Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Hidden Passenger

I was not in the best of shape in the few days following our encounter with the Painted Ones. I had been out in the sun painting them for an entire afternoon, and there had been other things on my mind besides keeping cool and drinking enough. I spent the rather unpleasant evening of that day feeling as if my brain had gone slightly crispy around the edges.

Worse than the heat, of course, were the less physical aftereffects. I was rather proud of the way I had handled myself around the Painted Ones; after those first moments among their carrion breath and bloodstained saber claws, I had hardly panicked at all. Unfortunately, I had accomplished this through the time-honored method of shutting the panic in a mental closet until it could come out without upsetting a dozen knife-faced predators. As is usually the case, this only meant that the panic had had more time to froth itself into near-hysteria by the time I was able to face it. The nausea from overheating and dehydration met up with the nervous shakes, and they instantly teamed up to make my life miserable.

In short, my system - normally exceptionally adaptable - had had a little more strain than even it was comfortable handling. I had miraculously avoided the full consequences of sunstroke, but it looked to be a miserable few days until I recovered.

Still, I had served my purpose on the caravan; the Painted Ones have large territories, so we were unlikely to meet another pack during the same journey. No one would have blamed me if I had simply retreated to my assigned wagon and convalesced among the luggage for the remainder of the trip.

That was one reason why I was so surprised when the aquatic passenger invited me to his wagon.

The other reason, of course, was that hardly anyone had seen him since he first joined the caravan. No one even seemed to know his name. He had arrived unseen during the night, before the caravan started, and had been an invisible presence inside his watertight wagon ever since. If not for the lamplight shining through the oiled silk canopy at night, there would have been no indication that anyone was inside at all.

This was not necessarily by choice. The Desert climate is hard on fish and amphibians from other places, and they usually survive by isolating themselves from it as thoroughly as possible. Most don't enter the Golden Desert at all. No one knew why the aquatic passenger was there, but we were all quietly impressed that he had come to a place that required such elaborate preparations to keep him alive.

Of course, his necessary isolation didn't mean that he was completely out of touch with the rest of the caravan. Most of his business was conducted through his servant, a stocky reptilian woman by the name of Mogen, who kept him updated on the caravan's progress and supplied him with the least salty of the available food. Mogen was the one who came the day after our encounter with the Painted ones, to where I lay sweating between suitcases in the almost-cool shade of the wagon, and invited me to visit her employer.

Even in my exhausted and slightly feverish state, I was excited to finally see the inside of the silk-shrouded wagon that had been such a mystery to all of the caravan's passengers. The lamplight that shone from it at night cast no clear shadows on the canopy. We could hear the sloshing of water inside when the wagon was on the move, and unseen frogs and crickets sang from it at night, but its lone civilized occupant seemed to be entirely silent. No one was even sure what he looked like.

Mogen led me to the back of the wagon and unzipped a long slit in what looked like seamless fabric. There were no fasteners on its edges; like the spider-woven bubble-wrap used by travelers in the Great Shwamp, the fabric seemed to be just sticky enough to seal itself together. Cool, damp air wafted from the opening, like the breath of a pond. Mogen smiled and motioned me into the wagon. I climbed through the opening, somewhat awkwardly, and she sealed it silently behind me.

Inside, I felt for a moment as if I'd returned to the Great Shwamp - a small, rectangular slice of it, at least. The entire bed of the wagon was filled with water, broken here and there by rocks and aquatic plants. A few trunks sat on top of the rocks, out of the water, though their wood and brass were coated in just enough moss and blue-green oxidization to look respectably aged in the style of the Scalps. My arrival was greeted by a series of small plops as frogs dove into hiding from rocks and reed stems.

Most of my attention, however, was quickly drawn to the wagon's inhabitant, who filled the space like a fish in an aquarium several sizes too small.

Like many aquatic people, he had no legs. Instead, his torso tapered smoothly into a long tail, edged with a frill of transparent fin, like that of an eel or a salamander.

"Greetings, Mr. Tangelo," he said, smiling at me over his spectacles. He spoke flawless English in the percussive accent of the Scalps, mixed with some other accent I couldn't identify. "My name is Chakramalsian, but you may call me Chak." ("Chuck?" I attempted. "Chak,” he corrected me with a patient smile.) "I heard of your impressive performance yesterday, and of its toll on you, and thought that you might appreciate a cooler place in which to recover."

I don’t think I even considered turning down his offer. After the mind-scalding heat of the previous day, the cool, damp air felt like Heaven, or at least someplace with a similar climate. I accepted almost without thought. As grateful as I was, it took nearly an hour of rest, lying in the water between the suspicious stares of re-emerging frogs, before I was thinking clearly enough to wonder how I could thank him for such generosity.

As it turned out, he had thought of that too. He wanted me to paint the wagon's canopy for him. The blank white ceiling had been restful at first, he said - but he was used to living under a lake, and it was getting harder and harder to ignore the thought of the parched air and blistering sun on the other side of the pale fabric. He needed to have fish overhead again. I was delighted to provide some.

He gave me several books from which he wanted me to work. One held old fabric patterns from the Scalps; another had elegant drawings of unfamiliar fish. The third was in a language I'd never seen, bookmarked at a page filled entirely by a single swooping character. It meant "patience," he told me, adding with a rueful chuckle that that particular trait had been nearly as essential as water during his journey.

Once she heard that I had taken the job, Mogen went to search the caravan for paints. Luckily, one of the other travelers had a supply of oil-based dyes that would work on the slick, waterproofed silk of the canopy. I fetched a set of brushes from my own luggage, still slightly damp from their use the previous day. I was still too unsteady to stand. Instead, I began work on a border around the base of the canopy while sitting in the cool water. Chak talked to me as I worked.

He had brought a trunk full of books, another of supplies for writing. His true passion, however, was accounting - and he had had nearly no opportunities to practice it during the journey. The caravan had its own accountants, Desert-dwellers who could actually leave their wagons and be present for outdoor transactions. They had no need of him. Even sightseeing was difficult. He could open the entrance of the wagon to look out, but he was used to the constant spray and mist of the lake city where he'd been born; the dry Desert air stung his eyes and burnt his skin after even a few minutes of exposure. After several such episodes, he had asked Mogen to notify him only for the most spectacular scenery. He didn't want to know what else he was missing.

With no way to make himself useful, he had eventually tired of most of the occupations he'd brought, finally resorting to eavesdropping on conversations through his wagon's canopy. These, and his periodic updates from Mogen (a fine retainer, he said, but rather limited in conversation), were his only contact with the outside world.

His skill in accounting was the reason he was making this difficult journey in the first place. He had helped to build up a new branch of the family business in SuyMaTmakk, working from their ancestral mansion under the surface of Lake Twiliat, and had brought it to a point at which it no longer needed his skills. Building businesses was his specialty; once built, the everyday maintenance of their finances bored him. He had been delighted to receive a letter from his father's side of the family, in distant Changrakata, saying that they had heard of his success in the Scalps through an elaborate chain of corresponding relatives and wanted to invite him to visit them. He had not been to Changrakata since a visit in his childhood, when the two countries had been much closer together and he had been little more than a tadpole. He had packed up and left only a day or two behind the letter containing his acceptance.

It has been a long journey for Chak, and will continue to be so for quite some time. Still, though my own conversation was rather limited as well, I was glad to be able to relieve some of the monotony of it - even with so little as some paint and a fresh pair of ears.

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