TQ v.1:11

The Termite Queen
Volume One
The Speaking of the Dead

Chapter 11
Not of father or of mother
Was my blood, was my body.
I was spellbound by Gwydion,
Prime enchanter of the Britons,
When he formed me from nine blossoms,
Nine buds of various kind …
        from Robert Graves, The Song of Blodeuwedd
       Nine days later, four days before the critical meeting of the Committee on Off-World Expeditions, the participants in the proposed mission to Giotta 17A had just concluded a planning session.  As Kaitrin skipped out, Gwidian caught up with her.
       “You’re a changed woman, Asc. Oliva,” he said, striding along beside her.

       “That’s what solving my problems does for me,” she responded, grinning broadly.
       “You’ve really solved this puzzle?  Translated this thing?” 
       “Yes!  Well, no!  There is insufficient context to make a definitive translation, but …  Well, as I said in the meeting, wait till next Monday.  Maybe it’s a little childish of me to keep my conclusions a secret, but I have quite an effective speech planned, if I do say so myself.  I want it to be a surprise.”
       “You are actually finished?”
       “Stop sounding so skeptical!  I intend to do a little more refining, but I don’t mean to do it today!  I’ve hardly been out of my apartment for the past week and I’m planning to indulge myself today.  I’m headed over to Karlinius to take in the faculty art show and I’m going to stop off at the Archaic Crafts Shop and drool on the merchandise.  Have you ever been there?”
       “Can’t say that I have.”
       “Oh, it’s a wonderful place!”  Kaitrin looked up at him and said impulsively, “Would you like to come along?”
       Good grief!  Why did I do that?  But I’m sure he doesn’t have the time …
       Gwidian’s expression was unreadable as he replied, “I would be delighted.  Just give me a moment to message my office and reschedule an appointment.”
       Kaitrin waited, wondering if she should be kicking herself, while he wandered a little way off talking on his MP.  She had been intending to relax and here she had created a situation where she would always have to be on her guard.
       When he came back, she said, “Let’s go by underground.  It’s quite a distance and the Slorail will take all day.”
       On the train they made small talk, chatting about her pre-grad experiences in the Karlinius University of Arts and Languages and about his work on the flying insects he had collected on 2 Giotta 17A.  At last they arrived at a sprawling building constructed in the style of a 16th-century half-timbered British manor house and surrounded by a formal garden.  Set against the utilitarian Consortium architecture, it was an arresting sight.
       “I pass through this part of the Consortium frequently,” he said, “and I’ve seen this complex and been curious about it, but I really had no idea what it was.”
       “It’s the Archaic Crafts Studio.  They do wonderful things – make paper by hand out of natural fibers like flax and cotton and print texts with handset type the way they did fifteen hundred years ago.  They have a manuscript shop where they produce medieval-style illuminations and fine calligraphy.  Writing with ink and a pen is almost a lost art, you know.  They make their own ink and you can even buy pens made out of birds’ quills!  I once had them make one for Tió’otu out of one of his own molted feathers!  Then they also do ancient crafts like hand-woven textiles and goldsmithing and photographs printed on paper.  And glasswork – the stained-glass studio is amazing!  But you probably don’t enjoy artistic stuff like that.”
       “On the contrary, I do,” he said, “but I’ve never had as much time to devote to it as I would like.  I have a small collection of objets d’art from Afrik – just reproductions.  Mostly insect carvings – scarab beetles.  One or two are a couple of hundred years old.  Also some folk pieces from the North Ostrailien Islands.  You look surprised, Associate.”
       “I confess, I am, a little.  You’re straying into the realm of anthro there, Professor.”
       “Incredible in a hard scientist, you’re thinking – or would you find the expression ‘hard-nosed’ to be more appropriate?”
       Kaitrin laughed.  She was so pleased with the world today that it would take a great deal to annoy her.  “The Studio will do custom work.  You can give them a piece of literature and they’ll turn it into a codex book for you, hand-printed on paper.  Did you ever curl up in a comfortable chair with a properly bound codex book in your lap and read it?  It’s not at all like a reader sheaf, where you still have to have a power source and you can scroll if you’re too lazy to turn the page.  With a book you’re forced to turn each page by hand, individually, and you can leaf – that’s the verb for it, ‘leaf’ – back and forth, or keep a place with your finger or with a little piece of ribbon.  It’s like no other experience!”
       Gwidian shook his head.  “Never done it.”  Then, “Like no other experience?”
       “It’s very satisfying, Prf. Gwidian!  But custom work is prohibitively expensive, so I just come here and fantasize over their stuff.”
       They entered the cool interior of the commercial shop, which smelled of leather and glue and wood and was graced with large windows set with hand-leaded colored glass.  A supervisor named Paul, whom Kaitrin had come to know on her frequent visits, was happy to give them a tour.
       There was a special price on some miniatures and Kaitrin pounced on them.  “I have several examples of this illumination work,” she said.  “Tió’otu gave me a beautiful large piece for my birthday.  I’ll have to show them to you.”  Then she realized Gwidian might construe that as an invitation to come to her flat and she added, “I have some of them in my office.”
       He undoubtedly noticed the gaffe but chose to ignore it, and she said, “I think I’ll weaken and buy myself one of these.  They’re only 55 regs – they usually cost 75 at least.  Oh, look at this one!  It’s a griffin!”
       Gwidian examined the tiny depiction of a half-lion, half-eagle hybrid with gilded claws and beak.  “Is that what I look like to you?” he said whimsically.  “What is it, if I may ask?”
       Kaitrin stared at him.  “Professor, you don’t know the meaning of your own name?”
       “I confess that I’ve never concerned myself much with the significance of names.”
       “Well, you’ve been missing a lot!  I tell you what we should do – have lunch!  The Studio has a delightful little dining room – it’s the Consortium’s best kept secret!  They have lovely spinach soufflés flavored with nutmeg and a Griek salad with olives and pistachios in it!    Paul, I’ll take this one.”
       “A moment!” said Gwidian.  “Put that on my account.  Here’s my regscarp … ”
        “That’s not necessary,” said Kaitrin a little curtly.  “I’m perfectly solvent, I assure you.”
       “I never doubted that.  Paul, do put it on my account.  Asc. Oliva, I risk offending you by this suggestion, but you might essay to accept favors with a little more grace.”
       Stung, Kaitrin took a sharp breath to retort, then expelled it.  “Actually, you’re probably right, Professor.  I didn’t mean to seem rude.  Thank you.  I really do appreciate it.”
       He flashed his engaging smile.  “Now, where is this elegant dining establishment?”
       Over their soufflés, she said, “There’s something I started to tell you the other day, but I was diverted.  It has to do with your name.  I’d wager that if you never learned that a griffin is an ancient mythical animal, you don’t know much about the derivation of your surname, either.”
       “Only that it’s a pretty uncommon West British name.  I’ve always felt lucky I wasn’t burdened with ‘Jons’ or ‘Oens.’  The worst of all would have ‘Oen Jons.’”
       Kaitrin giggled into her hand.  “Have you ever heard of the Mabinogion?”
       “The what-a-what-ian?”
       The giggle became a hoot.  “I can’t believe it.  A Welshman – that’s an ancient name for the West British! – who never heard of the greatest myth collection of his heritage!”
       Gwidian shrugged good-naturedly.  “Then I do implore you – enlighten my ignorance!”
       “The ancient text of the tales was preserved during the Devastation – in Oxferd’s Bodley Library, most likely – but there is a wonderful adaptation of the basic Four Branches of the cycle by one of the 20th century Fantasists, a woman named Walton.  A lot of the books of that era were printed on acidic wood-pulp paper that self-destructs pretty quickly and so the works of this author and many others just sort turned to dust and disappeared.  And any digitized version would have vanished when the primitive PDA Database collapsed.
       “I told you my contract father Jaq Mokiba kept an eye out for lost literary works.  Once when he was young – long before he met my mother – he was assisting on an archivological dig in Eastammerik, in the old Nu Ingland region.  By that time, the radiation and nanobot infestation had been neutralized sufficiently so that teams could get in there.
       “This was in an area near where a university had once existed – it was called Herferd?  Harod?  Something like that.  They dug up a small lead-lined safe like a man might have in his house to protect his personal valuables.  The Underground Archivists had use it for one of their secret caches, packing about a hundred digital recording devices inside.  Half the devices contained legal records from the courts of one of the Old Ammeriken States that was called ‘Massachusetts’ – yes, isn’t that a mouthful? – and the other half contained some really turgid treatises on economics – well, to me anything on economics is turgid! – but a single one of them held the four volumes of Walton’s work retelling the Four Branches of the Mabinogion.  One of the Archivists must have loved them enough to make the effort to preserve them amid all the chaos of those times.  He either off-loaded the works from the old DB or scanned the text or maybe actually transcribed it word-for-word by hand from one of those crumbling books.  What a labor of love that must have been! 
       “The device was labeled ‘Mabinogion (20. c. adapt.).’  The archivologists were all Specialists in late-PDA culture and didn’t know much about the 20th century, but being a folklore specialist, Jaq recognized the name.  He took the device to Anarber and the restoration people allowed him to help with the salvaging.  They were able to reclaim a good part of the text and then a search actually turned up a couple of extant copies – one was in the Old Brit Library in Lunden, I think – so the missing pieces could be filled in.  My mother thinks that if Jaq were to be remembered for only one accomplishment in his life, it should be for rescuing those works from oblivion, because they’re quite remarkable – full of glamour – the light of Faërie.”
       Gwidian had been listening with his usual attentiveness.  Kaitrin wondered again whether that concentration was genuine; surely he must sometimes be bored with a conversation.
       “So what are those myths about, in that cycle with the unpronounceable name?” he queried.
       “The subject of the Fourth Branch is the exploits of a god/hero named Gwydion!”
       “Ha!  This grows even more interesting!”
       “Yes, you can see why I wanted to tell you this.  Only it has an archaic spelling –
       “And is this Gwydion a sympathetic character or a villain?”
       “Sympathetic, mostly.  There’s some ambiguity, as in all great fictional characters.”
       “And in non-fictional ones as well, I daresay,” he said.
       Kaitrin glanced at him.  “You’re right there.  Gwydion ap Dôn was a magician who through some very peculiar trickery caused his sister Arianrhod to bear his son.  She was so angry that she cursed the son, whose name was Llew …  What’s the matter?”
       Gwidian had made a sudden movement.  He directed his eyes across the room, then looked back at Kaitrin.  “Nothing,” he said.  “‘Lew’ is quite a common name in West Britan even today.  It was my father’s name.”
       “There – you see?  Anyway, Arianrhod put a curse on Llew that he should never lie with a woman ‘of the race that now dwells upon this earth.’”  Suddenly Kaitrin became a little self-conscious.  She had forgotten that details of this story might open up topics she would as soon avoid in Prf. Gwidian’s company.
       But it was too late to stop.  “So Gwydion created a mate for his son – a woman made of flowers, named Blodeuwedd.  She was empty-headed and faithless and she betrayed Llew and got him killed, or thought she did.  But Gwydion saved his son’s life and then hunted Blodeuwedd down and turned her into an owl for all eternity.  And there is this unforgettable line that comes right before Gwydion transforms the flower-woman:  ‘Gwydion rode on alone … going forth, after the fashion of all orthodox gods, to damn the creature that he had fashioned ill … ’  That line has always stuck in my memory.”
       There was a pause.  Kaitrin was aware of Gwidian’s intense gaze boring into her face.  What can be going on behind those eyes?
       Then he said, “I find that impressive.  You’re right; I should learn a bit more about West British lore.  I’ll have to look up the entire tale.”
       “It’s all in the DB.  Just access the author Evangeline Walton if you can’t spell Mabinogion.  It’s W-a-l-t-o-n, not the modern spelling.  The Fourth Branch is entitled The Island of the Mighty, although originally it had a different … ”
       “If you’re impressed by that line you quoted, I would say you don’t believe very strongly in orthodox gods.”
       “Well, who does?  This is the 30th century, after all!  I was brought up like most people these days, in the Mythmaker ethical system.  I do think, however, that science will never be able to explain everything that happens in the universe.  But what I definitely take exception to is this cultic worship of the Mythmakers that has sprung up over the last century.  I mean, really …  The artistic creations of the Mythmakers may have been powerful enough to inspire Earthers to haul their world back from the brink of annihilation, but even so they were only a bunch of 25th century humans.  Now we’re getting so far removed from that time that the archetypal process of deifying respected individuals is beginning to happen all over again!  Just because we don’t … ”
       “Griff!  Imagine running into you over here!”
       Gwidian’s face gathered into a frown.  Kaitrin looked up to see a dark-haired woman standing at his elbow, glancing between them.  She was clad in a low-cut yellow leotard and black mesh tights.
       “Margit,” said Gwidian, looking sideways at her.  “It’s been a while.”
       “It certainly has.  Have you lost my relay code, Griff?”
       Kaitrin sat frozen, staring at this interloper with the amused black eyes and suggestive smile. 
       “I’ve been off-world,” Gwidian said.  His voice was tight.  “Asc. Oliva, this is Margit Terrie.  Margit, Asc. Kaitrin Oliva, a colleague in my latest project.”
       Margit cocked her head at Kaitrin, swaying her hips slightly.  “A colleague!  How special!  Too bad you can’t use a dance instructor in your projects, Griff!  Your latest one requires a visit to the Arts campus, does it?”
       “Asc. Oliva and I were about to view the faculty art show.”
       “I didn’t know you were so interested in art,” said Margit.  “You never told me that, Griff.”  She gave him no time to answer.  “Message me some time.  I never went away.”
       “If I can,” replied Gwidian coldly.  “I’m going off-world again.”
       “Again?  Too bad!  And, Asc. Oliva, you’ll be going off-world with him?”
       Kaitrin was never sure afterward how she had replied.
       “Well, I’m so happy I ran into you, Griff.  Asc. Oliva, nice to meet you.  Good luck on your expedition!  See you later?”  With a little flurry of hip and shoulder, she was gone.
       There was a glacial silence.  All the rapport, all the warmth, had departed with Margit Terrie.
       Then Gwidian muttered something unintelligible and pushed back his plate.  “Perhaps I should be returning to my office.  I seem to recall a matter that requires attention.”
       “What?  And miss out on nurturing this unprecedented interest in art?” said Kaitrin acidly. 
        He puffed his cheeks, gestured impatiently, and stood up.  “You’ll enjoy the exhibit a good deal more without me, I’m sure.  I’ll possibly see you before the committee meeting.”
       Not if I can help it, went through Kaitrin’s mind.  How could I possibly have let down my guard this way with this – this promiscuous stud?
       Gwidian had turned back.  His expression of distress appeared genuine.  “Kaitrin, I feel I owe you an explanation … ”
       Kaitrin was not buying it.  “What for?  Your recreational activities are of no concern to me.  And my name is Asc. Oliva.”
       Gwidian hesitated, then threw up his hands and walked away swiftly toward the door.

*          *          *
       Kaitrin gave Gwidian a good lead and then started back herself, having lost all taste for a museum visit.  She attempted to pay for her lunch on the way out, but he had already taken care of it.  Spotting the griffin miniature in her bag, she felt impelled to return it to the shop or at least re-register the payment to herself.  But even as furious as she was, that seemed a little spiteful.  After all, she did have to continue working with this man.  I wanted to keep everything professional, she thought, and all I do lately is lose my balance.
       In fact, she was so confused about her feelings that she went to Luku’s quarters and keyed the door page.  In a few moments, a somnolent voice said, “Kaitrin?”
       “Oh, you were sleeping!  But may I come up?”
       “Of course!  Are you all right?”
       “Yes, I just need to talk to somebody.”
       Clad only in her fur, Luku stood in the apartment door.  “I was trying to catch up my sleep after that morning meeting.  But it is of no matter.  What is up?  I saw you go off with Prf. Gwidian.”
       “That was a horrendous mistake!”  Kaitrin gave Luku a summary of what had happened and Luku chuckled throatily.  “Why are you laughing?”
       “Kaitrin, you sound jealous!”
       This word horrified Kaitrin.  “Jealous!  Don’t be absurd!  I have no hold on him and I certainly don’t want any!  I … ”
       “But I can tell he attracts you.  Do not look that expression!  Lots of the human females find him … ”
       “But I’m not ‘lots of human females’!” shouted Kaitrin.  “I think he’s insufferable!  I knew about his reputation, but how many women does it take to satisfy him, anyway?”
       “Do you know what I heard?  Gwidian lives in a townhouse over on Fac Row, and I heard that Prf. Lindeman is seen sometimes leaving door late in the evening.  No party finishing or anything, just … ”
       “Aargh!  Her?  She’s his department head!  How unprincipled can you be?”
       “Kaitrin!  Be calm!  Why are you so upset if he does not matter to you?”
       Kaitrin subsided onto a floor pillow, gesturing extravagantly.  “I don’t know!  I don’t know why I’m so infuriated!  It was so – deflating – to have that traggy woman come up and flirt so outrageously, with that sly little grin and that body posture implying that I was just like her …  Luku, I felt exploited.  And I’d been feeling so good about everything – I was actually having a good time!  He can be charming, even when he chides you about something.  He can be easy to talk to.  I don’t know why I find him easy to talk to.  There is – something so old school about him … but you probably don’t know what that means.  He can appear so genuine.  But I don’t trust him in the slightest.  I’m not sure there’s a real genuine bone in his body!”
       “He did not intend for that woman to – how do you say? – to turn up.”
       “I don’t think so.  But it seems the potential is always there.”
       “Did he seem happy to see her?”
       “No.  As a matter of fact, he was just barely civil to her.”
       “Why, do you think?”
       “I suppose, because his game was up.  I think everything is a pose with him.  Or she was getting in the way of his – his latest conquest.  Ah-h – myself, a conquest?  Ugh!”
       “Maybe he also hated that the day was spoiled.  Maybe you really attract him.”
       “Luku, if I wanted to, I couldn’t compete with that type of woman!  I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to go about it.  And that seems to be his type of woman.  It’s ridiculous to think he gives a damn about me!”
       “Maybe he is tired of that kind of woman.”
       “Well, he does a good job fooling everybody about that!”
       Luku continued to chuckle deep in her chest.
       “Do you find him attractive?” asked Kaitrin.
       Hoi-a, I am not human.  Te Quornaz females do not find human males appealing.  Tailless.  And so slick – no fur.  The little bit of hair they have is stiff and unpleasant.”
       It was Kaitrin’s turn to giggle.  “How would you know?”
       “A couple experiences.”
       “Really?  Luku, you’ve had sex with humans?”
       “Twice.  Once it was good, once not so good.  One was a man who kept after me till I did it.  But he only wanted a sensational thing to boast.  You know, sex with an alien.  It was a mistake – not so good.  But the other time, I had been on Earth a very little while.  I met a young man – fellow student – who helped me to learn Inj.  He was very sweet.  I think my tail fascinated him.  It was not a bad experience for either one.  But we could both see that it was not a thing to continue.  But I do not regret that one.”
       “I’ve studied your culture, Luku.  I know it isn’t like Earth.  Mating is mostly arranged.”
       “Yes.  If you are a House-Lord’s daughter and you want to enter another House with ceremony, the elders arrange it.  But it is not like tyrant-act.  You get to meet the male and if you really do not like each other, things do not happen.  And if you are not aristocrat, or if you are Choitovae like me and leave home, you can make your own choice.  But even then, different from Earth.  Not all this playing of word games.  You flirt a little – you test scent to see if it agrees.  You groom each other’s fur – nibble a lot.  If it goes so far, then you dance, you couple.  You have a little pleasure when you want it.  Our bodies can control the making of offspring.  No need for contraceptive.  When we mate for children, then we get serious and make permanent marriage ceremony so that a proper family will come to be.”
       For a few moments, they sat reflecting on each other’s customs.  Then Kaitrin sighed and stirred.  “I think I’ve finally simmered down.  I’ll go away and let you sleep.  Thanks for being so indulgent of me.  You’re a good friend, Luku.”
       “Any time, Kaitrin!  Do not worry about Gwidian and do not let this bother how you work with him.  The project is much more important.  I will see you in lab this evening!”

Coming Saturday
Chapter 12
At a meeting of the Committee on Off-World Expeditions
Kaitrin presents her interpretation of the language recording.  We encounter the Shshi conlang for the first time.