Story Excerpt

How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots

by Alexander Jablokov

 

“Why does Aunt Tirsunah want this closet empty all of a sudden?” I’m afraid I pushed my hand against the door, as if Nurri was about to tear it open and start tossing the contents onto the hallway floor.

“Oh, come on, Sere.” My cousin flopped herself onto the couch. “Organization. Order. ‘Holding back chaos.’ You know moms.”

The “chaos” being held back was Tirsunah’s houseguest/tenant/rehab project/niece: me, Sere Glagolit. She’d saved my ass, and torturing me was her way of making sure I didn’t feel obliged to feel grateful for it.

“Besides,” Nurri said. “Isn’t that just crap from your old Bik discard business? I’d think you’d want to get rid of it. You seem to like this private inquiries business better.”

The new business paid better, too, though I was nowhere near up on my rent, something else this closet thing was telling me. And Nurri was right. Why was I holding onto this last memory of defeat?

I opened the closet to reveal obsolete business inventory: molted Bik eyeballs, each the size of a large fist, dangling from integration cables, neat and ready to be sold for low-end surveillance setups.

No one would buy them. I’d pretty much thought up this business of finding and repurposing centuries-old molts from long-forgotten Bik morphs, but my former business partner, my former boyfriend, Lemuel, had now frozen me out of those markets. Besides, he’d always been better at maintaining the nerve-activating rust fungus, and from the looks of things, what had been left of it had flaked off. I’d need to sweep it out before I turned it over.

If Aunt Tirsunah wanted to pack the closet with party decorations, I couldn’t say that made less sense. I was reaching in to gather up the hard-shelled eyeballs, shed by long-ago Biks as they grew and developed, wondering if they could maybe be a kind of peace offering to Greng, our old Bik opponent in finding body parts caches, when I heard Nurri sniff behind me.

I turned. My little cousin was curled up on the couch in the alcove, dark and velvety. You’d want to pet her. Oh, you might want to pet me, too. You’d just be careful not to make any sudden movements. She wasn’t crying, but her big eyes gleamed.

I was happy enough to leave the eyeballs and their pain for later. I closed the closet and slid onto the couch next to her. My hips are wider than hers, and I almost checked her onto the floor. I rescued her, let her lay her head on my shoulder, and waited.

It took her a minute. Panetto grumbled around us. There was a slideway just beyond the back wall, carrying people of every nation from one part of Tempest to another. Dozens of nations bumped against each other in the City of Storms, from dozens of planets, and us Oms—humans, if we’re at home—are only one of them, and far from the most important. We’re pretty much everywhere in the City of Storms, but Panetto has more of us than most districts.

“You’re going to think it’s stupid,” she said.

“Let me decide what’s stupid.”

She took a breath. “It’s about Dothanial.”

Okay, stupid. Her boyfriend was cocky, came up with elaborate schemes that never panned out, and often neglected her . . . most recently when he ended up in a Mimnurrn excavation prison for taking a stupid chance. That his being out of the way for a while was good for Nurri was one thing Tirsunah and I agreed on.

“What about Dothanial?” I’m pretty sure I kept any weariness out of my tone.

I’ve been informed that I have a problem with tone.

“Oh, Sere! I was so mad at him. Climbing up that Lorani incubator in the middle of the night, for whatever reason, even if it was to get me some of that fluff . . . it messed up all our plans, all of what we wanted to do. So . . .” She crossed her arms. “I haven’t been to visit him, not once. He’s down there digging for months, and he hasn’t seen me.”

“Almost anyone can get in to talk,” I said. “Mimnurrns will strip you bare and cover you with spit, but they don’t see words as contraband.”

“That’s not the point! I don’t want to see him. Not in there. I want to get him out. And I just heard something that might be a lead to doing that.”

I hate working for family. The only coin they have to pay with is gratitude, and, being family, they’re always bankrupt. And Tirsunah wouldn’t thank me for helping Dothanial and Nurri work on their “plans.” Still, this was Nurri, and I couldn’t say no.

“Don’t sigh like that, Sere.”

“I was just relaxing myself so I could focus on what you have to say. It’s a discipline. What did you hear? And who from?”

“I was at the market over in upper Seghast, right by the farms, picking stuff up for Moms. A vendor was telling me a story about how Dothanial climbed the Architon tower at the edge of Seghast to get some glider some kid had lost up there. People are always telling me stories like that about Doth, him showing off, like I haven’t heard enough of them. . . .”

That was Dothanial’s reputation in the neighborhood, and he’d earned it. I remembered him climbing up on a roof to get something, I think it was a balloon, the first time I had had the nerve to bring Lemuel to a family party. Doth had been quite the center of attention, and I think Lemuel was a bit miffed. He’d wanted to make a noticeable first impression, and no one was paying attention. For me, that had been the best possible outcome.

“He got the glider.” Despite herself, Nurri sounded proud. “Just then, a flock of Sosh flew by. And they mobbed him, the way they do. They flew by him, inches away, yelling, making fun of him. They never touched him, they’re good at that, but he must have been completely disoriented.”

“I know Sosh.” I’d had my own run in with the Sosh on an earlier case. They mostly hide out in inaccessible high spots and gossip about what idiots the other nations of Tempest are, and then come out and show off. I have a vivid memory of vertigo and terror as that flying nation pursued me across the sky until I crashed. Bruises, but no broken bones. It helped me solve the case. I liked to think we’re friends now. “What happened?”

“He slipped and slid down maybe ten feet. He managed to grab something. And then he dangled there. People below were screaming. After what seemed a long time the Sosh came back with a length of rope. Maybe they’d realized they’d gone too far. He grabbed on and they lifted him up. Everyone was expecting them to somehow lower him slowly to the ground. Instead, they flew around fast and then dropped him in the river. Sere, that’s not funny.”

I took a breath. “You’re right. It’s not. But he was okay.”

“I guess so, because I never learned about it. Until the vendor told me the story, and the Iffrin—”

“Wait,” I said. “What Iffrin?”

“Sere, keep up. I was at the market, the vendor told me this story, and there was an Iffrin right next to us, digging in a sludge tank for tubers, and, I guess, eavesdropping. Because it dropped its tubers back in the muck and, right there, told us that now it understood that Dothanial had never gone up to the incubator, that he was a complete fake, and that he’d left everyone else to pay the price for his lies. Then it left, without buying anything, and leaving the vendor to clean everything up.”

I waited, then said, “So that’s what you heard?”

“Sere, don’t you see? That Iffrin must know something about Doth’s attempt. And how it failed. It makes sense! The Sosh thing had left him nervous. And you need all your nerves to do those climbs. Dothanial didn’t do it. He couldn’t have climbed up to that Lorani incubator to grab that fluff. He wasn’t able to anymore.”

I spoke cautiously. “Even if it’s true, and he didn’t actually climb the Lorani incubator, it probably won’t affect his sentence. That’s based on violating the Mimnurrn security zone below the incubator. The Lorani turned all enforcement rights over to the Mimnurrns. And that’s where he got caught.”

“Oh, Sere, you’re always so technical.” She sounded genuinely irritated with me. “Can’t you see that there has to be something more to this? When they caught him, Dothanial was alone. But it seems that this Iffrin, at least, was involved. Maybe others. We don’t know the real story.”

“And you want me to learn it.”

“Or at least confirm that we already know what actually happened, so I can let Dothanial rot down there in that Mimnurrn excavation and not worry that there’s no good reason for him to be there. Because, right now, it’s just stupid, what he did.”

I wasn’t going to argue.

“I’m going to need something from you,” I said.

“So you’re going to do it?” Nurri hugged me. “Thank you, thank you. What? What do you need?”

“That new jacket of yours. The one from Rokko.”

“What? How did you . . .” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Moms doesn’t even know I bought that.”

She had been pretty stealthy about it. “Yeah, but I do. There’s a real reason I need it, Nurri.”

“Um. It fits pretty tight.”

I’m bigger overall, and carry twenty pounds on my cousin. Thirty. Whatever. She’d saved up for a while to get that trendy short thing with the soft sleeves and hadn’t even worn it out yet.

“There are ways with those things. I’ll show you. It’ll be reversible, swear. But someone significant along the way will only answer to something as stylish as that. Don’t ask questions, Nurri. You want me to do the job, give me the tools I need.”

She didn’t entirely believe me, thinking that maybe I was taking advantage of her situation to go out on the town looking sharper than I could afford on my own. There was a not-too-long-in-the-past Sere who might actually have done something like that. I was sure she remembered incidents. But in this case I needed it as a tool in the investigation, not in my social life, and one I did not look forward to using.

*   *   *

The glassy fronts of the growhouses loomed above the market in Upper Seghast. Most of their best products actually went down to the hungry restaurants on the famous Seghast terraces that swept down to my left, to end above Onkmire, where Dothanial had been captured. A few overpriced products did get sold from the market’s colorful booths.

The Iffrin managed a farm in here, though I suspected that, like most Iffrins, most of its income came from the produce of its own body. The growhouses were a well-known place for private deals. And they backed up to a cliff above the glacis of the Lorani hive, which definitely raised the odds that the Iffrin knew something about Dothanial’s failed operation.

Inside, each growhouse glowed with the spectrum of a different lost sun, depending on the planetary origin of what was being grown inside. The Iffrin’s glowed a barely perceptible deep red. The moist air smelled of a dozen kinds of decay. I walked carefully, trying not to touch the translucent pods of the various farms. The floor was soft with their shed membranes and the slime on which they slid as they moved around in the growhouse. In the alcoves between them, business got done. I saw the shadowed figures of various nations in deep negotiation. In a particularly large gap I glimpsed a bipedal figure with a thick head. It stood still, surrounded by low, moving shapes. As they swarmed over it I heard a scraping sound, of feeding or covert combat. Was that my Iffrin? I hoped it lived long enough to answer my questions. These particular customers seemed desperate.

And, in fact, the Iffrin was nowhere to be seen amid the thick fungal ribs that filled much of its farm, just an empty chair and a wheeled tank filled with water. A poorly adjusted circulator thumped somewhere underneath the tank, sending regular ripples across its dark surface.

I caught a movement and ducked. I looked more carefully, and finally saw foot-long gill flukes, sleek and shiny, as they slithered among the hanging fungal ribs. As I watched, one fell and flopped on the soft shredded floor. It was clearly supposed to drop into the tank. I reached to flip it in. It slashed a pair of sharp hooks at me, and I jumped back. Now it dug them into the floor, seeking its target. Its back grew duller. The Iffrin better finish its dealings, even if they were more profitable, before it lost its ostensible crop.

Iffrins suffered heavily from parasites, fungal growths, and infections, and some of them had turned that weakness into a business, nurturing those parasites within their own bodies and selling them on to those nations who got use or pleasure out of them.

Still, I knew these gill flukes were a delicacy, and it couldn’t afford to waste them. I knew it might be reluctant to talk to me, so I shoved the tank into the growth at the pod’s far end, put the chair in front of it, and sat down, trying to look casual despite the sharp ridge in the middle intended to support a widely separated Iffrin ass. I dropped the annoying bag I had to carry, hearing the eyeballs click inside it. In revenge, maybe, for giving up the jacket, Nurri had insisted that the eyeballs had to go that very day. I couldn’t argue. I’d dispose of them before I got home . . . or maybe just hide them under my bed. Depended on how much energy I had after this job.

Another fluke fell from the ceiling. This one struggled for much longer, flopping hard against the floor. I looked around for gauntlets, or a grabber of some sort. Nothing. This one too finally flipped itself over and started to spread itself out on the floor.

“They were looking for you,” someone said behind me, in a grating traffiq optimized for analytics and negotiation. “They must have followed you here. “

I’d forgotten how quietly Iffrin moved on those flat feet of theirs. I stayed in the chair, despite the pain from the damn ridge. It’s always hard to identify individuals of a nation not your own, and Iffrins, with their internal orientation, were particularly bad at it. I thought it had me confused with some other Om, perhaps a potential customer.

“Are you sure you didn’t bring them here yourself?” I tried to keep my tone midrange, generic, hoping it would give up something more.

It didn’t work. “Who are you?” it said.

Iffrins were thickheaded, purple-skinned bipeds, shorter than Oms but wider. This one wore a too-large Paowan cloak over its various layers of shredding integument. Something had chewed on the quilted surface, leaving gouges in concentric circles.

“You know something about a client of mine,” I said. “Dothanial Serg.”

“I don’t know him. I am a commercial farmer.”

“I don’t care what your business is. I care about what you know about what happened to him.” Two more flukes fell. One scraped at my shoe as it sought for purchase. “Who buys these?”

The Iffrin looked at the nearly half a dozen flukes that now rested on the floor. “Brumbugs place them in their gills, a memory of infestations of old, then gain their revenge by eating their one-time tormentor.” It pulled a fluke off the soft floor, deftly dealing with its writhing hooks, and shoved it under its cloak, somewhere in the layers of shedding integument, to nourish it. “A delicacy.”

“Come on. Dothanial messed you up. Your plan. If you tell me what you know, I might be able to find a way that he can make you whole.” That they’d had some scheme together was just a guess, but a reasonable one.

“If they dry out here, they become too chewy. Their value drops.”

“Just tell me about Dothanial.” I was glad to get up off that damn chair. It would take a while for my cheeks to make friends again. “How you knew him. What you two had planned that night.”

“He can’t make me whole. He deserves his punishment.”

“Just tell me what happened.”

Together, the Iffrin and I maneuvered the tank into the farm’s center and watched the ceiling. Three flukes dropped in and sank peacefully to the bottom. I was starting to be able to see which of them was ready to drop in its turn. The Iffrin tried to tug the tank. I held onto it.

The Iffrin finally gave up and fell back on its ridged seat, gathering its big Paowan cloak around it. Rents in it showed various growths, patches of fungi, colonies of writhing worms, what looked like a puffball ready to burst . . . this Iffrin’s body showed a lot of lines of business. A string of yellow insects emerged in one spot and migrated to another hole in the cloak, whether to start a new colony or just for variety was unclear.

“I had an opportunity. This farm was at the far end of the growhouse, with a soft new membrane. And the growhouse structure was being reconstructed, leaving an opening to the cliff beyond.

“This was two months ago,” I said

“Yes.”

“And it gave an unexpected access to the exterior of the Lorani incubator.”

“Yes.”

“Oms like Lorani fluff. But how was that an opportunity for you?”

“The fluff is made softer by a small insect that infests it. So some have said. No one is sure, because no one actually acquires any fluff. They merely talk about how close they got to doing so.”

“But you were optimistic that you could find someone who would. Given the new access.”

“I was just as wrong as anyone else who believed in the reality of fluff.”

Lorani incubated their grubs at the very tops of the big hives in which they lived. That might have once been to ensure that predators breaking in from above got to their useless offspring first, or to get rid of waste. Who knew? Lorani kept to themselves, and didn’t gab too much about their child rearing practices.

But when winter came, those exposed grubs up there produced fluffy insulation on their abdomens. It shredded off over time, and filled their little chambers. That insulation, “fluff” to fans, was a miraculously soft and luxurious material, and, because of its rarity, extremely valuable.

So daredevils and treasure hunters of all sorts made their way to the only real approach to the Lorani hive, the wet depression of Onkmire, and tried to get up to the incubator. Finally annoyed by all the interlopers, who usually just ended up in their living quarters, the Lorani had hired the Mimnurrn to enforce an exclusion zone, one that caught pretty much everyone who made the attempt and, not incidentally, got the Mimnurrns skilled high-altitude workers for their deep excavations.

“You couldn’t get up there yourself,” I said. “But you found someone.”

“I heard talk in the market. Dothanial the Om. It could climb. It had a reputation. False and undeserved. Another irrelevant story Oms tell themselves.” It paused. “Three feet over, they are ready there.”

Even though it was being unpleasant, it was talking, a behavior I wanted to reinforce. I shoved the tank forward in time to carry a handful of falling flukes. They were coming down like black rain now, each sliding into the water and settling peacefully to the bottom to await a passing gill in which to reproduce. They had no idea they’d soon be served to some Brumbug seeking to rectify millennia of evolutionary injustice by turning its former parasites into canapés.

“It certainly seemed prepared,” the Iffrin said. “That night. It came with ropes, equipment, wedges to enter between the plates that protect the top of the hive. No sign of fear. It had planned out a route, down to the saddle below, up a short steep slope, into the incubator, and then all in reverse. I peeled open the membrane as soon as the coldest night came, and it went out. I never saw it again.”

“What went wrong?”

“It never went up. It did not try. I could not see the slope it was to climb, so could not check on its progress. An hour, it had told me. Two at the most. I waited all night with the pod membrane open, risking contaminants, unprofitable infections. I waited until Umber glowed, then let it heal.”

The Iffrin stooped to pick up a dead fluke and tripped over the trailing hem of the vast cloak. It was an unusual style choice. Male Paowans wore that garment only for rare visits to check on the health of gestating females. During pregnancy Paowan females secrete a wide range of allergens that can send males into the equivalent of anaphylactic shock. The allergic reaction is particularly strong for the male who was the parent of the embryo. So a male could confirm paternity by almost dying while paying a visit to its mate, even with the supposed protection of the cloak.

The now-dangerous garments were always disposed of by burning after a single visit. That rule was severely enforced, but it seemed that the Iffrin had its own sources of contraband. It was still a clumsy piece of clothing.

“I did not know what happened,” the Iffrin said. “Then, by chance, I heard the story in the market. About its fear. Its inability. It was caught far below, descending, without fluff, without having even attempted the climb. Fleeing, and leaving me.”

That certainly matched the description of Dothanial’s arrest. Presumably, he had assumed he could do it, but as he tried, the panic overwhelmed him. That was the kind of thing that happened to peak performers when they lost their edge. And Dothanial, whatever his other shortcomings, had been that kind of performer. It was what had attracted Nurri in the first place.

“Have you had any communication with him?” I said.

“It sent word, it would get me what I wanted, but I would have to wait.” It had eviscerated the dead fluke with its complex manipulating hand and was pulling organs out one by one, presumably to check if this parasite had any of its own parasites that might be of marketable value. “But there’s no way back up now. I hope the Mimnurrns value their new prisoner. One that is afraid of heights. But one that won’t admit it.”

I kicked the tank over a bit to catch the last few falling flukes, and left it to the legitimate side of its business.

*   *   *

I stepped off the last of the wide stairs of Seghast’s restaurant district and into the cold muck of Onkmire. I’d ducked into a restroom near the bottom to change. A waiter had pounded on the door, demanding I come out and show myself—and when I did, he fell back persuaded by my dark-red jacket that I was a wealthy customer.

I looked particularly legitimate because I’d coordinated it with other pieces of clothing, something someone my age would never do. I was actually a bit embarrassed to have that waiter see me wearing it that way. But no matter how desperately I wanted to, I wasn’t showing myself off here—it was the piece itself. Which was good, because the sling full of eyeballs distracted from the impression.

Aging infrastructure in the district high above had long ago led to leakage from water storage glaciers. By the time anyone had gotten it together to do repairs, that extra water had become an entitlement for various nations, who rioted and ambushed repair teams until the effort was abandoned. An entire ecology now subsisted on various generations of that once-unplanned-but-now-expected water, which ended up under Onkmire, floating mats of waste and plant growth over a dark pool of unknown depth.

The clink of plates and the murmur of conversation faded quickly as I penetrated the mossy growth. Branches spread fat leaves over me, flying insects probed my ear canal, and low creatures retreated into their hiding places, to glower at me from safety. Generations of Mimnurrn tubes about half my height in diameter crisscrossed the muddy soil. Transparent cylinders that had once held nutritive substrate for tube growing lay in piles under the trees. The trail wiggled to get around them, sometimes climbing over one on a pile of wood and dirt.

I’d never expected to come back here.

The year before, I’d come here looking for the greasy lumps and streaks of dark yellow that might mark an ancient Bik molt cache. Some records hinted the Bik had had a colony here at the beginning of their tenure in Tempest. I did find a few ambiguous signs, but if there had ever been any Bik molts, the sagging crust that held them had sunk too deep beneath the icy water for recovery.

I knew now that Dothanial hadn’t come up through here, the usual route to make an attempt on the smooth bulk of the Lorani hive. Instead, he’d been caught as he descended, unwilling or unable to climb back up to the rear of the growhouse where the Iffrin waited.

All the Mimnurrn tubes I could see were the natural crystallite microfibrils secreted by one Mimnurrn. I didn’t have enough taste buds to adequately perceive its name, much less say it, but Filo, the Om who had somehow gotten himself a decent position down here, called it Squinch. Filo and Squinch were the ones who had captured Doth. I was sure no one had questioned them in any detail about it. This was their job, after all, which they did on the cheap, shaking down various violators for their own profit.

The growth grew sparser, and the smooth slope of the hive’s glacis loomed above the trees. Filo really should have shown up by now. I knew the area was full of sensors, and was designed to duct potential violators into areas where it was easy to capture them. A brilliant red bird fluttered above some flowers, dangling a startling tail. Life could be a pleasure, even if I was working—

“Beauty is a distraction.” Filo stood at my shoulder.

“It’s everything else that’s a distraction.” I like to think I hadn’t jumped. Filo was irritatingly better at his job than he should have been, given his odd obsessions.

He was a big man, looming over me, hair curling to his shoulders. He wore a vest of some dark hide and wide trousers that swirled down past his ankles. The vest was decent, but usually he wore something more striking.

“Now that’s a nice piece.” He examined my jacket intently “Rokko? He does good work. A bit conservative, maybe, particularly with that bag . . .”

I pulled back on the sling of Bik eyeballs. “I prefer ‘classic.’”

“Classic might be enough to spare you a violation.”

“Maybe. If I was violating anything.”

He smiled gently at me. This was risky. I understood Filo’s needs and so suspected they sometimes overwhelmed him. I was in the exclusion zone. There was no way to enter Onkmire otherwise. Most casual visitors got ignored. But if he decided he wanted that jacket he could threaten arrest, and I would have to give up Nurri’s jacket. I needed his attention, and his respect, if he was to talk to me. I thought the risk was worth it.

“At least you learned your lesson from that last time you were here,” he said.

“Oh? And what did I learn?”

“That it takes work to impress someone with better taste than you.” This time, as he stepped away, I caught a glimpse of a pair of scarred Amtoum boots. Those were a real coup. The inhabitants of Amtoum, no matter what their nation, guarded their specialized fashions with fierce intensity, as if every piece was an essential organ.

Then he stopped, and his trousers hid the boots again.

“You want something,” he said. “What?”

I had to be careful. Dothanial had been arrested and sentenced, and Filo had no interest in reopening the case. The only way to get him to talk about it would be to imply more guilt on Dothanial’s part.

“When I was here last, I was looking for molted body parts Biks might have left, centuries ago. I didn’t find anything, but lately I got to thinking I had missed something. Dothanial’s a friend of my cousin’s, and he offered to check it out for me, while he was out here.”

Filo smirked. “You just can’t trust people, can you? That boy was way up the glacis. That’s solid, no remains there, nothing. He was going for his own thing.”

We both looked up the slope. From here I could see a Mimnurrn tube stretching up the slope, so makeshift it was already pulling free and collapsing back into the trees. But it really had gone an extraordinary way up. I thought about those substrate cylinders under the trees. Some of them must have fueled that growth.

“He got way up there? So you almost missed him.”

“Go ahead, Miss Rokko Jacket, congratulate yourself. You gave him some good suggestions on how to get through here, didn’t you? He evaded most of the detectors, even the hidden ones. But no one gets through here. Not him, not you. Not saying me and Squinch didn’t have to hustle. When I got the alert I was just drinking something hot, wearing a soft shirt from Ranugar and a pair of velvet lounging pants.” He sighed at the memory of how well dressed he had been. “But I got up and out, Squinch shot a tube up, all easy. Sosh were out that night, not like them, but they didn’t bother us.”

“Nothing keeps you as warm as the sense of being well dressed,” I said.

Was it hearing the Sosh that had made Dothanial freak out and fail to reach the Lorani incubator? That certainly would have been my reaction.

“Capturing him must have been a disappointment.” One thing Dothanial wouldn’t have done was dress for Filo. It just wasn’t in him.

“Doing my job is never a disappointment.” Filo was no good at earnest. “But I made it work.” He wiggled his feet in the Amtoum boots. “Not too bad, in the end.”

There was something odd about this. Dothanial had been climbing down, to try to get out to Seghast via Onkmire. Why hadn’t Filo just waited for him to get down to ground level, where it would be easy to grab him? That tube really had been extruded in a panic, as if they were chasing someone they might lose.

And I couldn’t imagine Dothanial wearing Amtoum boots anywhere, much less for a tricky climb.

“Thanks for clearing that up,” I said. “I was worried I’d gotten him in trouble with my request, but it looks like he deserved what he got.”

“You dress better than you hire.” He examined me again, with a worrisome intentness. “So now that you’ve learned how badly your agent acted for you, I need to get you out of here.”

“I can find my own way out.”

His smile was tight. “The area is more dangerous than it looks. You got lucky.”

We made our way back through the mire, Filo moving with surprising grace through the undergrowth surrounding the rough path, without seeming to be impeded by the fallen logs, the thrusting branches, the irregular patches of sucking mud and impenetrable thorns.

“Look out!” Filo jerked me aside, but too late. A giant leaf covered with condensation cascaded freezing water down over me.

Or had he jerked the leaf instead? Hard to say. What was easy to say was that I was freezing, despite the warm sun. The air sinking from the glaciers rubbed itself against my bones.

“I probably have something you can borrow.” Filo was grudging. “I have to warn you, it will look ridiculous.”

“That’s . . . okay. . . .” I managed.

Filo lived in Squinch’s snouthouse, a surprisingly intimate arrangement. The front edges of a Mimnurrn mantle, where it secreted its tube, could be stimulated to create more elaborate structures as well. Filo had clearly been stimulating Squinch for quite some time. I could see various tubes, on all sides of the house, which joined in swirls, spikes, and arabesques.

“Squinch sometimes complains about the way I control its secretions,” Filo said.

Inside, I could see the pearlescent curves of the hatches and trapdoors concealing the various tubes the Mimnurrn could travel through. I wondered how often it opened one of those and presented its maw here, in Filo’s living space, and for what purposes.

Closets lined the curving walls, clothing spilling out of them. I saw decorated jackets, formal hats, even composite armor. Filo ignored all this and climbed up a stack of clothing containers set up as stairs, vanishing past the thick hatch on the ceiling. As he dug through more closets somewhere above, all I could see were his feet. “There must be something completely unappealing up here for you. . . .”

I was shivering too hard to come up with something in return, so just examined his boots, now at my eye level.

Amtoum boots, brutally scarred and elaborately decorated, were a fashion of that district, and you had to earn the right to wear them. Even Filo, here alone in his swamp, only wore them under concealing trousers. A rite of passage among Amtoum youth of every nation was traveling Tempest and attacking people they thought were inappropriately sporting Amtoum fashions. They were particularly rough on cheap knockoffs, which meant you couldn’t even use getting beaten up as a status indicator.

“I’d forgotten I had this wrap with the feather trim.” Filo talked as he dug through clothes. “Didn’t work for me, won’t work for you. Why was someone wearing it in the first place?”

And these boots were a particularly high-style pair, with woven strips of some dark leather worked in among the yellow leathersnake hide. Filo had implied a connection between them and the night he captured Dothanial. Could Dothanial have been wearing them? I still didn’t think that made sense.

Filo had stopped chattering. He seemed to be trying on some complicated perfume.

With a click and a creak, Squinch opened the ceiling hatch and dropped palps down at me.

“No, no, no!” Filo shrieked. “I need the jacket. The jacket!”

Squinch sucked itself back up, and the hatch clicked shut. It only had to pull back a few yards to shift to another tube and come back. Which one?

Floor, I decided. It could hold my feet. The ceiling was more suited to stealing someone’s boots. . . .

I tore clothes out of the closets and piled them up. When Squinch opened the floor hatch and came up at me from below, a cascade of obsolete style poured down its maw.

“Come on, Squinch.” Too prissy to actually get involved, Filo swayed on his makeshift stairs, trying to help his partner with elaborate movements of his shoulders and hips. I reached out and grabbed his foot, pulling him down with a crash. His boot stayed on.

“Damn it, Filo!” I said. “What the hell are you thinking?”

“No one comes through here anymore!” He lay across Squinch’s half open hatch. “You have some nerve, wearing that thing. People still want to see that, feel pushed around by it. What do I have? Nothing . . . these boots were the last thing, the very last thing. I’m desperate. You have to understand.”

“So, whose boots did you take?” I said.

“You’re getting nothing from me. You just take. You never give.”

I had to admire his absolute self-obsession. He’d just tried to assault me to steal my clothing, and now he expected me to feel sorry for him. Maybe if I had, he might have told me where the boots came from. Too late for that.

As I left, the Mimnurrn was spitting clothes, and Filo was tossing them out of the way, weeping over the damage.

 

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Copyright © 2018. How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots by Alexander Jablokov