The Issachari had a saying: “Only a fool walks the Moghra’yi by day. Only a lack-salt walks the Moghra’yi by night.” Thus had Weary Paw Mara walked it, for in the day she’d bask, sweating in the oppressive sun, motionless to avoid the dawngliders. In the night, sun-seared and brimming with its power, she’d lope due west to where the Stilt’s towers blotted the starry empyrean and not let up til mid-morning. On the third such night, just before beetle moon zenith, she finally arrived at the bustling sea of tents that thronged at the base of its holy towers - the Stiltgrounds of the Six-Day Stilt.
From the oppressive solitude of the salt pans, suddenly Mara wheeled and padded through such a press of folk from such a medley of form as she had never known. Thus had she stumbled into a wide tent slung between two of the satellite-spires that ringed the grounds. She found herself in a space at once open and insulated from the crowds. Gathering herself, she assessed the cushions, the hookah, and the kitchen that adorned this covered dwelling plaza. It all spoke to her of an ergonomics harmonious with her quadrupedal tiger-taur nature. She soon discovered why, as the tent’s occupant hailed her with a lazy “Live and drink” from their cushion by the hookah. They were the most striking hindren she had seen - their skin pale, yet bearing the unmistakable texture of a photosynth; three arms draped about theirself and the fourth holding the hookah’s mouthpiece; split-filtrum face unperturbed and intrigued at a newcomer in their abode.
“Live and drink,” replied Mara, stepping further inside the space and taking it in. “Say, friend, is there lodging here? I can recompense you.”
“You wish to stay here? There is space, no recompense is necessary. I am Lulihart. Stay a while, friend. Share the waterpipe, if it is your pleasure. Tell me of yourself.”
“Thank you, friend Lulihart. I am Weary Paw Mara, a traveler, an apprentice of Barathrum, and a warden of the Quetzal Caucus. I have partaken of a waterpipe in my time and I’ll gladly share this one with you.”
Mara padded to a neighboring cushion, kneaded around it in a tight circle, and settled her feline bulk into the freshly-fluffed cushion. She unsheathed another mouthpiece from the central stem and shared a draw with Lulihart.
After an appreciative silence, Mara spoke. “Truth be told, Lulihart, I had not expected to encounter a hindren this far from Bey Lah. Certainly not one with your remarkable features.”
“Heh,” chuckled Lulihart. “And here I thought myself gazing in a morphogenic mirror when you entered. To turn truth on truth, I had not expected to hear the name of my people nor my ancestral village on the tongue of a kendren.”
“To give truth for truth, I was there but a month ago. The previous regime requested the aid of a mercenary, and I gave them my justice.”
“Of course!” said Lulihart. “My scouts reported of a mutant warrior whose investigation unseated the old Hindriarch. To think she’d turn up in my tent!”
“And such a tent it is! Ample clearance around furnishings! Full body cushions! A kitchen I can turn around in!”
“Accept nothing less than a space that knows what you are and celebrates it.”
Lulihart drew again, and Mara followed. Smoke flowed gently from their cervinomorph nose and lips as they spoke.
“Perhaps in time, with this new leadership, a pariah such as me can see the Meadows.”
“Esk has a good heart for justice. She’s known the pain of exile. I feel you won’t have to wait long.”
“I am gladdened to hear it.”
Mara reached for a canteen, then paused. “Friend Lulihart,” she said.
“Friend Mara,” the hindren replied.
“I have trekked the Moghra’yi for 3 nights. I have just downed two lungfuls of smoke, and it does not quench me. I would share my water with you. Would you have it?”
“Your thirst is mine,” said Mara, “my water is yours.” She cupped her lower hands and poured a dram into the basin they formed. Lulihart leaned forward from their repose, placing their lips to the cupped dram and drinking. They cupped a pair of their own hands and Mara poured another dram into it, then leaned in to do the same. Thus quenched, they grasped arms, and Mara relayed her secrets. Pressed close, Mara whispered the contents of a cookbook from Dardi’s kitchen. Her green-furred ear flicked in excitement as Lulihart leaned over to share their own secrets. The bit of gossip they whispered curled her tail and the ruin they told her of sent shivers of anticipation down her spine.
“I feel as though I’ve found-” Mara began as she pulled her cushion closer, “-my home at the Stilt.”
“I am gladdened to hear this, too,” said Lulihart, leaning against her as she settled once more into her cushion. “Have you a home elsewhere?”
“I’ve a modest space in Grit Gate. The company is exquisite, though the beds are a touch small for me. Before that, I had none. My people hail from the musa groves that flourish at the Spindle’s foundation, though I was born in a saltback’s oasis. My parents had fled from under the heel of Newfather colonizers.”
“They did well to escape,” said Lulihart. “One of my sires is a hunter of Templar. They are fearsome prey, by her account.”
“Then I wish her good hunting,” said Mara, blowing a smoke ring.
“I notice you’ve a big bag of books lashed into that pack of yours.”
“Yes, I’ve heard there’s a book bounty to be had!”
“You may run into some trouble claiming it, I’m afraid. You see, the librarian is asleep.”
“At this hour? I should think so. It can wait until morning.”
“Sure. It’s just that she’s been asleep since Ubu Ut. You’ll see in the morning.”
In the morning, rested and rejuvenated, Weary Paw Mara found the bustle and hum of the Stiltgrounds enthralling rather than overwhelming. Thus, it was late afternoon when Mara at last entered the Cathedral to seek the library. She gawked at the grand entryway, all chrome and concrete and stained light. A choraler pointed her to the library wing and voiced the same warning that Lulihart had given her the night before.
Down an arclit inner narthex, she found a modest few shelves, yet each was stocked full of such an assortment of texts as Mara had never seen. Between them, nestled in a marble corner, was a small figure in repose. A plated chromeling. Mara had seen similar figures wandering the workshops and tucked away in closets in Grit Gate, but never one such as this, clothed in the raiments of a Mechanimist priestess, spectacles perched on her lathe-sculpted nose. A well-worn copy of the Canticles Chromaic rested in her lap, open to verse XIX.
For all the world, Sheba Hagadias looked in the midst of an afternoon nap, save for the thin layer of dust over her and the ring of candles that surrounded her. As Mara approached, a pilgrim rose from the makeshift shrine, nodded a greeting to Mara, and returned to the Cathedral’s nave.
Q Girl had told Mara of chromelings and their ways. In the wild, according to their own internal whims, they would fall into a mechanical hibernation. Mara had seen them in the flower fields, slumbering even as the verdant undergrowth gently overtook them. Q Girl had teased Mara that she had a sleep mode of her own.
Indeed, as Mara knelt in contemplation of the librarian’s shrine, the peaceful atmosphere ensconced her and sleep proved irresistible. In her dreams, she saw the leylines of machinery and logic that guided the flow of energy within the Librarian’s robotic body. She saw where the flow dammed.
Mara woke and stretched. She reached carefully over the ring of candles, feeling for the access panel beneath a plate on the back of Sheba’s neck. She found it, and flipped the switch. The librarian’s eyes fluttered open with a delicate whirring.
“Oh!” said Sheba Hagadias, Librarian of the Stilt. “Live and learn, wanderer. Have you come to make a donation of text to the Library?”
Mara unslung the book-bag from her shoulders and placed it with a resounding thud just outside the candle-circle. “Yes.”
With the evening, the sun’s heat relented and the chill of night had not crept in. Mara had returned to Lulihart’s shaded dwelling-plaza. The hindren laughed boisterously as Mara regaled them with her afternoon’s activities.
“You mean to tell me,” said Lulihart, “that for all their talk of the Wonders-in-Chrome, not one of the priesthood thought to turn her off and then turn her back on again?”
“It’s a fair mistake!” Mara replied. “The switch is protected on her model. She’s a lively one, isn’t she?”
“Aye, and a good soul.”
“I wouldn’t have thought she’d be so opinionated on the state of cuisine at the Stiltgrounds until I delivered all the cookbooks I’d accumulated from its kitchens to her.”
“And what, pray tell, were her opinions?” Lulihart blew a coil of lazily-drifting smoke to adorn the evening’s air.
“Ones that I share,” said Mara. She rose from her cushion and padded to the kitchen, rummaging in her food-pack. “The chefs here… in all honesty, none of them are worthy. It’s all flash, but none have substance . Whither utility, asketh I and the Librarian alike?”
“Light ‘em up!” laughed Lulihart.
Mara found a waterskin and uncorked it. A soft glow came from within as she smelled its contents. “Now, Lulihart, my water-kith,” she said, a gleam in her eye, “let me show you what I’d do with ingredients like these.”