Thursday, June 30, 2011

Unexpected Arrivals

I believe I mentioned, perhaps a week or two ago, that my salamander was getting a bit fat. I may also have mentioned that I still didn't know whether my salamander was male or female, as it's nearly impossible to tell unless one is an expert.

Any doubts on the matter were settled this morning, however, when she laid her eggs.

This came as a complete surprise to me. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the reproductive habits of salamanders, and I hadn't even known that mine was old enough to lay eggs. She's barely longer than my hand. She must have met someone while visiting the burning man in Twokk; as far as I know, that's the only extended period of time she's spent with other salamanders in the last few months. She meets them occasionally, but they usually just exchange polite puffs of smoke and go about their business.

I had absolutely no idea how to care for salamander eggs. Fortunately, I managed to keep from panicking. Instead, I asked random people on the streets - they were quite helpful, probably recognizing the signs of desperation - until I got directions to a salamander breeder in town. He keeps a shop in the basement of a pump house near the Grand Hat's palace.*

In a city where the rain never stops, there are a lot of pump houses. This one keeps water in the Grand Hat's fountains and out of the Grand Hat's gardens. It's a good place for a salamander hatchery; there's plenty of water close at hand when things catch on fire. I had to circle the building, nearly deafened by the thunder of the pumps, before I found a narrow staircase leading down under the street. There was a door of soot-stained metal at the bottom. It was open, so I walked in.

I felt as if I'd stepped into the Minotaur's labyrinth. Salamanders were scattered throughout the dark room behind the door; when I entered, a dozen lizard-shaped flames lifted their heads to stare at me. The man in the middle of the room turned around a moment later. He was built like an ox, and in fact rather resembled one, with wide-set eyes glowering under a broad, shaggy forehead. When I entered, he rose to his feet - hooves, rather, bigger than my head - and clomped over to me, glaring down from somewhere near the ceiling. The floor creaked under his weight, as did all the leather he was wearing. His horns would have scraped the ceiling if he hadn't been hunched over under a massive pair of shoulders. His beard and mane - it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began - were blackened and ragged. Small flames flickered in his hair. He frowned and let out a rumble that might have been a question, or possibly an earthquake.

Attempting to produce something like a smile, I held up the lantern full of eggs.

His expression changed, instantly, from monolithic hostility to wide-eyed delight. "And what is THIS?" he boomed, taking the lantern and peering into it. It nearly disappeared in his hand. "Look at all these beautiful eggs! Who is their mother? Is it you?" He reached a leathery finger as thick as my wrist into the lantern and gave my salamander a gentle rub under the chin. If she'd been a cat, she would have purred. "Of course it is! Such pretty eggs could only have come from such a pretty salamander! You must be very proud, you beautiful thing, and well you should be!"

He continued to make adoring noises over her for a minute or two, then looked up at me. "This is her first clutch of eggs?"

I wasn't quite sure of my voice, so I just nodded.

He grinned, showing several gold teeth. "Your first as well?"

I nodded again.

"Well, you were wise to come here. I am Karloff Hajrastarn, keeper of the finest salamanders in the two cities. Come. I shall tell you everything you need to know." He clomped back over to his chair, motioning for me to follow. The chair had the well-worn look of an old boot, as if it had been crushed into a comfortable shape by the weight of its owner, and the leather upholstery was mottled with singe marks. It creaked when he sat down. The fireplace in front of it held an enormous fire; it would have lit the whole room if Hajrastarn hadn't been sitting in front of it.

It took me a moment to realize that the logs in the fire were actually a pair of salamanders. They were the size of small alligators. One of them grinned and gave me a long, slow wink.

"You have kept the eggs in the fire." At the sound of Hajrastarn's voice, I looked away from the giants, suddenly relieved that my own salamander is a more manageable size. "Good. Do not let it go out; that is the most important thing. Salamanders are creatures of fire, and they must stay in it until they are grown, just as tadpoles must stay in water. This lantern will serve, though you will need a larger one when the hatchlings grow older. Have you been feeding the mother coal?"

I had. She's been much more insistent than usual about it lately; now I know why. I nodded, hoping that that was a good thing.

Apparently, it was. Hajrastarn nodded in approval. "Good. Keep doing so. She will need to build up her fire again after making so many little embers. She is from Cormilack, yes? They are strong salamanders there, and she has been well cared for. It will not take long. Now, when the eggs hatch…"

He spent the next few hours giving me instructions - enough for the next few years, I think, until the hatchlings are old enough to go out on their own. He would pause occasionally to feed his own salamanders (I counted at least fifty just in the one room) or to do various things related to their training.** Sometimes both of us would pause to just look at the eggs.

The eggs are quite beautiful. They're soft-shelled, like most reptile eggs, lying in a leathery heap at the bottom of the lantern. My salamander dug a little nest for them in the smoldering wood shavings. I can't tell what color the shells are through the flames; waves of quick orange light flicker over their surfaces, as if they were burning coals. Occasionally, I can catch a glimpse of the tiny embryos silhouetted inside.

I left the hatchery with ten pages of detailed notes, a bag of supplies,*** and considerably more confidence than I'd had this morning. Hajrastarn wedged himself up the steps of his shop - he had to climb them sideways - and waved as I left.

"Take good care of the little lady!" he bellowed, grinning. "And bring the hatchlings back to see me when they are old enough!"

I'll certainly do my best.

* This is a literal translation of the title of the ruler of Thrass Kaffa. It sounds much more impressive in Kafri - "Shishra Samakat" - but it means the same thing. The title could also be translated as "Biggest Super Hat," but that sounds even sillier.

** Several of his newer salamanders are at a rather overenthusiastic stage, which is why his hair was on fire when he answered the door.

*** My favorites are the little sticks of yellow incense. They're for nutritional purposes. Salamanders originally lived in active volcanoes (the first domesticated ones were caught laying eggs in brimstone deposits near the surface), and the embryos need certain volcanic gases to develop properly. I think the incense is mostly sulphur. It smells like fireworks.

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