of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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"Moon," Jendara repeated, glancing to the paper before her, then sounding the word out carefully as she gazed into the night sky above.
W'mefa nodded, lowering his paw, and smiled, his fangs flashing in the light of their campfire. Though there were a limited amount of things he could point to as they rode along in the day (and not much more in their camp at night), Jendara had immediately grasped what he was getting at, and struggled to master a new vocabulary. As it turned out, many of the words the mus spoke today were quite similar in sound to the words they once spoke eight centuries before - the language Jendara had, apparently, been taught as being that of the mus. A more useful and important discovery, however, was one he'd made two nights ago in their camp: the ideographs for most words had changed little at all.
W'mefa's language, in it's written form, had two basic sub-forms. The first was a set of about three thousand ideographs which, in various combinations, represented all the 100,000 or so words in the vocabulary of the educated mus. Each ideograph had a basic meaning, yet when combined, had different meanings. The ideograph for 'deer', for example, was executed with six brush strokes, it's design having been simplified over millennia from a primitive drawing of a stag to a stylized rendering that looked little like the actual animal. Alone, it simply meant 'deer'. Combined with other ideographs, however, it meant other words. Two 'deer' ideographs side by side, for example, meant 'pretty' or 'beautiful', or could mean (depending on context) 'prettiness' or 'beauty'. Three deer ideographs, however, meant 'rough', 'coarse', or even 'haughty', depending on context, because the three ideographs, when stacked together, tended to stray from the neat right-to-left rows of mus writing.
The other sub-form of the written language of the mus was a phonetic one - the sounds of speech, reduced to a series of symbols. It was a more recent invention, being only perhaps seven hundred years old, and dated from after the separation of the mus and the mice - and as such, Jendara was unfamiliar with it. In combination, these phonetic symbols formed words, and sentences. It was, in structure, similar to the written language of the mice - though far more complex. While the mice had about forty vowel sounds (including diphthongs) and a bit over twice as many consonants, the mus had only five vowel sounds in their language, and about two hundred consonants that formed several hundred unique speech articulations, many of which could only be properly pronounced by the rumbling, growling throat of a mus.
Each form of their written language served a specific purpose, to the mus. The ideographic form was used for family seals, formal documents and formal letters, while the phonetic form was used for informal documents and technical writing, where often the words used to describe what was being discussed fell outside the range of vocabulary provided by the traditional ideographs. This was particularly true of mus-scholars, who often found themselves discussing one or another invention created by the fertile mind of Lady Merle, or one of her scientific discoveries. The phonetic system was also used by the mus to render (or attempt to render) names and words in other languages, such as that of their allies, the musties, or the cats. More importantly to W'mefa's efforts to communicate with Jendara, however, was that in eight centuries, these ideographs had changed only slightly, and she was able to piece out any written sentence after only a moment or two of study.
What surprised W'mefa the most, however, was that Jendara even knew their written language at all. When the mus first encountered the mice, millennia ago, they had their own written language - but the mice had not been interested in learning it. Indeed, the mice had believed the mus to be too stupid to truly master a "proper" language (their own), and had never bothered to teach them anything more than basic conversation in the language of the Little Ones. This impression, unfortunately, was reinforced by the simple fact that the mus literally weren't built to make the sounds the mice made in their language, but instead had a growling, rumbling language of their own. The written and spoken forms of the mus' language might even have eventually flickered out and died, had it not been for the Hero of Liberation, the ancient war-leader, Dash'du'Ragh. Seeing that his people were slaves of the technology of the Little Ones, he led his people to freedom through the Night of the Long Knives. How Jendara's people had learned the language, W'mefa had no idea - but, as it was obvious she did know it, he decided to take advantage of it.
Thus it was that each night, W'mefa found that he could simply write short notes to Jendara, using the small writing-desk that was the invention of the mice of Smith's Village. It was little more than a wide, flat box, really, but it contained sealed ink, brushes, and a small supply of paper - and placed in the lap, made a convenient writing surface. W'mefa, having seen Lady Merle use the little device once while he was visiting his ally's castle, decided he had to have one - Lord Xaa had simply smiled and had Smith make one large enough for the lap of a mus, and had it sent to W'mefa. It was quite a convenient tool, particularly for W'mefa, as he was often writing letters to one ally or another and his duties as emperor sometimes drew him far from his ink and brushes back at his castle, just as now. Also, it was much easier to carry about than the flat board and small box that served the mus the same purpose, being as it was all in one piece. Using the little box, W'mefa discovered that Jendara could read and reply to simple notes - and, due to the prodigious memory the Little One had, like all her kind, once she had learned the 'modern' pronunciation of a word, she didn't forget it. This, combined with what she knew, greatly speeded up the process of her learning to speak the "modern" form of the language of the mus - though she still had a long way to go. W'mefa knew that it would probably be far simpler to just wait until the Little Ones in Lord Xaa's service had a chance to translate for her, but the process of trying to teach Jendara helped while away the time as they traveled.
Jendara sat quietly beside the fire, the portable writing desk in her lap and the woolen blanket she'd been given covering her near-nakedness. It was astonishing to W'mefa that any Little One could dress in her manner, wearing silk that was nearly completely transparent. From the old stories and from his own experience with the Little Ones of Smith's Village, W'mefa had come to believe that the Little Ones were quite conservative regarding their bodies (as seemed only proper, to a mus). Yet, Jendara often seemed to act as though everyone around her was blind - or nearly so. She would scratch an itch on her tiny little breasts while attempting to chat with W'mefa, for example - and if her paws were full, she would even use her tail. That, to a mus, was particularly embarrassing. The public use of one's tail (which, to both mus and mice, was an erogenous zone) was considered a social taboo. As W'mefa watched Jendara quietly write something down, her little face a mask of concentration as she worked, she flicked her tail up to catch a moth that fluttered by her ear, attracted by the firelight. W'mefa shook his head as she popped it into her muzzle without pause, both amazed that she could do that without looking, and discomfited by her public use of her long (and quite sensual) tail. Jendara, though quite polite in all other ways, was terribly scandalous by the standards of the mus.
Finally, Jendara was done, and carefully held out the writing desk and her note to W'mefa. W'mefa took the desk, sliding it into his lap as he sat beside her, and read her note.
'Noble Lord W'mefa,' it read, 'I beg your pardon for being so inquisitive, but I find I am quite mystified by your sending your warriors to search the bushes and trees as we traveled. Was there something in the trees that had you concerned?'
W'mefa nodded, then dashed off a reply. 'Well, Little One, there was the matter of Lord Kahgah. It seemed obvious to me that he wanted possession of you - and I was concerned he might disguise an attempt to snatch you from our paws by having his warriors dress as bandits,' he wrote, then gave the writing desk back to Jendara. In this manner, they communicated with each other by the firelight, passing the quiet early-evening hours.
Jendara stared at W'mefa's reply in confusion for several seconds, then wrote back. 'Bandits?'
'Yes. Rogues. Thieves. Those who disgrace themselves in service to a lord are sometimes cast out, and forced to seek shelter and succor from another lord or lady. If their disgrace is great enough, no others will take them into their service - though this is very rare, in our culture. Still, these disgraced ones, having no other way to survive, often turn to begging or simple thievery. Those servant-caste who suffer this fate are often reduced to becoming beggars or pickpockets. Those warrior-caste often become bandits, robbing those who travel the highways and byways of our lands. Again, however, this is quite rare. I would say that there are probably no more than a thousand such totally disgraced ones in all the lands of the mus, of which no more than a hundred or so are warrior-caste who have turned to banditry to survive, most operating in small groups of half a dozen or less to avoid being found and killed by local patrols. Yet, despite how rare true bandits are, the ruse of banditry is often used by lords who wish to disguise their paw and launch small attacks on a neighbor, or to seize or slay a specific person. You see, if their warriors are killed in the attempt, they can simply claim that they had been cast out, and were mere bandits,' W'mefa explained, then shrugged as he paused to pull another sheet from inside the portable writing desk to continue his explanation.
'However, I discussed this possibility privately with Lady J'taash before we left. Kahgah is young and a bit hot-headed, and as such it seemed likely to me he might risk all on an attempt of this kind - and if he did, such an action would be an affront to myself, the Emperor of the Mus. Honor would, of course, require me to declare war. Duty would compel all the other High Clans to join with me. J'taash, however, would be put in a rather sticky situation - her duty to her liege, myself, would compel her to fight by my side - yet, her duty to her vassal and kinsman would compel her to defend him. By our laws, she would be required to support me, of course, as I am emperor, and she is my vassal so long as I remain in this office. Yet, should she do so, this might provoke a split among the remainder of her clan, and provoke an internecine conflict between her kinsman who supported her, and those who did not. After all, I've not been Emperor that long, and there are still those among the lesser lords and ladies who are still attempting to come to terms with the notion of the mus even having an emperor in the first place. Of course, Kahgah might have tried to avoid this by having his disguised warriors kill me in their attempt to take you - but doing this would again require J'taash to declare war on him, along with all the other High Lords and Ladies of all the thirty-seven provinces."
W'mefa smiled reassuringly at the shocked expression on Jendara's little face. As she was sitting beside him, she simply read what he was writing as he wrote it. 'Don't worry, Little One. J'taash vowed as my vassal that she would take steps to insure Kahgah's paws were quite full, and he would be far too busy to enact such a plan before we were safely within the lands of Clan Dakah. He would not have made such an attack in the lands of Clan J'taash. The responsibility for bandit's actions falls squarely upon the fiefholder, as bandits prey on their own servants and vassals, and as such it is the duty of a liege to insure the safety of their vassals and servants by killing all bandits found in their territory. Thus, such an attempt on J'taash lands would bring shame to his own clan, and I reasoned Kahgah would not attempt it. Now, we're within the lands of Clan Dakah. Clan Dakah patrols quite rigorously for bandits - and any of Kahgah's warriors who might doff their livery to assume the guise of bandits in Dakah lands would likely be found and killed. There is still some small risk, of course, but now that we are well inside the borders of Clan Dakah's domain, I'm quite confident we'll be safe.'
Jendara stared at W'mefa, her little pink eyes wide. 'That is war!' she wrote, her trembling paw betraying her nervousness.
W'mefa nodded. "Yes, quite," he replied aloud.
'War for me?! Why?' Jendara wrote.
W'mefa reached over to take the brush from her paw, not bothering to slip the writing desk into his own lap. 'Because you are a Little One, of course,' W'mefa replied dismissively in a quick note below her question, as though that explained everything.
Jendara sputtered for a long moment before she was able to calm herself. Thinking carefully to select her words, she tried again. 'Noble Lord W'mefa, I know I and all the mice of the Great Cavern are what you mus call a 'Little One' - and, of course, I also know that this term is not meant as one of belittlement or disrespect, but simple fact. Yet, I do not understand why anyone would go to war over me.'
W'mefa raised an eyebrow. 'For your knowledge, of course. Your people are masters of a vast and impressive technology, and everyone knows you possess great knowledge and learning,' W'mefa replied, again writing below Jendara's words without bothering to take the desk from her lap.
Jendara blinked, staring at what W'mefa had written, then to W'mefa himself. Then, to W'mefa's complete surprise, she burst into loud squeaks of raucous laughter, laughing so hard she nearly toppled the overlarge writing desk from her tiny lap.
W'mefa frowned at Jendara, then dashed off a quick note. 'I'm afraid I do not see what it is you find amusing, Little One.'
'I beg your pardon, Noble Lord W'mefa, but I fail to see what possible use your people could ever have for the knowledge of edible mushrooms and insects, and the skills of making clothing from spider-silk and bat-leather,' Jendara wrote in reply, still giggling.
W'mefa rolled his eyes, and slipped the desk from her lap to his own so as to write a longer reply. 'No, no. The ancient knowledges. Airships, ornithopters, steam engines... All the great things that your people once knew how to make before the Night of the Long Knives separated us - which, incidentally, as I've said before, is nothing you need worry about. We mus forgave you Little Ones long ago, and hold no animosity towards you today," W'mefa explained, and Jendara nodded as she read his words. 'In a week or so, we shall be on my lands. Two days ride from there are the lands of my closest ally and old friend, Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha. The Little Ones in his service know all these things, and more. Though at the moment they spend their days re-building their library, someday they shall be done. And, when that day finally comes, their knowledge will be available to all of us again. Unfortunately, there are those who are envious of the wealth and power that will one day be his, due to the knowledge of the Little Ones in his service. If Xaa were a lesser lord, they might try to woo away the Little Ones in his service, through offers intended to tempt their little hearts. They are not mus, and such offers might, indeed, work. But, none dare try such a dishonorable thing. Xaa'ap'Gasha is my ally, Lord of Clan Xaa, the Hero of the War with the Cats, and perhaps the greatest military strategist to ever live since Dash'du'Ragh. Even those who are envious of him dare not trifle with him.'
Jendara's little pink eyes again widened. Taking the brush from W'mefa's paw, she dipped it in the ink and quickly wrote out a question. 'There are others of my people in your lands?'
W'mefa nodded, taking the brush back. 'Yes, several - about fifty or so. They do not look quite as you do, however. Their fur is gray, their eyes black, and their bodies a bit plumper than your own.'
Jendara sat quietly, thinking, and W'mefa passed the writing-desk back to her. The stars gleamed down from the night-time sky in silence, and W'mefa listened to the chirping of crickets and the quiet hoot of an owl as he waited. After a moment, W'mefa gathered the other sheets of paper from their conversation, folded them, and tossed them onto the camp-fire beside him. A written record of their conversation might help in explaining to his ally, Lord Xaa, what had been said along the trip - but the same record also revealed his thoughts about Lord Kahgah, which were far too private to have written down anywhere. Jendara glanced at the burning papers for a moment, then resumed thinking, obviously unconcerned. Finally, Jendara slipped a fresh sheet of paper from the desk, dipped the brush into the ink again, and began to write.
'Most noble Lord W'mefa, I do believe that I should take a moment now to explain to you our history, that of the Mice of the Great Cavern, that you may understand my people, and understand why I am here,' she wrote, and at W'mefa's nod, she began.
W'mefa watched as Jendara wrote,
reading carefully. Slowly, the story of the mice of the Great
Cavern unfolded as she carefully filled each page with the
ideographs of the mus. After a long moment of silence, he sighed.
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