Ondry watched while Liam sat and arranged trading tokens into piles that appeared to have no logic outside his own preference. He had already sent a message to the Grandmothers that the humans and their war had shifted toward increasing levels of violence. The Grandmothers would, no doubt, soon call for Ondry and his Liam to speak to them. Before that moment came, Ondry needed to know that his palteia was well.
He watched as Liam took down one set of token towers and began stacking a new pattern on the edge of the table.
With half his attention on Liam, Ondry went into the back room and gathered up the nictel. When he came back into the public room, Liam had abandoned his game and was watching.
“Why do you have that?”
“Because I believe my palteia needs to feel held close,” Ondry said. He drew nearer, and Liam’s eyes dilated. “Am I mistaken?”
“I’m not about to run back to the humans,” Liam said. While Ondry could not understand the intricacies of Liam’s emotions, he could see the unhappiness in every line of Liam’s body.
Ondry caught Liam by the neck and then ran his thumb over the soft skin. “I never doubted your loyalty, only your willingness to value yourself.”
For a time, Liam studied him as though trying to judge the veracity of Ondry’s statement. Ondry would never lie to his palteia, so he waited until Liam gave him a crooked smile. “You might be right about that.”
“I am always right, or at least I maintain that in the absence of proof,” Ondry said with some humor. Liam’s smile grew wider.
“Then you’d better make sure you hide the evidence that might contradict you,” Liam teased.
Ondry tightened his face in amusement. From another adult, such a statement would be a clever insult, but Liam was his companion, his palteia who could be trusted to only have Ondry’s profit in mind.
“You’re determined to leash me, aren’t you?” Liam asked. He attempted to make a sound of weariness, but he was too quick to slip off his pants and too passive with any complaints. Ondry knew well that Liam could speak out loudly enough for the gods to hear him when he was truly unhappy. So when Liam leaned back in the chair in order to lift his bare ankle, Ondry began to tighten the straps around the offered ankle before adding the cuff around Liam’s knee.
He expected that when he secured the strap around Liam’s thigh, Liam’s genitals would respond to the stimulation. Ondry had sought to explain human sexuality and the focus on pleasure to one of the other traders. Other than causing Liam to blush madly, Ondry had achieved nothing except convincing the trader that Ondry was constructing some elaborate prank. Sex for pleasure seemed odd when compared to Rownt biology.
However, while Liam’s sex organs normally responded to even innocent touches, this time they remained quiescent. As Ondry closed the magnetic locks on the straps, he took a moment to run his knuckle over the underside of Liam’s scrotum. Liam grabbed Ondry’s shoulder and focused his light brown eyes on Ondry, but he still didn’t harden.
“I’m a little too worried,” Liam said, and Ondry mentally filed that with other quirks of human sexuality. Stress reduced sexual compatibility. That appeared to be one more reason for leashing his palteia and comforting him until his mood improved.
“Up,” Ondry said kindly, and at the same time, he caught Liam’s hand and helped him to his feet. That allowed Ondry to finish by locking the belt around Liam’s waist.
“You must think I’m a basket case,” Liam said. The words made no sense at all, and maybe Liam could read Ondry’s expressions well enough to recognize that, because he provided a definition. “Someone who has a very limited ability to perceive reality.”
Ondry nodded as he understood that Liam was, again, insulting himself. “I believe that someone who has been tossed aside too many times may have trouble believing the person who offers to keep him forever.”
“You’re pretty good at this human-psychology thing,” Liam said.
“I am a quick learner.” Ondry bent down and grabbed Liam’s discarded pants, holding them up. Liam quickly slipped them on over the nictel, not commenting when Ondry wrapped the end of the leash around his own wrist. It meant Liam had very little room to move around, but then Ondry intended that. Liam needed to believe he would not be discarded again. When Liam attempted to sit down, Ondry pulled Liam close and then sat down with him so they ended up in a tangle of legs and leash in the one chair.
“I’m a little old for sitting in someone’s lap,” Liam pointed out.
“You are palteia. I may spoil you how I wish,” Ondry responded. As usual, that silenced the objections. Normally Liam would fill the silence with his questions and observations, which were a bizarre mixture of incredible insight and wildly improbable speculation. Now he was too willing to listen to the silence. Ondry found it disconcerting.
“Were you aligned with these places that Craig described?”
Liam opened his mouth but then closed it without giving an answer. Ondry waited. His superior patience gave him an advantage in such contests. Humans had to urinate entirely too often in the course of a day.
Eventually Liam sighed. “The way you define ‘align,’ no. I was ordered to go there and defend the position.”
Ondry still questioned the wisdom of ordering people to defend a place they felt no allegiance toward. “Is it the news of these places that upsets you?” he asked directly.
“Yeah.” Liam’s voice was whisper-soft. “But not for the reason you’d think.”
“I do not assume I understand any of this. Rownt do not war at all as you define that term. What do you feel about this news?”
Liam looked up at the ceiling. “I spent five years of my life scared and hungry and exhausted—all to save a few miles of a moon, and now… What did it all matter? All that suffering, all the people who died… It all added up to exactly nothing.” Liam took a deep breath as his emotions seemed to overwhelm him.
“So it is as if you had worked a most difficult trade only to have the goods destroyed by storm.” Ondry could feel distress in his own stomach. To have the universe turn against you and to find yourself helpless to prevent it would cause the highest-status trader or Grandmother great anguish.
“For you? Yeah. I don’t feel trading like that, but if losing a trade hurts so much that you feel like you’ve been punched, then it feels exactly like that. What did it matter? Caro who died from an infection after she got shot in the gut, and Will who starved to death when they sent us only corn rations and he was allergic to them—all that pain, what did it matter?” Liam started to clear his throat, and Ondry wrapped his arms around his palteia and pulled him close. He used his fingers to draw Rownt symbols of love on Liam’s neck. Liam sighed and put his head down on Ondry’s shoulder. For a time they sat in silence. Ondry curled his tail around one of Liam’s wrists and pulled on the leash until Liam had to tuck his leg up under him.
Had Ondry been given the opportunity, he would have cheerfully gutted each person who had left Liam so very hurt. Since he could not, he started to softly glurble.
Liam slipped his fingers under the edge of Ondry’s shirt so his fingertips rested against the skin. “You must think humans are insane.”
“Why would I think that?”
“War,” Liam answered.
War was a difficult concept. Ondry understood fighting. He understood two groups throwing themselves at each other in the quest for resources or to defend a claim. He even understood the devastation sometimes left in the wake of two towns driven to fight. But the Grandmothers insisted those concepts translated as battle, not war as other species defined it.
Until Liam, Ondry had given no thought to such alien concepts, but now he could not help but wonder what drive must send species into a spiral of aggression and destruction.
“It is a strange concept,” Ondry said. He would not disrespect his Liam by lying to him. “To recruit others into a battle or series of battles seems less than logical.”
“Crazy,” Liam corrected him.
Ondry nodded. “However, both the Anla and the Imshee engage in warfare as you define it, so I suspect that the Rownt are the ones who could be described as crazy for their inability to understand the reality the rest of you live by.”
“Funny. Your way makes more sense,” Liam said. Ondry agreed, and he suspected Liam had begun to change into a creature more Rownt than human in his thinking. They certainly had fewer instances of utter bewilderment than in the beginning.
“I concur. However, sanity is difficult to objectively measure.” Ondry started considering the human trader’s words. “How will human responses change now that the war has changed?”
Liam took some time before answering. “They want metals.”
“The others took as much from the conversation they no doubt overheard,” Ondry said softly. If Ondry and Liam were to profit, they needed information others wouldn’t have.
“Two options. If the general in charge of this area wants metals badly enough, he’ll approve the trade, and Craig and his psychology books will be at the trading square tomorrow. The general may then have to explain his willingness to cancel standing orders, but the trade will still be done.”
Ondry blinked in surprise. That one person would make a decision without any consultation with elders made him wonder whether humans would eventually prove as difficult to deal with as the unpredictable and violent Anla. For Rownt, a major shift in policy required all the ruling Grandmothers to come to the temple. They would debate, call high-ranked tradesmen and traders to consult, and call other temples and other Grandmother councils before making a decision. He had assumed humans did something similar, because any change in policy seemed to take months, if not years.
Liam continued with his second option. “Or the general will send the request back to Command. Then the commanders and the politicians and xenopsychologists will argue about whether or not Rownt should have access to sources that might make the entire human race look less than sane. In that case, they should make a decision about the time that Vilta’s newest eggling tries to earn his independence.”
“Do your people question their own sanity?”
“All the time,” Liam said, huffing in his amusement. “However, the wrong people do the questioning. A sane person worries, and those who truly believe themselves to be the center of the universe never seem to question that view of reality.”
Ondry started mentally counting his inventories. If he could convince Nitune from the mines to sell him more metal, he could make a good trade if the human returned the following day. Hitil and the trader who had brought tech goods would not believe humans could act so quickly. They would be off planning their strategy or quietly trying to find a buyer for intel on humans. One simply didn’t move on a trade that might not appear for years. If Ondry did move, and the human didn’t come back immediately, Ondry would be dangerously overinvested with metals.
“What are the odds that the human will return to trade tomorrow?”
“Pretty damn good,” Liam said. He looked Ondry right in the eye. “What Craig told us is definitely forbidden. Things are really bad, and if they’re bad enough for Craig to risk breaking the rules, I think the officers are feeling that same desperation.”
“Then we visit Nitune.”
“From the mines?” Liam asked. He glanced at the stack of markers that represented the ore Ondry already held. Because of his status as the main trader for the Tura Coalition, he already owned more metal than most. To obtain more would be a calculated risk.
“Either we will be wealthy enough to purchase our own defensive satellite, or we will be eating poorly until I can repair the damage I am about to do to our stores,” Ondry admitted. He watched for some sign of doubt or disapproval in Liam’s eyes.
“We could buy a satellite?” Liam asked. He used his hand on Ondry’s shoulder to push himself upright.
“Someone must contribute to the planetary community just as someone must buy art for the temple,” Ondry said. He had not planned to have such wealth until he was six or seven hundred, but to make a significant contribution at his age would prove his high status.
“But Nitune will wonder why you’re buying more, and then the price is going to go up.”
Ondry smiled at the evidence of Liam’s sharp trader’s mind. His palteia was not to be underestimated. “Then we lie and tell him we are going to Pratoalta in search of rumors that one of the clans is thinking of building a new ship. We would not pay more for a trade that is only whispered in a distant town. We could offer him the kaile
we have stored.” Ondry hated trading away the spice because he’d grown spoiled by spiced food, but his comfort was not material to the issue if he could secure the sort of wealth required to begin contributing to the larger planetary defense.
Liam wrinkled his nose. “This is dangerous.”
“Very,” Ondry agreed. Poor trades could damage his still-fragile status. Too many elders were slow to recognize a Rownt of less than two hundred as ka
rank. Errors now could see him slip backward.
“Okay, but we should convince Craig that I have a craving for horseradish.”
“That sounds like it would make for a reasonable profit,” Ondry said as he started to calculate his potential customers. The information would be better traded in a larger town, but horseradish had a fanatical following in this town. If not for fear of revealing their cravings to the humans, Rownt would have stormed the trading squares, demanding it. Liam’s familiarity with the food would make it logical for him to ask for some comfort from home.
Putting his hands on Liam’s hips, Ondry urged him to stand. “We will visit Nitune today.”
“This feels wrong. We’re going to make a profit off the fact that my people are idiots and they’re killing each other.”
“The profit will be made by someone. Our poverty would not change their poor decisions.” Ondry stood up.
“True,” Liam admitted. He sighed as he stretched out the leg leashed by the nictel. “Are you going to take this off now?”
“I—” Liam gave a little squawk when Ondry started toward the door and the nictel tightened so fast that Liam was temporarily unbalanced. He caught Ondry’s arm and quickly moved to his side to give himself more slack in the chain. “I’m feeling better, honestly.”
“Then you shall feel even more relaxed after a day of being reminded of my commitment to you,” Ondry said. “Now let’s leave before bad luck has Nitune hearing that the customers for his metals may be close to home.” Ondry pulled the nictel so Liam was forced close to his side, and then he curled his tail around Liam’s knee.
“Subtle,” Liam complained, but he leaned his weight into Ondry.
Ondry recognized that form of lying. Liam called it “irony.” It was comforting to know that humans had various names for the art. Some species seemed to have very little respect for the power and skill required for a good lie, not that irony was a particularly effective form of lying. It did, however, tell Ondry that Liam was feeling better.