Thursday, November 06, 2008

Dancing with Centipedes

I've gotten several letters from relatives (delayed a few months while the postbirds tried to find the Train) asking who Chiliska is. Since she's the only person I mentioned by name on my departure from Cormilack - aside from Lady Akistria Xeredile, of course - I suppose this is reasonable.

The New Year's Ball in Cormilack is always held on the first of April. (Don't ask me why it's called the New Year's Ball. I don't know.) The rainy season has been going for almost a month by then, and the people of Cormilack are starting to get sick of it. The Ball is a way to distract them from the endless rain and let them do more than sit around and drip all day.

I don't really mind that - I usually sit around and write or draw anyway, when I'm not traveling. While the rain made that harder than usual, it didn't keep me from exploring Cormilack and the Earthmover. I was perfectly happy. Also, I usually try to avoid dancing; I have two left feet, sometimes literally.

Lady Xeredile made it very clear, though, that the Ball was not optional for residents of the Palace. She didn't want the people she had to live with sitting around like lumps until May. Since I was staying in the Palace at the time, working on her portrait, that meant that I and my two left feet had to be there.

Everyone who didn't already have a partner (including foreigners like me who didn't know anyone in town) had partners chosen for them at random. All the men and all the women drew numbers and milled around on the floor for several minutes, trying to find whichever person of the opposite gender had the same one. (There were more women than men, so the few hermaphrodites and one mobile plant in attendance joined the men's group to even things out.) I wandered around with everyone else, holding the number 36 (which seems to follow me around) and looking for its twin. I was rather startled to find it in the claw of a giant centipede.

If you think I was nervous about dancing before then, just imagine how I felt when I found I wouldn't even be dancing with someone with the same number of feet. I couldn't think how we'd even dance at the same time - how does a centipede do a dance designed for bipeds, or vice versa? I was about to ruin her evening. I was sure of it.

She had about half of her legs off the ground when we met, rearing up to search the crowd with her head eight feet above the floor. When she found me, she dropped down politely so that our eyes were level. Centipedes can be any height they want. She was wearing one of the long, ruffled things that centipedes sometimes wear instead of dresses. Normally, arthropods don't wear anything at all - there's not really much point - but this was a special occasion. There were bows on her antennae.

One of the musicians told me later that she was a dressmaker for the Palace - had, in fact, made the purple dress with the screws on it that Lady Xeredile wore for her portrait - and that she lived (during the non-rainy season) in a hole under the Earthmover. I suppose that explains why she didn't have a partner already.

We introduced ourselves, and that was the extent of our communication for the rest of the evening. We couldn't understand each other. I don't know more than five words of any of the chitinous languages - even the few I can pronounce - and she seemed more amused than anything when I tried to say "pleased to meet you" in Sikelak (psarkl kssh k'klrga). She didn't seem to understand English either. The most we could manage was each other's names. Hers was Chiliska (at least, that's the closest I could come to it - it was really more like "Tch'lsskhhh," but I couldn't pronounce it correctly). She called me "N'shll."

Lady Xeredile's Palace is built on top of one of the Earthmover's giant drills, high above most of the town. The ballroom windows look out on a gently sloping hillside with ten-foot rivets sticking out of it. It's a good thing I'd already been staying in the Palace for a week at that point; the last thing I needed was to be distracted by the view.

The few dances I recognized were a waltz, a fast calacara (most of which I spent tripping over my own feet), and something that may have been a spangle hop. The rest were unfamiliar. I may have gotten a few of them almost right. It turns out that most dances have multilegged variations - which makes sense, when you think about it - or maybe Chiliska just made them up as she went along. She was certainly a much better dancer than I am. She glided around the ballroom, claws clicking softly on the floor, and I stumbled along with her as well as I could. I think we both enjoyed the Ball, though, and she made up for my two left feet by having about thirty right ones of her own. I don't think she even noticed when I stepped on her claws.

After the Ball was over, we had dinner. I think everyone in Cormilack had brought something. I had pasta, a bit of every dessert I could find, and a lot of things I couldn't identify. Quite a lot of them had been caught in the caves under the Earthmover; as far as I know, maybe no one else could identify them either. Chiliska ate about seven steaks. Centipedes need a lot of meat. After dinner, I walked her to the front door of the Palace (actually, she walked me, as I couldn't find it), we said what I assume was goodnight, and she left.

Somehow, we ended up being friends after that. We never learned any more of each other's languages; there's no way we could have pronounced them. She'd come and find me every time she visited the Palace, though, and we'd have lunch together and talk about what were probably completely different things. During my time in Cormilack, I probably talked more to Chiliska than to most of the people who lived in the Palace and actually understood me. I drew this picture as a farewell present when I left.

The problem with traveling is that, every now and then, you meet people you miss after you leave. I hope I find my way back to Cormilack someday.

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