?”

“It isn’t simple to,” Dee said. “When I first arrived here, I spent my time in the halfkind den… they exist apart from the ordinary social order, so there are fewer strictures in dealing with them. Now, I am forbidden from having any contact with them. I do not think I would miss social contact, if not for the fact that… I…”

“Miss social contact,” Cetea said. “I understand, I suppose. You didn’t really have friends until you came up here, did you?”

“Not in the fullest sense of that word,” Dee said. “Of course, my language yields more precise degrees. Humans would say we have more than two dozen words for ‘friend’, but they all differ significantly from each other.There is duri, which is a state of invitation and openness. It usually leads to kezi, which is a mutual agreement to act in good faith.”

“Sounds more like a treaty than friendship.”

“It is a foundation for deeper understanding,” Dee said. “People have faults and it is easy to disappoint someone. Especially when you live in close quarters with one another. If two people agree to act in and assume good faith with each other, it can ease the way.”

“So why not assume good faith of everyone?”

“People have faults and it is easy to disappoint someone.”

“When you say that, do you mean that you can’t assume good faith of everyone because they have faults and will betray it, or you can’t assume good faith of everyone because you have faults and will be suspicious?”

“Everyone has faults,” Dee said. “So both interpretations are reasonable.”

“That makes sense, I suppose. On another subject, the summer is young,” Cetea said. “You could probably pick up some of the local languages before we go back to school.”

“I have actually been in the central library, doing that.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. I’ve been studying primers on your language,” she said. She closed her mouth and made a series of hisses.

“Um… I’m not sure what you were trying to say there,” Cetea said. “It was something like ‘arm of the relative is not my…’ well, then it just gets rude. And half of it was just sort of making noise.”

“Evidently I require more study,” Dee said. “It is hard to understand the context of what I read when the illustrations are invisible to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I lack the necessary organs to apprehend heat patterns,” Dee said. “I can make out the writing because the ink is dark as well as heat reflective. The pictures, though, simply appear as an indiscriminate black mass… I can make out shades within the blackness, but they do not seem to correspond well to the image I’m meant to see.”

“Oh,” Cetea said. “I didn’t realize… I know you see things differently, but I didn’t know that would matter. I can see a light-drawing, when there’s light.”

“As can I,” Dee said. “It is curious to me how so many races that see by other media than light can see light as well.”

“Well, it’s useful,” Cetea said. “Most of the foundational myths I’ve heard have all or most of the races being made from a common plan. Which god made what race first is up for debate, but if everyone started from the same eye, it was probably a light-seeing one.”

“It could also be that the first race had an eye with capabilities that other gods could not duplicate,” Dee said. “Or did not feel their creations deserved.”

“I wouldn’t attach too much value to the first race, if there was a single first one,” Cetea said. “Anyway, why are you trying to learn from a book? I’d think, given the legendary sensitivity of the pointy elven hears, you’d pick up the subtle nuances faster just listening.”

“Ear,” Dee said. “The ear is the organ, and hearing is what it does.”

“Oh, really? That’s… confusing,” Cetea said.

“I do not imagine whoever devised it intended any malice.”

“I learned Pax as a child, but my primer didn’t cover things like ‘ears’… I never even really thought about what the little crests around mammals’ tympanal organs were called, and then when I thought I heard people calling them ‘hears’, I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of clever, in an obvious way.'”

“In any event, I would most likely learn faster through immersion, but there is a strong taboo against eavesdropping, and… well, again I do not care to intrude.”

“Not without any… kuri?”

“Duri,” Dee said. “My culture involves clear boundaries and declarations. Not because we are naturally open. In fact, I find that we tend to be more guarded and perhaps a bit more given to intrigue than many other peoples. Because of that, we deal with each other most easily when we are most explicit about intentions. When I find myself in situations where everything is theoretically open but one must feel one’s way forward, it is… disorienting.”

“And a little scary?”

“Not ‘scary’ in the…”

“…fullest sense of the word,” Cetea finished. “I know. Well, consider this an invitation if you want it, Delia Daella. We can be friends if you want someone to hang out with, and I can help you with my language.”

“I appreciate that,” Dee said. “I could teach you my language in turn.”

“Thank you. I could always use another word for friend.”


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24 Responses to “OT: Summer Nights (Or, A Friend By Any Other Name)”

  1. Tigger says:

    Typo: “Your live is not measurably impovershed by this.” should be life? and impoverished?

    Well done! I like seeing other sides to Dee.

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  2. Ducky says:

    D’aww. Thanks for the Dee story!

    Current score: 1
  3. Zathras IX says:

    Cunning linguistics:
    Cetea are sea monsters
    In Greco-Elf myth

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  4. Dan says:

    Hopefully nobody has any gorgon curry later on.

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  5. jc says:

    I read the Cetea story on the main page, which for some reason my browser (firefox) shows without any space or indentation to set off the paragraphs. So it took me a while do decipher the long bit of text between
    “Do you often come out here at night?” Dee asked her.
    and
    “That is indeed a shame,” Dee said.

    After a few readings, I figured out that the sentences between these was spoken by Cetea. On my screen, it appeared to be all Dee’s words, with a couple of unusual quote marks where they didn’t belong. Perhaps it might be better to insert something making it clear that it’s from Cetea, for the benefit of people whose screens don’t show the paragraph separation.

    I accidentally found the page that displays the paragraphs with the usual spacing, where it’s much more readable, and allows this comment. I looked at the HTML on the main page, and the text is surrounded by simple p tags. So the poor formatting is presumably due to something off in the CSS, which I can’t quite follow, and apparently neither can FF.

    One problem with the Web is that we all have different hardware and software, so you can’t really rely on formatting to get across things like paragraph structure. You should try to write text so it makes sense even when misformatted. This isn’t always as easy as one might like.

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    • Kinesthe says:

      I had no issues understanding this. My suggestion? Get chrome.

      Issue solved

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    • BMeph says:

      I am reading it on Opera, and seeing it clearly. I suspect there may be a rogue setting mis-activated in your browser.

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    • Elisa says:

      I think your browser is messed up. I actually prefer when stretches of dialogue like this (two people talking in a couple sentences at a time) doesn’t have a “X said” at the end of each bit. It reads smoother without it.

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  6. Matarael says:

    Typo “She felt that more dully than her own bit,” Should this be bite?

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  7. Brenda says:

    There seems to be a formatting error on the main page, as the entire story is showing, and it’s all one big link…

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  8. Mike says:

    Typo “They were biting each other, too. She felt that more dully than her own bit, and at least it might knock a few of them out.”
    You missed the ‘e’ in ‘bite’.

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  9. AmyAmethyst says:

    “I could always use another word for friend.”
    I love this.

    Current score: 2
  10. Greenwood Goat says:

    “Celia called it ‘cow venom’,” Cetea said. “It was funny, after she explained what a cow was.”

    Would it be as funny if they had a fatal lactose intolerance? It’s not beyond the bounds of improbability, all things considered.

    Those cranial serpents sound like more of a pain every time we hear about them. The 360˚ vision would be handy, but it sounds like more trouble than it’s worth. If they can’t be trained to respect personal space, couldn’t they be muzzled? Or coiffeured? Since the gorgons appear to have so many parallels with the Merovians, how about a nice French plait? >:=)> Perhaps Sooni would be able to come up with something – an escape-proof hairnet, at least. Do they have heated rollers/curlers in the WoMU? They might work, as a bribe (drop them in place and let the snakes curl snugly around them). I suppose that magical fire suppression means no CO2 fire extinguishers… a quick blast from one of those would let the head-habitants know who was boss. It sounds like such things would be against their culture, but maybe the next generation will see things differently.

    And I wonder how many words Dee’s people have for “enemy”?

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    • Lavos says:

      I’m sure for Dee’s people the word for “enemy” is the same as the word for friend. (In the sense of the old catastrophe/opportunity word in Chinese yadda yadda.)

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      • jc says:

        Does that mean that the “same word for friend as for enemy” would be just as bogus a claim as the Chinese one (usually assumed to be talking about 危机=wei1ji1)? People are good at propagating mistakes like this about languages they don’t know. 😉

        This has turned into a good textbook example of how such a “meme” gets propagated and widely believed despite how easy it is to consult an introductory textbook to learn how wrong it is.

        (Now let’s see if the software here permits Chinese characters …)

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  11. Kevin Brown says:

    This is actually related to the donation drive (which I am very sorry to be broke at the time of but such is the life of fluid income) rather than the story itself but the line “Nothing makes the story go away” has two opposite meanings in the context involved. Makes it a really bad turn of phrase.

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    • Gosh, I hadn’t noticed. 🙂

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      • carson says:

        I was instantly reminded of the advertising slogan “No heat costs less than coal heat.” (Probably apocryphal, but still entertaining.)

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    • Dave says:

      Kevin: “Makes it a really bad turn of phrase.”

      No, it makes it a really effective pun 🙂

      [BTW sorry to be commenting so late, I was away last week and am now catching up on MU. Delighted to find 3 chapters!]

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  12. anon y mouse says:

    “they only knew that they’d heard felt something weird and didn’t know where it had come from” – perhaps heard/felt or heard-felt?

    “She felt that more dully than her own bit” – bite?

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  13. Raemon says:

    “Your life is not measurably impoverished by this.”

    Ha, Dee is so awesome.

    Current score: 2
  14. Khazidhea says:

    “She felt that more dully than her own bit,”
    I think that might be bite instead of bit

    “Your live is not measurably impovershed by this.”
    Likewise life instead of live, and impoverished is missing an ‘i’

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