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|           ||On the Crutchtan Planet Gr'Shuna||           |
"Ys'Slalt—fetch me the kettle. Bl'Dryna—I will need the stewing spices. Gal'Kisl, the sauces will
need constant monitoring. No, no—Slalt, you fool, not the simmering pot. The kettle—the large,
Like his friends, ls'Shen raced about trying to obey Ra'Henl'‘s instructions, secretly cursing the old foodmaster's reluctance to see one task through to completion before commencing the next.
"Dryna—Kisl—come. Attend me. Ys'Slalt, pay heed. What we need now is the barest hint of jizril seeds in the sauce...."
As the Foodmaster's back was turned, and knowing that he would not be missed for quite a while, ls'Shen stepped lightly into the outer cooking chamber and peered through the curtain. The Banquet Hall was filled to capacity. Dignitaries of all ranks and races graced the Table of Honor. At the lesser tables he could see the courtiers in attendance, and smiled to see the jugglers and clowns and acrobats, their faces streaked with ornamental cream, frolicking on the amusement floor in the middle of the room. From the far end of the banquet hall he could hear the palace musicians, playing a sprightly dance.
But what drew his attention were not the entertainers, nor eminences that he recognized by name or by face. What captured his eyes were the four creatures seated near the center of the Table of Honor between Lady Glishenda and her brother-in-law, the Expanse Minister himself. Raptly he stared, his eyes widened like a gawkhen's, until a gentle tap on his back caused him to jump nearly to the ceiling.
"Shen—Shen," whispered Jarenda, the foodservant; ls'Shen's gill slits paled with fright. He had been so absorbed with watching the Terrans that he had failed to sense her approach. "How come you—"
"Jarenda, please," he interrupted, vainly trying to recover his dignity. "Never approach a foodmaster or his apprentice in such a fashion. It is entirely too disruptive. And under other circumstances— "
"You mean," Jarenda smiled, her eyes laughing merrily, "had you not been gaping at the longnoses."
Ls'Shen snorted angrily, only to rediscover that this female found his temper an endless source of amusement. Jarenda was becoming entirely too familiar, he thought, but like all males he found a female's playful teasing too enticing to resist. And so long as they were alone, he took no steps to disrupt the growing warmth of their bond.
"They look different than I had imagined," he said at last, peering through the curtain once more. "Not as furry. In fact the fur on two of them seems to be quite closely cropped. And their snouts are not at all what I expected. They are pointed, and their faces wear a comical look about them, but calling them ‘longnoses' is something of a misnomer. ‘Pointy-snouts' would be more accurate."
"Well," Jarenda whispered, poking her own head through the curtains. "The name ‘Strange Ones' is certainly appropriate."
"That I do not doubt, but why do you say so? What have you seen?"
"Look at them," she motioned with her head. "All four of them sweat like wild hogs and yet they insist on wearing clothing. All of them, without exception."
"Yes, I see," said ls'Shen. And sure enough, two of them were clad in a garment of blue, and two wore garments of varying hues. But all four of them were fully clothed, though even from this distance he could see perspiration dripping from them like water from a fountain. Even the Veshnans did not carry matters to such extremes, and of all the races of the Grand Alliance, the Veshnan approach to garments was the most impractical.
"And their eating habits leave much to be desired," Jarenda continued. "See the blueclad Terran male, the one seated next to Glishenda, the Minister's Consort-of-the Day?"
"After looking at his sidebowl for the longest time, he finally asked an interpreter the purpose of the washed sand."
"To aid in digestion," said ls'Shen, answering the obvious.
"Well, upon hearing the answer, the Terran sampled some—using his spoon to carry it to his mouth, of all things."
"Then he just spit it out again—all over the table—and started coughing and protruding his tongue from his mouth like a small one with the heaves."
"Amazing," said ls'Shen, looking at the Terran Jarenda had mentioned, who seemed to be viewing his broadleaf salad with some degree of suspicion, jabbing the greens with his cutlery and examining each fresh pepper carefully before stuffing it into his mouth.
"How can you tell the males from the females?" asked the young apprentice. "I mean, if they are fully clothed and all. It must get rather confusing for them."
"Well," agreed Jarenda, "that poses several problems."
Ls'Shen closed the curtain and sighed; much about these Strange Ones simply defied explanation.
"They seem to crop their fur differently, but from what I have observed there appears to be but one sure way to tell them apart."
"And what is that, my little friend?"
"Terran females are…well, more rounded than their males," she said, searching for a way to explain the unexplainable. "And they seem to have these—these—bumps... "
"Yes—bumps—little mounds—crests, really, right in the middle of their chests."
Ls'Shen peered through the curtain once more, straining to get a good look at the Terrans. By chance, one of them turned to the right, just enough to give him a view in profile, and a benevolent Fate decreed that it would be one of the Crested Ones.
"Amazing," he said. For sure enough, there they were, exactly as Jarenda had described. And now that he knew where to look, he saw that the smaller of the blueclads displayed the same prominent features. Less pronounced, perhaps, but unmistakable nonetheless.
"What are they for?"
Jarenda shrugged. "I thought it impolite to ask," she replied.
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