January 29, 2007, Hollywood

It was called Live with Abby Kamins, which may not have been terribly original, but certainly conveyed to the television audience the essential nature of the program: interesting subjects intelligently explored under the supervision of a likable and forceful central personality.

That was the theory, anyway.

In fact, the subjects that were chosen were usually not the interesting ones, but the ones that were vaguely sickening; the show's producers believed that intelligent exploration of anything on daytime television was a waste of good film stock; and Abby Kamins had been given the host's slot less on the basis of being likable and forceful than on the basis of having several close relatives in the higher echelons of the network. For these reasons (and because it appeared on a cable network, which meant that the daytime-television viewer had over a hundred alternate choices to run through before she became bored and desperate enough to watch Abby Kamins explore the tortured souls of piercing fetishists), Live with Abby Kamins was essentially in its death throes for the entirety of its brief run. A typical episode had perhaps 400 viewers nationwide, and the episode broadcast on January 29, 2007, was quite typical – a fact for which the Family Faerie would soon have occasion to be grateful.

The topic that day was "Overcoming Phobias", which sounded like a good and noble aspiration, but was, in fact, merely an excuse to take pictures of snakes and spiders. Kamins's producer, Scott Sizer, had found a number of people who had irrational hang-ups about these animals, and had somehow persuaded them to come into a television studio and touch them in the presence of a psychiatrist. (He wasn't thrilled about the psychiatrist, since psychiatrists cost money – and he was already spending more than he cared to on some of the snakes and spiders – but if there hadn't been a psychiatrist, he would have had to come out and admit that the purpose of the episode was to watch basket cases try to touch tarantulas, and the viewers of Live with Abby Kamins preferred to at least pretend that there was some nobler purpose to the garbage they were watching. Human beings, even daytime-television viewers, have their dignity.)

For the first half-hour, the broadcast went reasonably smoothly. The psychiatrist was nicely professional, none of the phobia victims had actual meltdowns, and Abby Kamins (who was, in truth, quite a pleasant person, though lacking in dynamism) executed her hostly functions with commendable aplomb. It wasn't until Brandon Splete appeared onstage that things got slightly off script.

Mr. Splete was a twenty-three-year-old carpenter who had suffered from acute arachnophobia since early childhood. He wasn't quite clear how being presented with a three-ounce bird spider and asked to touch it was supposed to remedy this, but he was willing to give it a shot, particularly if it gave him a chance to appear on television in front of twenty million people. (This had been his own estimate of Live with Abby Kamins's national audience, and Sizer had seen no reason to correct him.)

And so he was now sitting in an armchair next to Abby Kamins and Dr. Tarrah Riddle, explaining the peculiar horror he felt in the presence of arachnid life. He was quite an expressive storyteller, so his descriptions of huge, hairy limbs and jerky, mechanical movements kept the viewing audience sufficiently repelled for a good while, but eventually Sizer decided that he needed some visual aids.

"Time to bring in the big guns, Halley," he whispered, at the same time making a gesture to Dr. Riddle.

Stagehand Halley Jun (who had once calculated that she spent 1.6% of her waking life explaining how to pronounce her last name) nodded dutifully, and, as Dr. Riddle broke into Splete's vivid evocation of spider mouthparts to suggest that perhaps a confrontation with the object of his fears might serve to proportionalize his atavistic responses, reached into a nearby cage and drew out a particularly gruesome tarantula. She felt no thrill of anticipation as she did so; she was granted no particular insights save the rueful reflection that people who talked about second-generation immigrants making it big in America always managed to slur over this part.

She had no inkling that, in less than a minute, she would be privileged to witness an event that thousands worldwide had dedicated their lives to making possible: the completion of two souls, the intertwining of two destinies, and the supreme unifying of Man and Nature.

If she had, she would doubtless have insisted on a pay raise beforehand.

November 29, 4000695108 B.C., Panthalassa

The Earth was one vast sea.

What sort of sea has been disputed. Christian clerics generally assert that it was water, modern men of science are inclined to identify it as magma, and a few ancient philosophers postulate a mystic liquid called pleta, which contained within itself the materials of both land and water, and was later divided to form the world we know. Whatever the ocean's composition, however, it seems a settled fact that as the sun rose on the Earth of 4000695108 B.C. (if there was a sun at the time: this, too, has been disputed), it had no reason to expect that its rays would alight on solid matter.

On the morning of November 29, however, the sun got a rude shock. Floating amid the endless Terran seas, at a point not far distant from where southeastern Africa would eventually take up residence, was a gleaming platinum sphere, about half a foot in diameter.

The sun (if there was one) may have been puzzled. What was this doing here? At its setting the previous evening, there had been no solid matter anywhere on Earth; now, there was this platinum sphere. This could not have made the sun comfortable, for heavenly bodies rely on the unchanging patterns of Nature to guide them through the skies, and view any interruption in these patterns as a potential danger, which may result in a nova or a collision.

So perhaps, for the next few days, the sun kept its gleaming eye carefully fixed on the mysterious object in Earth's southern seas. At length, however, seeing that it caused no perturbations in the Earth's orbit, but was content simply to drift along the ever-varying tides, it finally dismissed it as of no importance. And, for the sun, this was quite true.

April 9, 151807582 B.C., Bdekur

Tvelus the Sentry whispered a prayer to Nisai, Creator of the Universe, as she scurried through the corridors of the ancient city. This was unusual for her, since she did not usually concern herself with the speculations of philosophers, but it was hardly surprising; the event that she had just witnessed would have inspired any normal sentient being to appeal to the most powerful entity it could conceive, and Tvelus the Sentry was a paragon of normality.

"O Nisai," she whispered, "can this be part of Your ordaining? Can it seem good to You that Bdekur should perish – that the one aspect of Your creation that has spoken Your name should be annihilated from the universe? I cannot believe that, but nor can I imagine another explanation of what I have seen."

"Perhaps you haven't really seen it, then," said a voice in front of her. Tvelus raised her sense-organs, and perceived that she had arrived at the entrance of the Queen's residence and was standing before the royal attendant known as Keđrets.

"I beg your pardon?" she said.

"Perhaps you haven't really seen it," Keđrets repeated. "If there is no believable explanation for a phenomenon, the logical conclusion is that the phenomenon never occurred, and that any witnesses who claim to have seen it were deceived by their senses." He grinned. "You see, Sentry Tvelus, I too study the philosophers."

I have no doubt of that, Royal Attendant Keđrets, Tvelus thought. Like most Sentries, she had been raised to believe that the Royal Attendant Caste was composed of slothful dilettantes with no purpose in life except to occasionally indulge in inscrutable pleasures, and she was therefore quite ready to believe that pointless logic-chopping would be the sort of entertainment that would appeal to its members. Aloud, however, she said only, "My senses are not easily deceived, Royal Attendant Keđrets."

Keđrets made a conciliatory gesture with his forelimb. "Yes, yes," he said. "I am familiar with your caste's pride in its perceptive ability. I merely remark that no mortal vessel is infallible."

"Indeed?" said Tvelus. She leaned her head forward, so that her sense-organs were nearly touching those of the Royal Attendant. "You would include the Tledai-tculh in that statement?"

Keđrets frowned. "Can the Tledai-tculh be truly considered a mortal vessel?"

"It has height, width, and breadth," said Tvelus. "We are taught that it had a beginning, so it must have duration. By Blenreth's definition, therefore, it is a mortal vessel."

Keđrets hesitated, then laughed. "Very well, then," he said. "Grant that the Tledai-tculh is a mortal vessel. What then? Are you claiming that your sense-organs are as reliable as the Tledai-tculh?"

"By no means," said Tvelus. "I merely wish you to consider what would result if the Tledai-tculh were to fail Bdekur."

It took a moment for Keđrets to realize Tvelus's meaning. Then an expression of terror came over him, and he took an involuntary step backward. "You mean...?"

Tvelus nodded. "May I see Her Majesty now?"

Keđrets made a dazed motion of affirmation. He stepped aside from the entrance, and Tvelus entered the Royal Presence.

She had only come before Queen Lilthetvur once before in her life, on the day she had entered adulthood and been given her name. On that occasion, as she had stepped up to the Mother of Bdekur's side and heard her whisper Tvelus, her overwhelming impression had been one of incredible hugeness – and she was surprised to find that, as she entered the Presence a second time, the same impression filled her mind again. One would have expected that six years as a Sentry (a duty that brought her into almost constant contact with the unimaginable vastness of the Upper World) would have dulled her appreciation of that royal characteristic – but, though she could look on the endless expanse of the Letrailh Plains, or the impossible sheerness of the Nearer Wall, with perfect equanimity, still the massive bulk of her Queen aroused in her a feeling of breathless awe.

She reflected, afterwards, that this was probably her natural reverence for Queen Lilthetvur attaching itself to her most obvious physical characteristic. Now, however, she merely knelt in humble submission.

"Dispel your fears, my child," said the Queen, in her full, throaty voice. "Rise, and tell me of the matter that occupies your mind."

Tvelus rose, and stood shakily on her six legs. "Your Majesty," she said, "one of your titles is Guarantor of Bdekur's Future, and in truth there could be no future to Bdekur if you were not among us. There is, however, another entity of which the same may be said with equal justice, and which may, without dishonoring your name, be said to be more vital to the People than even yourself."

"You speak of the Tledai-tculh," said Queen Lilthetvur.

"I do," said Tvelus. "There have been many other queens before you, and, if fate be kind, there will be many more after, but the Tledai-tculh is by nature one, and cannot be replaced. The Queen is only a queen, but the Tledai is the Tledai."

The Queen nodded. "That is certainly so," she said. "All who possess minds know that our illustrious ancestor Redulc, the day that she alighted upon the Tledai-tculh, vowed to build her city in its shadow, recognizing even then that there was nothing else like it in the world."

"I am familiar with the tale, Your Majesty," said Tvelus. "It gave me great pleasure in my youth."

"But then," said the Queen, "since the Tledai's unity be so well-known, it cannot be the matter that occupies your mind. It was that, remember, of which I wished you to tell me."

Tvelus knelt again. "I must contradict Your Majesty," she said. "The Tledai's unity occupies my mind most greatly. It causes me alarm and despondency, and sends me searching fruitlessly for consolation."

Queen Lilthetvur frowned. "Explain."

Tvelus took a deep breath. "Your Majesty," she said, "the Tledai-tculh is lost."

She had expected this statement to cause consternation, and consternation was precisely what it caused. Several Royal Attendants lurking in the shadows nearby made gestures of dumbfounded shock, and Queen Lilthetvur herself seemed shaken.

"Lost?" she repeated. "You mean that the Tledai-tculh has been destroyed?"

"No, Your Majesty," said Tvelus. "I mean that the Tledai-tculh has been stolen."

The Queen frowned. "Stolen?" she said. "How can the Tledai-tculh have been stolen? Is it not vaster than all Bdekur?"

Tvelus was struck by the simple navet of this question. There was, after all, a disadvantage to being Queen Lilthetvur, she reflected: because she so rarely encountered anything larger than herself, she had gradually come to assume that there was no living being larger than herself, and no realm vaster than her city.

"That is so, Your Majesty," she said, "but there are many creatures of the Upper World next to which Bdekur is only a bit of dust, and the Tledai-tculh merely a grain of sand."

Queen Lilthetvur was silent for a moment, considering this idea.

"I see," she said at last, though it was plain that she did not. "And one of these creatures has carried away the Tledai-tculh as we might carry away a sand-grain?"

"Precisely, Your Majesty," said Tvelus. "It was a simple matter for the creature; it is night-time in the Upper World, so most of the Glaine were asleep, and we few Sentries stationed on the Outskirts could scarcely have hoped to overpower him."

"But," the Queen objected, "when the creature grasped the Tledai, he ought to have received knowledge of its nature – and surely he would not then have presumed to take it for his own?"

Tvelus made a gesture of innocence. "I could not say, Your Majesty," she said. "I felt the Tledai's power when I was yet very young; I cannot presume to imagine what might go through a creature's mind who came upon it unawares at full maturity. Perhaps the Glaine could say, but none of our people could."

Queen Lilthetvur nodded in uneasy reflection, and fell silent once again. Tvelus could imagine the thoughts that stirred in her soul: if the Tledai-tculh was truly lost, then Bdekur was doomed beyond hope of salvation, for it was only the Tledai's virtue that kept the people of Bdekur from returning to the brute animality whence they had sprung. Deprived of it, all their learning, all their poetry, all the nobility they had striven to bring to their world, was as an ornate pattern of colored sand that must pass with the next strong wind that blows across the desert.

The virtue of the Tledai-tculh could not be suppressed entirely, of course. Someday, another city would perhaps emerge in its shadow, one that might be stronger and more worthy of its precious possession – but that was small consolation to one who loved Bdekur as did its Queen. A child may attain strength and wisdom, and may do great deeds, but it does not replace its sibling who died in the cradle.

All these thoughts passed through Queen Lilthetvur's mind as her Sentry stood, awaiting her pronouncement. At last, she spoke.

"Could the Glaine overpower the creature, were they to locate him?" she said.

Tvelus hesitated. "I could not say, Your Majesty," she said. "The creature is much larger than any of the Glaine, but it is not so overwhelmingly large as to make such a thing inconceivable."

The Queen nodded. "Good," she said. "If success can be conceived, then, in such a situation, it must be attempted. Let the Glaine be sent forth to find the detestable creature, and to recover and bring back the Jewel of Bdekur."

Tvelus nodded, and left the Queen's presence.

Her thoughts, as she retraced her way through the ancient corridors, were not of the most optimistic. The creature that had stolen the Tledai was indeed far larger than any of the Glaine, as she had said to the Queen, but what she had not said he was also far fleeter of foot than they, and she held out little hope that they would be able simply to overtake him. They would be forced to rely on their wits, which were their only advantage over the creature – and, as the creature became more accustomed to his new nature, even that advantage would dwindle to nothingness.

Still, on one point the Queen had spoken sooth. If any success could conceivably crown such a mission, then, however unlikely such success was, the mission had to be attempted. No other course of action could possibly be tolerated.

Tvelus sighed, and continued her lonely trek back to the Upper World.

October 19, 1733, Venice

Giacomo Farì glanced up jovially as his young niece entered the study. "Ah, good morning, Aurora," he said. "Ready for lessons, are we?"

Aurora Farì sighed. "Uncle Giacomo," she said, "remind me again why I have to know this language?"

Giacomo smiled indulgently. It was the same conversation they had every morning, and would probably continue to have as long as they resided in the same villa; Aurora Farì was a terminally discontented young woman.

"It is your birthright, my dear," he said. "When you were six years old, you stood up in your father's parlor and vowed to perform any service to any tsintu that should ever lie within your power, as does every member of the Family Far at such an age. Obviously, you must be able to speak to a tsintu in order for him to request your service – and the tsinte, who have built a three-thousand-year-old culture around the speaking of Mathun, are not about to all learn Italian just to please you."

Aurora's eyes flashed with annoyance. "Why do the tsinte need human partners at all?" she demanded. "Why can't they just do their job by themselves, and leave us alone?"

"Because they are animals," said Giacomo, "and animals are limited. If a woodchuck tsintu spies an eligible nuthatch, he cannot catch it himself; a human, with a bow and arrow, must bring it down for him. If a beetle finds a prize stallion that is fit to join his brotherhood, he cannot go to its owner and purchase it from him; that task must fall to a human with a considerable pocketbook. It follows, therefore, that the tsinte must associate themselves with a family of humans, who must be possessed of great hunting skills and equally great wealth – and I notice, my darling girl, that you do not object to either of those requirements."

Aurora, who greatly enjoyed both her archery lessons and her aristocratic status, flushed and sighed. "I'm sorry, Uncle Giacomo," she said. "I know I'm being rather difficult this morning..."

"Not at all," said Giacomo. "I admire a young woman who speaks her mind. They are altogether too rare in this world."

"It's just that..." Aurora shrugged. "I don't know. Sometimes I wake up and the whole thing just seems terribly pointless."


"I mean, what exactly does my family do?" said Aurora. "We take an animal that we think has a mystic connection to some human somewhere in the world, we name it after a character in history or mythology, we touch it to this silver ball..."

"Platinum," said Giacomo.

"...it suddenly learns how to talk, and, after we've taught it this silly language that doesn't have any pronouns, we send it off into the wild to find some more animals with the same mystic connection to other humans, so we can do the same thing over again." Aurora spread her arms. "In the Virgin's name, Uncle, what is the good of that?"

"The good," said Giacomo, "is that, every so often, the animals find the humans to whom they have the mystic connections."

"Of course they do," said Aurora irritably, "but that only happens four or five times in a century, so how can it possibly be worth it?"

Giacomo stared at her for a moment. "Have you ever seen a tsintu find his intended human?" he said.

Aurora hesitated. "No."

"I have," said Giacomo. "When I was twelve years old. It was a small lizard named Barabbas, who was staying in our villa while his ribs mended; he had gotten too close to a cat that he had thought might be tsintu material, you see. Our maidservant entered the room, and she happened to look at Barabbas just as he was looking at her; the most extraordinary expression appeared on both of their faces, an expression of wonder and joy and exultation, and we knew that the two of them had been intended. We had never seen a filial bond being made, of course, but there was no mistaking it; one could verily read in their faces that some hidden part of them had been found, a part that they hadn't even known was missing until that very instant, and that now could never be lost again. It was as though the playfellow of their youthful imaginings, who had brought them such solace in childhood, but whom they had now all but forgotten, had suddenly become real before their eyes, and had beckoned to them and whispered, 'Come with me, and let us live our lives together; let us walk hand in hand through this cosmos, daring its dangers, inhaling its wonders, and always rejoicing in each other's company. We were meant for one another, and now we have found one another; let us then praise the Lord, who has bestowed on us such a rare and precious kindness.'"

He smiled. "Yes, Aurora, I assure you that it is worth it."

For some moments after this pronouncement, Aurora stood speechless, which was a rather novel experience for her. At last, she shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Uncle Giacomo," she said. "I didn't realize having a filial was such a big deal. I thought it was just a kind of special, talking pet."

Giacomo shook his head. "No, my dear," he said. "It is far more than that. It is the unifying of the wild and civilized kingdoms, when the courts of Man and Nature present their children to be joined in kinship – and we, Aurora, we are the courtiers who prepare the way for the royal offspring. It is a rare privilege, and one that is surely worth a few years of struggling with a silly language that doesn't have any pronouns."

Aurora sighed, and permitted a smile to cross her face. "All right, Uncle Giacomo," she said. "You win." She sat down at the table, and pulled her Mathun grammar towards her.

"Excellent," said Giacomo. "Now, then, let's review. What are the five vowels?"

"U, i, e, a, ai," Aurora recited. (She pronounced them "oo, ee, ay, ah, eye".)

"Correct," said Giacomo. "And their significances as noun endings?"

"An u at the end of a noun indicates the singular of an entity," said Aurora, "while an i indicates a singular event. E is the plural for both of them. Thus, redu, rede – a queen, queens – and vadli, vadle – the birth of a queen, various births of various queens."

"And a?" said Giacomo.

"That indicates a substance that doesn't come in discrete units," said Aurora, "and thus can't be considered singular or plural. Like tuba, water, or pleta, the Primal Fluid."

"And ai?"

Aurora smiled. "Ai indicates an entity that is singular, but that's so special that it can't be plural," she said. "Nisai, for instance, or tledai."

"Very good."

December 13, 151807582 B.C., Bdekur

Tvelus stared morosely out upon the Letrailh expanse, watching the wind blow the sand in aimless patterns along the endless valley.

She had never before seen the Upper World bereft of the Glaine. Sometimes there were fewer of them than at other times, but there had always been at least two or three of them wandering about the outskirts of Bdekur – those odd, fascinating beings, who had come across the Tledai entirely by accident, and generally in their full maturity, rather than being deliberately and ceremoniously touched to it in their youths as she had been in hers. They were queer, remote, paradoxical, and frequently quite irritating, but they were never dull, and to come up to the surface and see neither the comforting shadow of the Tledai-tculh overhead, nor the faces of Bvenin or Tcetsais looming nearby, only served to amplify Tvelus's feeling of being alone with her fellow Sentries, her fellow animate dust-specks, in a hostile and senseless universe.

She turned to Lratciwh, who was waving herself back and forth on her legs in the manner of one in the final stages of ennui. "How many risings of the sun have elapsed since the Deprivation, fellow-worker?" she enquired.

"Two hundred and forty-eight," said Lratciwh, with the defiant certainty with which she always made such pronouncements.

Tvelus nodded. She herself had never been able to see the good in counting sun's risings – if the great ball that lit and heated the Upper World wanted to cycle about the sky, then, so far as she was concerned, that was its own business – but she was willing to indulge Lratciwh's hobby. After all, it wasn't as though her own methods of passing the time were much more rational.

She had turned back to the elaborate geometric design of holes she was poking into the sand with her forefeet, and was just about to add an inscribed rhombus into one of the three interlocked circles, when a shadow passed over her – a large, winged shadow, with an elongated, tufted tail.

In itself, that was not unusual. The flying creatures that the Sentries called clepathre frequently passed over Bdekur. It was, however, quite unusual for a clepathru to pause in its flight, circle overhead three times, and then swoop down toward the city while crying in the Bdekur idiom, "Good health and sweetness of soul to you, O Sentries!"

Tvelus's sense-organs darted upward, and she beheld the sparkling eyes and uniquely misshapen beak of a figure she knew very well.

"Tcetsais!" Lratciwh shrieked. "He's returned! The Glaine have returned!"

A brief madness fell over the Sentries. They scrambled frantically down the hill, stepping on each other and kicking up whirlwinds of sand (and obliterating Tvelus's hole-patterns) in the process, and clustered around the spot where the aerial Glainu was alighting.

"Tcetsais!" they cried, swarming about his feet, tail, and wingtips. "Is it true, then? Has the Tledai been recovered?"

"Oh, yes," said Tcetsais, with a twinkle in his eye. "Yes, the Tledai has most certainly been recovered."

"Where is it, then?" demanded Sentry Nathrakek. "Is Bvenin bringing it with him?"

"Certainly not," said Tcetsais. "Who would trust Bvenin to carry a rotten fish, let alone the Jewel of Bdekur? No, that task has been entrusted to Uvletuwh."

The Sentries were taken aback at the strange name, but before they could ask whom Uvletuwh might be, their sharpened senses detected a rumbling in the ground beneath them. Instinctively, they jerked their sense-organs upward – to behold the strangest and most awesome procession ever seen in the history of Bdekur.

At its head scurried Bvenin and the lesser Glaine: Kuplets, Vyadtul, and the rest. Behind them, though, came a menagerie of the most bewildering assortment of fauna imaginable, from gossamer-winged creatures scarcely larger than the Sentries, to other klepathre and scampering lizards like Bvenin, to representatives of the enormous and terrible scaled and feathered creatures of which the Sentries had only heard whispered rumors from the mouths of the Glaine. These came in all manner of shapes and sizes, but the only ones for which the Sentries had eyes were the long-necked colossi that brought up the end of the queue.

There were no words in Mathun for the immensity of these beings. The entire city of Bdekur could have been dug into their flesh a thousand times over, and they would scarcely have felt it. Indeed, Tvelus saw one of them casually extend its neck and take a bite out of a shrub growing at the top of the Nearer Wall – the Nearer Wall that Dlapugrel the Mad had spent a lifetime futilely attempting to scale. These creatures were mountains, they were landscapes, they were practically worlds unto themselves.

Tcetsais followed the Sentries' awestruck gazes dispassionately. "Yes," he said. "I was wondering myself whether this canyon was going to hold them all. I suspect the Glaine are going to be a rather wider-ranging clan from now on."

"The Glaine?" said Lratciwh faintly. "You mean..."

"Isn't it obvious?" said Tcetsais. "Every one of those creatures has touched the Tledai-tculh in the last eight months. Now they are all possessed of minds, and they are all honorary citizens of Bdekur." He grinned. "Things got rather out of control, I'm afraid."

"All of them are Glaine?" Tvelus repeated, astonished. "The thunderers, as well?"

"Them, as well," said Tcetsais. "Some of them are quite delightful people, actually. Young Manwhun, for instance..."

"What about the Vratcu?" Sentry Whagwhair demanded.

Tcetsais blinked. "The what?"

"The Vratcu," Whagwhair repeated impatiently. "The thief. The reprobate. The vile creature that stole the Tledai in the first place!"

"Ah," said Tcetsais. "You mean Uvletuwh. He is..." His eyes scanned the multitude, and alighted upon a point near to the smallest of the thunderers. "He is right there."

The Sentries followed his pointing claw, and received their final and perhaps greatest shock of the morning. There, amid the teeming multitude of newly-made Glaine, was the two-legged creature for which they had spent the past two hundred and forty-eight days devising newer and filthier curses, wearing a nervous expression on its long, pointed face – and carrying the Tledai-tculh in its two clawed hands.

There was a moment of silence, and then Whagwhair voiced the thought in each of the Sentries' minds.

"You are all mad," she said dully.

"Indeed?" said Tcetsais. "And why is that?"

"That creature is an enemy of Bdekur, Tcetsais!" Nathrakek shouted. "Because of it, the young of Bdekur born two seasons ago are still wriggling in brute oblivion! To even consider entrusting the Tledai-tculh to its care is an unconscionable outrage!"

Tcetsais's face grew stern. "Sentry Nathrakek," he said, "do not presume to pass judgment in a matter of which you have no knowledge. You have possessed a mind all your adult life; you do not know what it means to be granted one suddenly, and unasked. To have lived your entire life knowing nothing greater than your own passions, and then in an instant to be made aware of all the world, is a deeply unsettling experience. Uvletuwh is not to be blamed if he acted unwisely."

"Tcetsais..." Nathrakek began.

"If you wish to dispute the matter, dispute it with him," said Tcetsais. With that, he flapped up off the ground and flew into the heart of the multitude.

"Uvletuwh!" he called. "The Sentries of Bdekur would have a word with you!"

The creature looked intensely uncomfortable at this news, but duly edged his way out of the crowd and came toward the knot of Sentries.

"Good health and sweetness of soul," he murmured, in surprisingly fluent Mathun.

"The same," said Tvelus, as Nathrakek seemed disinclined to respond. "Your name is Uvletuwh?"

The creature nodded.

"An unusual name," said Tvelus. "Yet it seems to suit you."

"Thank you," Uvletuwh murmured.

There was a moment's silence.

"Your arrival is most heartening," Tvelus ventured. "We had feared that you would not return."

"I was frightened," Uvletuwh confessed, spinning the Tledai between his hands. "I could see that it was a precious thing I had taken, and I did not know what to do with it."

"And it never occurred to you to return it to us, I suppose," said Nathrakek.

"To tell the truth, I hadn't even noticed you were there," said Uvletuwh. "We vertebrates don't tend to pay much attention to insects."

Nathrakek scowled.

"Well," said Tvelus briskly, "now that you are aware of us, would it please you to return the Tledai to its proper resting-place?"

Uvletuwh smiled. "It would please me greatly, Sentry," he said.

And slowly, with infinite gentleness, he lowered his upper body and replaced the gleaming platinum sphere onto the ancient anthill of Bdekur.

January 29, 2007, Hollywood

"Now, Mr. Splete," said Dr. Riddle, "this may understandably be a bit difficult for you, but it is a necessary first step on the road to..."

She broke off as she realized that Splete was not listening to her. Halley was not listening to her, the audience was not listening to her even Sizer, who had involuntarily stepped onstage, was not listening to her. All eyes in the studio were focused on Abby Kamins – and Abby Kamins's eyes were focused on the Mexican red-kneed tarantula sitting on Halley's right arm.

A truly remarkable expression was coming over her face. It seemed to be composed of equal parts astonishment, terror, and ecstasy, and it evoked a different emotion to everyone who saw it. To Halley, it looked like the expression on her father's face when her grandparents had come over from Taiwan; to Splete, it recalled the emotion he had felt after his first revival meeting at Maranatha Baptist; and to Dr. Riddle, when she turned to look at it, it looked simply like the expression she had always wanted a patient of hers to assume.

There was complete silence in the studio for nearly half a minute. Then it was broken by a sudden, rippling laugh – and Halley, glancing down, was only mildly surprised to find that it was coming from the tarantula.

"Well," said that creature, in a brisk, feminine voice with a faint Southern accent, "under the circumstances, I think a more thorough introduction is in order. My name is Eos – and I believe, Mr. Sizer," she said to her intended human's dumbfounded producer, "that we will be seeing a good deal more of each other in the future."