Arrallins -- These cat-like people stand about 1.8 metres tall, and come in two types: Alpha (the breeders and 'aristocracy' [had they such a system]) and Beta, the ordinary Arrallins.
Barryds -- Something like a city composed entirely of a barely 'intelligent' plant. The relationship between the Barryd and its inhabitants is symbiotic – one does not live without the other.
Cycle -- A Cycle is roughly equivalent to two Earth years. Each day is around 38 Earth hours long. (This makes figuring out one's age a tricky business.)
Dimar -- Native to the planet of Dimar, from which they derive their name, these are large furry dragons, coming in almost any colour imaginable. Mul Dimar tend to the study of Mulkai (War), and are usually in rivalry between one Barryd or another.
Ekai -- The Healing craft.
Morrak -- Large, quite stupid animal, similar to an ox.
Muck Room, the -- This is a large waste treatment area, where miscreants are sent to put their energy to better use. Dimar are generally honest, as this punishment is rather foul-smelling.
Mulkai -- War Arts.
Nakai -- The Music craft.
Telkai -- The Genetics craft.
"Quiet, please." Master Rylin surveyed his class, a motley arrangement of young Arrallins, humans, and two Dimar, who sat at the back of the room, that being the only place for their large size.
The idle chattering died down, and eyes looked expectantly, if not excitedly, at him. "Good. Now, welcome to the first class of the year, this class being the fascinating field of Nakai, or Music, if you so prefer." The middle-aged Beta turned around and, picking up a piece of yellow chalk, began to write on the large blackboard. "My name is...er...name is..." He trailed off, scratching with puzzlement with a long claw.
Behind him the new students began to snicker, a few whispers passing between them. "Oh, dear." He turned back to his class. "I seem to have forgotten my name. Could someone please enlighten me?"
A short Beta with an odd mask of black, similar to a raccoon's, raised her arm. "It's Master Rylin...er...sir."
"That's right! Thank you, my dear Annira. How silly of me to forget, hmm?" Rylin returned his attention to the board and resumed writing. "What was I saying? Ah, yes. My name is Master Rylin, and I'll be seeing to it that you become Dimar's finest musicians!" As an afterthought, he added in a lower tone of voice, "Or at least make sure you improve at singing."
As Rylin drew up a large five-lined staff on the board, the young Arrallin who had spoken leaned over to her friend. "He's funny, don't you think? Forgetting his own name?"
Her friend nodded, her slight mane shaking as she did so. "I've never seen anyone so absent-minded. Except for Uncle Lakar. He's the worst."
The Master droned on about where each note went on the staff. Ignoring him almost totally, Annira and her Alpha friend Jarin chattered about prospective boyfriends. Jarin whuffled quietly, pointing in the direction of a tall, grey-faced Beta with a pure white streak running down his nose. "Isn't he gorgeous?" She sighed in mock infatuation.
"Him?" Annira's emerald eyes roved over the indicated male. "Well, he is rather cute, but he's so damn tall! I'm a full head shorter than he is. You are too."
Jarin waved a paw in a dismissive gesture. "Oh, that's just a minor problem. When you're horizontal, it doesn't really matter how tall he is, does it?" She grinned at Annira's confused expression.
"I don't quite get you," the Beta admitted. She reached behind herself and scratched at her tail, pulling off a thorny attachment. She frowned at it, then threw it out a window.
The Alpha opened her mouth to explain in more, graphic, detail, but was interrupted by a loud voice from the front of the room. "I'm sure your topic of conversation is much more interesting than learning the scale of C Major, so if you would please stand up and tell us all? We're all dying to hear your riveting news."
Jarin looked up to see the stern face of Master Rylin staring at her with agate-hard eyes. Glancing around at her peers, she realised every eye was trained upon her. "Um...er...we were discussing the...ah...ramifications of..." She trailed off.
Annira jumped in to finish the sentence. "...raising the third and fifth notes of a scale." She avoided the Master's gaze, almost feeling it boring into her like a silent drill.
A long silence stretched interminably, making the two young Arrallins uncomfortable, before being snapped by Rylin. "Right. I'll take your word for it, though if you'd been listening you might have noticed that we haven't discussed raising any notes of a scale as yet." With a wry whuffle Rylin went back to his teaching. "Ah, before you continue your conversation, perhaps you'd like to take note of the fact that listening is quite an important feature of this class, hmm?" Turning back to the board he added, "There's a test on this tomorrow."
Annira and Jarin couldn't wait to get out of the classroom. When the Master finally released them, they were first out the door.
"He's weird," muttered Jarin to her friend. Annira nodded in agreement. "Yes, although he's rather interesting as well. Did you notice the way he kept scratching his back? Maybe he has fleas!"
The two girls giggled inanely until they got to their next class, down in the lower level of the Barryd in the Ekai teaching room. "This should be a bit more interesting," Jarin commented when they padded in. "At least in Ekai perhaps we'll get to see some blood and guts!"
Annira stared at Jarin, meeting her golden-eyed gaze. "You seem to have an unhealthy attraction to that sort of thing, don't you?" She took a place next to a deep red Mul Dimar with brown undertones. "Are you sure you're not half-Mul?"
"Who knows? I might be." Jarin grinned, showing off her sharp teeth.
The Mul Dimar looked down at them, smiling faintly. His slightly twisted horns gleamed in the bright yellow lights inset into the walls. In a rumbling voice he said, "Pardon me for asking, er..."
"Jarin," the Arrallin, dwarfed by the Dimar, filled in.
"Jarin, yes. Perhaps you might be interested by a visit to a Mul Barryd. I could arrange it, if you wish." The Mul raised an eyeridge, his piercingly yellow eyes glowing harshly in the backdrop of his red face.
The Alpha's eyes lit up in barely disguised excitement. "Really? Oh, wow, that would be great!" Getting a nudge in the ribs, she turned to Annira. "What?"
"Since when have you liked war?" Annira hissed in a low whisper. "I thought you hated the risk of injury, even death. The tactics, I suppose, I could understand, but actually participating in it? Enjoying the killing?"
"Well, people change their perceptions, you know. Perhaps you didn't know me as well as you thought you did." Jarin stopped talking as a pale pink Dimar with cream down her underbelly padded in. "Oh, I love the colour of that fur!" she said, totally changing the topic.
Annira sighed with a loud exhalation of breath, and turned her mind to the first Healing lesson, setting aside her concerns for a time when she could freely mull them over.
Later that day, when the classes were over and the students had gone either back home or to the dorms, Annira voiced her fears to a couple of her dorm-mates. "I honestly don't know what's happened to her," she said. "It's like water in a crack. When the water freezes, it opens the crack wider. We're gradually getting further apart, I think."
"Did you notice these Mulkai attractions earlier? In your friendship, I mean." A dark green Dimar with blue highlights spoke quietly into the intervening silence.
Annira thought for a moment, then shook her head. "I don't think so, Ruwena."
"Her father was a veteran of the Unwilling War, wasn't he?" asked a thickly-striped Beta, who was lolling on a couch chewing on a morrak steak she had filched from somewhere, probably the kitchens. "Wouldn't it be natural to follow in her father's pawprints?"
Annira blinked, then frowned. "You could be right, Salli...it's not unusual to take on a parent's career choice, but...why now? Why not in five, ten Cycles time?"
Ruwena answered after a few seconds thought. "I would think that only she will give you the answers you need. Or perhaps her parents. Do what you think is best."
"Thanks...I think." The tired Beta lay back on her bed, staring up at the richly panelled ceiling. Worrying was getting her nowhere. From somewhere down below the ringing of a large bell began to sound, resonating up through the Barryd's walls. "Dinner!" called Ruwena, changing almost instantly from a mild-mannered Dimar to an excitable hatchling. "Come on Annira, Salli. We'll be late!"
Sighing, Annira got off her bed, and followed the others out of the dorms.
The next day Annira was listless and snappy, mostly from worrying all night, and not getting much sleep. At breakfast Jarin caught up with her. "Shnu, you look awful!" was her first comment to her tired friend. She sat down at a table, a plate of a meat porridge in front of her. "Sit down, tell me about it."
Annira did so, sitting opposite her at the large table. Sighing, she looked up at Jarin's expectant face. "You kept me up all night," she muttered darkly.
"I kept you...? We're not even in the same dorm! How do you figure that one out?" The puzzled Arrallin stared at Annira, chewing a mouthful of porridge. After a long silence Jarin swallowed, then nodded in sudden comprehension. "Is this about yesterday? My showing an interest in Mulkai?"
Annira nodded, pushing her own porridge around. "I just don't like to think that you would be, could be so ruthless." She paused for a few seconds, then continued. "We've known each other for, what, three Cycles now? You've never once showed any interest for Mul until now."
Jarin stared thoughtfully at Annira, chewing another mouthful. "You're right," she said. "I don't think I could be that ruthless. I care too much about life and what it's worth to me, you, all of us. Well...perhaps not the Mul, but you know what they're like." She chuckled, managing to coax a small giggle out of her friend. "Don't worry about me," she said in a conciliatory tone. "I just like to be more...active. There's not much action in simply dressing wounds and wrapping bandages, is there?"
"No, but..." Annira protested faintly.
"I get bored if I don't have anything interesting to do, you know that." Jarin took another forkful of porridge and chewed as she thought again. "If it's any consolation, too much blood and guts turns my stomach. You know...decapitated bodies, neck-to-groin slashes...that kind of thing."
Annira seemed to turn an odd shade of green. "Yes, well..." She glanced down at her congealing porridge. "You want this? I think I've lost my appetite." She pushed it in Jarin's direction, and watched as Jarin finished her plate and started on the new one. "I think I'll go...walk in the gardens for a bit. Excuse me..." The Arrallin got up and quickly walked down from the balcony, heading for the dining chamber exit.
Jarin looked after her friend then, shrugging, she went back to consuming the rest of her double breakfast.
When Master Rylin came into the classroom, Annira was already in her seat. "Annira...you're early. None of my students have ever been so eager." He put the short pile of papers he was carrying onto his desk, and sat down behind it. After a minute or two of working silently he looked up. "Anything wrong, Annira? You seem quieter than usual."
"Hmm?" Annira snapped herself back into reality, realising that she'd been asked a question. "Oh, nothing, nothing..." she muttered, thinking to herself how lame that excuse sounded. "I'm just...thinking ahead for today's lesson."
Master Rylin looked at the fidgeting Beta, then got up and padded over to her. "Annira, I know you better than that. What is it?" He sat down at a neighbouring desk, and leaned over in her direction.
"It's Jarin," Annira murmured quietly, not meeting the Master's gaze. "I'm worried that she might want to study Mulkai, be one of the Mul. It's a silly thing to be afraid of, but..." She shrugged, lifting her eyes to look at Master Rylin. "She was so fun to be with, but yesterday..." She told him of the previous day's occurrences, ending with, "I just don't know whether to be concerned or not. My feelings about the whole thing are rather hard to explain..." She trailed off, sighing.
The middle-aged Beta studied Annira's face before replying. "Well, from what you told me, I surmise that this may just be a phase she's going through. I wouldn't worry too much about it. If you have any more problems, or worries, you can always come to me; one of my lesser known talents is being a Guidance Counsellor." He stood up as another student came into the room and went back to his desk with a cursory nod to the person. "Good morning, Herault. Done your homework?"
Annira smiled wryly at the boy's startled expression.
One morning several days later Annira was out in the Botanical Gardens, stopping every couple of metres or so to sniff various flowers. Walking around the far edge of the Gardens, several hundred metres away from the Barryd, she came across a patch of particularly striking blooms. Vivid cobalt petals formed a star-shaped crown, changing to brilliant white in the centre. Deep down in the middle were the flowers' reproductive parts, which were a strange red colour. Sharp-edged yellow-green foliage surrounded the odd plants.
"Funny...I'm sure this wasn't here last time." Annira leaned forward to have a sniff, burying her nose in a vibrant bloom. An overwhelmingly sickly-sweet fragrance set her sensitive nose to itching madly. "Aaargh!" Annira moaned, backing away from the flower, and rubbing at her nose. "That's strong!" Her eyes tearing up from the intense itching, the young Arrallin made her way back toward the Barryd to try and get some antihistamine to stop the itching.
About halfway there she started feeling dizzy, wobbling down the pathways on shaky legs. Peering through blurred eyes, she could make out the fountain ahead. "I think...I'd better sit...down..." Annira thought muzzily, her mind a strangely foggy place.
Just managing to reach the fountain's edge, she sat down, almost falling in from her dizziness. She put her head between her legs, as she had seen humans do when they felt faint, but instead of feeling better, she felt even worse, enough so that she threw up.
Through dimmed hearing, the ill Beta could make out voices, coming closer. Summoning the reserves of her strangely sapped energy, Annira lifted her head, and croaked in a loud whisper, "Help...me..."
With that, Annira blacked out.
She was floating in a surreal world, garish combinations of colour swirling around in a kaleidoscope from a nightmare. Blues, reds, greens, yellows, purples -- every colour from the spectrum warred with her mind's senses, mixing and forming into abstract shapes to haunt her dreamless sleep.
Giant flowers of vibrant blue and white danced a macabre can-can in concentric circles centred around her. As they did so, they laughed, a chilling laugh similar in sound to breaking glass. She cowered from them, tucked up into a ball, shivering from abject terror, murmuring, "No...no...no..."
"She's coming to, thank goodness." Ekai Master Xinaya breathed a sigh of relief, turning to face the girl and Beta who had brought Annira in to the Infirmary. "I shall see that you are rewarded appropriately for this service."
"Thank you, Master Xinaya," murmured the girl, short blond hair bouncing as she nodded. She grabbed her friend's arm and almost pulled her out of the room.
Xinaya chuckled in wry amusement to herself. There was something about the large pink Dimar that seemed to frighten people. Who knew what that quality was?
She turned back to Annira, who was starting to come out of the restless sleep she was in. "Annira," she crooned softly, laying a gentle claw on the Arrallin's shoulder. "Annira."
Annira kept mumbling incoherencies as she tossed and turned in the bed she had been put in, until she opened her eyes and stared with very blurry vision at the pink apparition looming over her.
"Ah, you're with us again," Xinaya said, peering deeply at Annira's eyes, trying to see if any anomalies were present. Other than a somewhat swollen and dry nose, possibly indicative of an allergy, nothing was out of the ordinary. "How are we feeling?"
With difficulty, Annira forced her eyes to focus. "Master Xinaya," she murmured in the barest of whispers. "I feel terrible..."
"I'd imagine you do," Xinaya said, sitting back on her haunches. "Can you tell me anything at all that may help me treat you? I've never seen anything like it." Her tone was calm, clinical, but it had a hint of concern in it. Healers never liked to come across anything new and unknown, for fear that it would be out of their capabilities to treat.
"Uh...flower...blue...Gardens...smell...itch..." The ill Beta tried to think of single words, to save herself the mental effort. The attempt left her exhausted, and she closed her eyes to go back to sleep.
The pink Dimar peered at Annira, and padded away to think. "Blue flower in the Gardens... There's a lot of blue flowers there," she muttered to herself. She looked up off the floor and searched for a handy assistant. "Gerit," she called to a young man with tousled brown hair and worn clothes sitting in a corner reading.
"Yes, Master?" Gerit put down the book he was perusing and came over to Xinaya.
Xinaya nodded appreciatively of his response. "Go find the Head Gardener, and ask him if he could write up a list of all plants with blue flowers in the Gardens...especially those with a strong smell, or possibility of allergic reaction in Arrallins."
Gerit nodded, his green eyes taking in the form on the bed. "Right away, Master." He walked from the room, closing the door behind him.
Xinaya went over to the book Gerit had put down, and looked at the cover. "How appropriate," she murmured. On the cover was a picture of an Arrallin Alpha, with the words 'A Detailed Anatomy'. She leaned against a convenient wall and started reading while she awaited Gerit's return.
She didn't have to wait too long. Gerit hurried in about an hour later, a sheaf of papers in his hand. "Here you go, Master," he said breathlessly, flourishing the pages in Xinaya's direction.
"Thank you." She nodded, taking the papers, then handed over the book. "Keep reading. It may be useful in times to come." She then looked down at the first page, which showed a carefully sketched flower, in colour, plus the relevant notes. Flicking through the other pages, she was pleased at the thoroughness of the notes, and the quality of the drawings. "Perhaps she could identify the plant from these," she muttered rhetorically.
She set the pages next to Annira's bed, and sat back to watch her sleep. There was something soothing in doing that, she found.
Jarin was somewhat more distracted than usual in Nakai class, as Master Rylin found out. "Jarin...Jarin!"
"Hmm?" Jarin looked around. "What?"
"Stop daydreaming and listen! There'll be a test on this, you realise."
Feeling her classmates staring at her, Jarin blushed slightly. "Sorry, Master Rylin. I just can't help worrying about Annira...it's not like her to miss a class." She idly starting digging her name into the wood of the desk as her mind wandered yet again.
Rylin nodded. "Yes, it is certainly rather unusual. Perhaps she's sick? Anyway, back to the lesson...if I could just remember what it was I was talking about." He turned back to the board to see what he had written. "Ah, yes! Key signatures. Now, as I was saying, the key of F Major has one flat, here on the B line..."
Jarin concentrated more on carving her name than the lesson, as well as pondering where Annira could be. In all the time she had known her, Annira had never been sick. Well, she had once had a cold, but that was just a nuisance. And she had never gone missing either...
"Awake again, I see," said Xinaya, watching Annira open her eyes again a few hours later. "How do you feel?"
"Like I'm going to throw up...otherwise fine," the ill Arrallin muttered sourly. She glanced around the room, examining the rich panelling in the walls, noting the bright light from somewhere overhead. "Infirmary?" she guessed. She'd never actually been in the infirmary, having never been injured or sick enough to warrant a visit.
Xinaya nodded her large pink head gracefully. "Indeed it is. I wonder..." She reached to the table by the bedside and picked up a sheaf of papers. "...if you'd be able to identify the flower you sniffed from these. If you feel up to it, of course."
Annira nodded, then immediately felt another wave of disorientation wash over her. "Ooh...bad idea," she murmured to herself. "I'm fine," she said, smiling a little bit. She tried to sit herself up, but Xinaya restrained her gently. "Here's the first one," she said, putting the paper in front of her.
"No, that's not it," Annira said, gesturing for the next one. "Or this."
In about fifteen minutes they had gone through the entire stack. "None of those is the flower I sniffed. Could it perhaps be a new one that hasn't been catalogued?" Annira scratched her nose lightly. It still itched madly.
"Mmm...could be a possibility. Can you remember where it was? I might just go have a look for myself."
Annira screwed up her face in thought, her closed eyes disappearing into the black mask of her fur. "It's somewhere in the corner most distant from the Barryd. It has some yellow flowers to its left, and purple ones on the right. Does that help?" She opened her eyes to look at Xinaya.
Xinaya nodded. "That should be sufficient. Will you be all right while I go out and look? Gerit's here if you need anything." She waved an arm in his direction.
Annira looked over, and saw a young man with untidy hair reading a book on Arrallin anatomy. "I'll be fine. I'm still rather drained, but not enough to go back to sleep. Do you have any good books in here? Maybe something on disease and such like."
"I've plenty of books on the shelves," Xinaya laughed, padding over to one and selecting a book bounded in morrak leather dyed red. "This should keep you occupied -- and maybe give you a head-start on your classmates." She handed the book to Annira, and turned to head out the door. "I'll be back soon, Gerit," she called to the apprentice. She whuffled in amusement at his non-committal wave and "Hmm, yeah, whatever," before leaving the infirmary to go topside and do some botanical exploration.
Xinaya nodded acknowledgment to the various people she met wandering the Gardens, Dimar, Arrallin and human alike, as she made her way purposefully toward the far edge. "Master Xinaya!" Someone from behind called her name, and she turned to greet the caller. "Jarin. What can I do for you?"
Jarin panted as she ran to catch up to the graceful Dimar. "Master...have you seen...Annira today? She wasn't in...class, and it's not...like her to miss one, so...I thought she might be sick. Is she?"
"Why, she is, yes," Xinaya replied, looking down at the diminutive Arrallin. "You'll find her in the infirmary, but..." Jarin was already racing back to the Barryd before she managed to say, "she might be resting..." She sighed, shook her head with amusement, and resumed her walk.
Reaching the tall hedge surrounding the Gardens, Xinaya looked around, then headed off to the left, inspecting the colourful blooms warily, as if at any moment one might leap out and attack her.
Reds, white, yellows, oranges...all melded together into a mosaic of beauty as Xinaya meandered down the path. Rounding a corner she came across a patch of yellow and purple together. Right in the middle was a small area of brilliant blue flowers, with white centres. "Bingo," she muttered to herself, stepping closer to better examine the plants.
She put her muzzle close to one of the flowers, and carefully sniffed, very gently. "Oh, my," Xinaya thought to herself, backing away quickly, breathing deeply of the clear air to rid her nasal passages of the uncommonly sweet fragrance. She scratched idly at the end of her muzzle, then a bit harder. "Damn," she muttered crossly. "This is definitely the one." She glared through slightly teary eyes at the innocent-looking flower.
Hearing soft footfalls, she turned and saw a young Dimar with light green fur and a dark green underbelly wandering along. "Excuse me," she said as the youngling came within hearing range. "Could you please fetch me the Head Gardener? I have something important to show him." She shot another look at the blue blooms. "Quickly now."
The slightly surprised Dimar nodded, and turned up another path to seek out the person she wanted. Most likely he would be in his shed, pottering around with new varieties of plants.
She had been waiting only a few minutes when the Head Gardener made his appearance, hurrying along as fast as he could manage. He was an Arrallin of some of some twenty-five Cycles, and had a lot of whitening fur, standing out from his normal brown and tawny stripes. "Yes," he panted as he jogged up to the Ekai Master. "What is it?"
"This, Kinal," she said, pointing at the offending bloom. "Apparently it's a new type, as it didn't appear in your records."
"Really? How odd..." Kinal moved forward to take a closer look. "Be careful!" warned Xinaya. "It made a young Arrallin very sick this morning. Don't, whatever you do, smell it."
Kinal raised his head, and stared at Xinaya. "Really?" he exclaimed again. "How odd..." He examined the plant again, not getting close enough to get a whiff of its incapacitating scent.
Suddenly a thought occurred to Xinaya. "The pollen! That could be part of the problem too! Kinal, I want this plant removed. Put it in a safe place where no-one but yourself can get to it. While you're at it, see if you can figure out what it is about this plant that is so toxic, or where it came from."
The Gardener took a pair of secateurs from a belt around his waist, and clipped one of the blooms from its stalk. "Aye, ma'am. I'll do that now."
"Something is all wrong about this, but I can't put a claw on it..." Xinaya tapped her muzzle with a claw in a gesture she had adopted from the Humans. "I'm sure it will all make sense in the end. I'll leave it up to you, then," she said to Kinal in leaving.
As she wandered off back to the Barryd, Xinaya couldn't help feeling that there was something slightly more sinister behind it. On the other hand, maybe that was an attitude gained from the mystery novels she'd read by some creative humans.
"There you are!" Jarin came bounding in through the infirmary door exuberantly, almost pouncing on Annira where she lay. "What happened to you? I've been worried sick...well, worried to distraction, anyway. Rylin gave me some extra homework for not paying attention in class today. I've been looking everywhere for you! I bumped into Master Xinaya, and she told me you were here."
"Nice to see you too, Jarin," Annira replied, feeling exhausted by her friend's energy. "I was wandering around the Gardens, and I came across this new flower. I had a sniff...and ended up here." She waved one arm around at her surroundings.
The young Alpha blinked at Annira. "Really? It must have been one heck of an allergy you had." She hopped up onto the bed, and made herself comfortable. "What are you reading?" She took the book from the Beta's hands. "Hmm...diseases? What, you're planning to fake some of the symptoms of a deadly disease? Actually...I should read it myself. Possible excuses for getting out of class, you know."
"You're incorrigible, you know that?" Annira stared pointedly at Jarin. "One of these days you'll end up in the Muck Room." She twisted her muzzle into a grin. "Perhaps I should volunteer you -- you might learn some common sense in there."
"Don't even think about it," threatened Jarin, with a mock frown on her face. "I've had the tour, thank you very much, and it's not my idea of a working holiday."
"From what you just told me, it sounds as if you don't work anyway."
Jarin poked her tongue out at her friend. "Throw my words back in my teeth, why don't you?" She frowned when Annira started laughing. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing, nothing," Annira said, calming down. She took the book back from Jarin, folded a page corner over a little bit to mark her place, then closed it. "So, what have I missed today? Anything interesting?"
"Um...well, in Nakai we learned about key signatures, though I wasn't really paying much attention to the lesson. We had a substitute for Ekai -- I guess because Master Xinaya was occupied with you. We had a test for that -- you can make it up when you're out of here. In Telkai we saw the effects of genetics gone wrong -- not an actual example, mind you, just pictures -- but still...have you ever seen a horn growing from the back of the head? Creepy..."
Jarin babbled on, Annira nodding once in a while to show she was listening. Finally she'd had enough of the chatter. "All right, Jarin, you can stop now. I'll sort it all out when I'm better, all right? Actually, I am feeling somewhat better, though my nose still itches like crazy." To prove her point she sneezed.
"Ew! Yuck!" Jarin exclaimed, throwing herself backward to avoid the blast.
"Don't worry, it was a dry sneeze," Annira said. She leaned back in the bed, picking up the book again. "As much as I like your company...would you mind..." She gestured toward the door. "Unless you'd care to join me in reading a book? I believe there's some more on diseases in the bookcases somewhere."
"Really? Hmm..." The young Alpha jumped off the bed and went over to a bookcase. "Great! They're arranged by subject and author! Convenient..." Jarin muttered as she scanned along each shelf, ending with an "Aha!" She plucked a book bound in deep green leather out of the shelf. "This one looks interesting," she said, coming back to the bed and sitting down on it again. "Common Diseases -- A-L." She opened the book at its first page, and began reading silently.
Annira smiled, and resumed reading hers.
When Master Xinaya came back into the infirmary a few minutes later, she found two young Arrallins ensconced in and on the bed, both occupied with reading. Gerit, in his corner, was still reading his anatomical text. "Ah, I see you found Annira just fine, then."
Both looked up at Xinaya's entrance. "Oh...hi, Master Xinaya," Jarin said, going back to her reading.
"I found that plant," Xinaya declared, padding over to the bed and sitting on her haunches. "I got the same effects you did, only I was smart enough not to take a big whiff of it. Kinal's taking care of it."
"Who?" Annira peered at the pink Dimar in query.
"The Head Gardener. He's never seen it before either. Right this minute he's removing the plant and putting it somewhere safe for future examination." She tapped her muzzle again with a claw. "I'm sure there's something about it that just doesn't ring true. 'Where did it come from?' comes to mind first."
Jarin and Annira shared a glance with each other. "Have you been reading Lucith's mysteries again?" asked Jarin. A sheepish nod answered her question. "Maybe we could investigate, like private detectives..."
"By the way, Annira. How do you feel? Well enough to leave?"
"Actually...I don't feel too bad. The worst of the effects have worn off. All I have now, really, is just an itchy nose."
The Ekai Master nodded. "Well, when you're ready, you're free to go back to your dorm. Oh, and take the books with you." Looking at Jarin she said smugly, "And Jarin: Most of those diseases are somewhat rare, and I'm not going to accept 'I have erythromatosis' as an excuse for getting out of class."
"Damn," muttered Jarin, blushing slightly. "It's still good reading, though." She removed herself from the bed at Annira. "I'd better be off. I still have that homework to do." She poked her tongue out in disgust. "Catch you later."
Annira raised her eyes. "Bye, Jarin." To Master Xinaya she said, "After I finish this chapter I'll leave. I'm sure I've got catch up work to get. Do you have any antihistamines for this itching? I've managed not to scratch it this long, but it's driving me nuts."
Xinaya smiled, and opened a cupboard full of small bottles. Taking one down, she passed it to Annira. "These should help. One every six hours until the itching stops. Return the remainder when you're done with them."
"Thanks." Annira took the bottle, swallowed one of the small tablets inside, then resumed reading while Xinaya started checking her inventory, removing medications that were past their best. A few minutes later Annira shut her book, then made to get out of bed. "I'll be off now, if that's all right?"
"Sure. Go ahead. Any more problems, come to me." Xinaya nodded her head in acknowledgment. "When I find out more about that plant, I'll tell you."
Annira stepped onto the floor, wobbled slightly until she got her balance back, then walked out the door.
The next day Annira was in her dorm, working on the last of her homework when Ruwena traipsed in. "Feeling all right?" she asked, though she'd asked the same question a few hours ago.
"I'm fine! I've lost track of how many times I've said that!" Annira looked up, frowning in annoyance.
Ruwena smoothed down the dark green fur on her neck, and went to her personal space, which consisted of a large mattress-like pad, and a small chest in which she held a few personal effects. "Well, excuse me for asking."
Annira sighed. "Sorry. I'm just getting sick of everyone asking me that wretched question so often. Anyone would think I haven't been sick before."
"You haven't, really," Ruwena replied, lying down on her padding, and taking a book out of her chest.
"Hmm...yes, I think you're right." The Beta finished off her homework, and put it down on the floor next to her bed. "What's the time?"
"Um...about two hours before dinner, I think. Why?"
"No reason. I'm just bored." Annira lay back on the bed, then got up. "I'm going for a swim in the lake. Want to join me?"
"What? In the middle of winter?" Ruwena's eyes went wide with surprise.
Annira made a flippant gesture with one hand. "A little cold water never hurt anybody. Suit yourself. I'll see you at dinner." With a shake of her head, she padded out of the dorm to head downstairs.
Her fur still wet from her chilly, but invigorating, swim, Annira was passing through the courtyard when she heard the words 'blue flower' mentioned in a low whisper. She stopped, looking around, her ears swivelling side to side to pinpoint where the words had come from. Deciding it had come from somewhere near the 'Barryd's Nectar', she headed in that direction.
"Aha," Annira thought silently when she heard some suspicious sniggering coming from behind the Nectar. She carefully poked her head around the corner, and saw a dark brown Mul Dimar and an Alpha with thick black stripes chuckling in what seemed to her a not-very-nice laugh.
They were quite a distance away, so she had to strain her hearing to catch what they were saying. What she heard confirmed her suspicions.
"That was a brilliant prank you engineered," the Alpha was saying over the Mul's snickering. "Who would think that such a beautiful plant could be so irritating?"
Annira frowned, her eyebrows furrowing into one. As much as she'd like to confront them, she figured more authoritative measures might prove more profitable. She slunk away, wondering who to tell. "Master Xinaya," she said to herself, padding away quickly to find her.
"Really? Can you describe these people?" Xinaya asked after Annira had finished explaining what she'd heard.
"Um...one was a brown Mul -- I'm pretty sure he's the only one in the Barryd -- and a Beta with really thick black stripes. I'd never seen them before, so I can't help with names."
Xinaya tapped her muzzle thoughtfully. "I believe I've come across them a time or two. The Mul might be from Illadinal, I think. The Beta I could only assume came from Keevarin." She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. "I'll ask the other Masters, and some of the students. We'll soon get to the root of the problem. Oh dear," she said, ears wiggling sheepishly in laughter. "That was a terrible pun, wasn't it? Root? Plant?"
Annira just stared at Xinaya. "Uh...sure, whatever." She beat a hasty retreat, lest Xinaya think she was funny.
She found Jarin, after a lengthy search of most of the Barryd, in the Herb Garden, as the day was creeping into dusk. "What on Dimar are you doing here?" she asked. "This is the last place I would have thought to find you."
Jarin looked up from the book she was reading. "It's quiet here, and I wanted to continue this book. That, and it smells nice." To prove her point she inhaled deeply, let her nose process the different scents, then exhaled loudly. "Wonderful," she commented. Then, "What about you? Why were you looking for me?"
"I found out that that flower was just a huge prank," Annira said, sitting down beside Jarin. "I overheard the culprits talking earlier. I hope they get the Muck Room for a while -- or maybe they should get a taste of their own medicine. The only problem at the moment is that I don't know who they are." She frowned, then looked up at the sky. "It's getting dark if you hadn't noticed."
"Hmm? Oh, it is too." Jarin shut her book and stood up, stretching herself. In the Barryd the dinner bell began to ring. Being so close to the Dining Chamber, it was rather loud to both Arrallins, who winced until the bell ceased to toll. "Ouch."
As they turned to enter the Barryd through the kitchen (though the kitchen entrance was supposed to be used only by kitchen staff), Jarin stopped, looking thoughtful. "I have an idea. I have a friend who's a talented sketcher. Perhaps if us and her went around looking for...whoever they are...she could draw them so we could identify them later." She cocked her head at Annira to see how she took that idea.
"That could work..." she mused, "and we could show the pictures around to see if people know them."
Jarin nodded, and resumed walking into the kitchen. Annira was about to follow when the young Alpha was stopped by an officious-looking Dimar in blue and white stripes. "And where do you think you're going?" Her voice fair boomed out, stopping Jarin in her tracks.
"Whoops. Snapped," muttered Jarin under her breath.
"If you're going to go through here, you might consider becoming a kitchen helper, hmm?" The Dimar may have acted all pompous and commanding, but Annira could see from the slight wiggling of her ears that she was having a bit of fun at Jarin's expense. "I'm sure we have an opening for a pot-scrubber, or a stew-stirrer."
The young Arrallin backed away a few steps hurriedly. "Um...as much fun as that sounds...I'll pass, thank you. Come on, Annira," she said as grabbed her friend by the arm to pull her in the direction of the other exit.
Looking back over her shoulder, Annira saw the big Dimar's ears wiggling furiously in laughter, and smiled back before she disappeared from view.
The next day Annira was up bright and early. Today was a rest day, so there were no classes held. Waiting for Jarin to join her, she tucked into some more of the delicious meat porridge that was such a popular feature of the kitchen's menu.
She was about halfway through when Jarin arrived, a young girl in tow. "Sorry I'm late, but I had to wait for Shari to wake up. Oh, Shari, this is Annira. Annira, Shari. There -- we know each other." The young Alpha gestured for Shari to sit down, then dashed off to fetch some breakfast for her and Shari.
Annira studied the girl sitting across from her. Extremely blond hair, almost white, with a streak of red running through the right half; bright emerald eyes, which she privately thought must be Telkai-assisted; a thin-lipped mouth, currently quirked in a smile. Her clothing was of a fine weave, a royal blue dress with a white V-neck. "So..." began Annira, "Jarin tells me you're a talented artist."
Shari nodded. "I guess so." Her voice was surprisingly deep. "I paint more often than I draw." She pulled from a pocket somewhere on her dress a small pad, which she passed over to Annira. "Here are some of my drawings."
Flicking through the pages, Annira was impressed by the girl's expertise. People talking idly in the courtyard, interesting architectural designs, plants, landscapes -- the pad was full of detailed art. She passed the pad back, nodding appreciatively. "Very good! Would you consider doing me sometime? I have the nila for a painting somewhere too..." Idly she tried to remember where she'd put it, scratching at one ear in thought.
"I'd be happy to," the girl replied, smiling even broader. "I'm studying to be a Master, and I could do with the commissions."
Jarin came back then with toast and fruit juice for Shari, and the porridge for herself. "Gotten acquainted yet?" she asked as she dug into her breakfast.
"We have, yes," answered Annira in amusement. Such a nosy person, she thought. "Shari just showed me what's she's capable of."
"I told you she was good." After nearly a minute of silent eating Shari spoke up. "Do you have any ideas on where to start looking for the subjects in question?"
Annira and Jarin glanced at each other. "Um...not really. We were just going to walk around until we found them," Annira said.
Shari stared at them both. "Well, that's not very efficient, is it? Wouldn't it be better to recruit more people to look?"
"But only I've seen them. No-one else would know who to look for," Annira protested.
"Good point," Shari mused. "But a Mul that colour can't be that common, surely? Someone's bound to have seen him, and I'd imagine that where you'll find the Mul you'll find the other."
"Well, I suppose so," Annira said, marvelling at this girl's logical faculties.
Shari nodded. "Say we rope in...five people each. That's eighteen people to look, including us. Eventually one of us will find who we're looking for, and tell the rest their location. Sound good?" She picked up her glass of juice and drank half of it, then moved onto her toast while she waited for an answer.
"I guess so." Annira glanced at Jarin to see what she thought, although she was pretty sure she'd agree with pretty much anything that was said.
The Alpha was just finishing off her meat porridge, and she answered after she had licked her muzzle clean of any residue. "I'm up for it. Speaking of which, shall we go now? Might as well get an early start." The other two nodded, standing up, having completed their breakfasts.
Annira led the way down from the balcony into the massive dining chamber. Even for such a small Barryd, this chamber, where most of the Barryd's population gathered at one point or another in the day to eat and talk, it was still comparable in size to the ones in full Barryds.
She stepped off the small flight of stairs, and headed for the doorway. Just as she was about to step through it, a large Mul traipsed in, almost knocking her over. Annira didn't pay much attention to start with, until the Mul was followed a few seconds later by an Arrallin Alpha little older than herself.
When Jarin came up from behind, Annira grabbed her friend and hissed into her ear, "That's them!" She pointed in the culprits' general direction. Jarin followed Annira's peremptory finger and indeed saw a dark brown Mul with an Alpha. "Great!" she said. "Now we just have to get a Master here to help..." Jarin looked around for a convenient Master, saw none, and had an idea. Seeing Ruwena on the far side of the room, eating from half a morrak carcass, she padded over in her direction.
"Ruwena, could you do me and Annira a favour?" she asked as she drew near. "We need you to bespeak Master Xinaya for us."
The green Dimar swallowed the mouthful she was working on, and nodded. "Sure. Any particular reason?"
"Annira was the victim of a nasty prank, and we've just found the people who engineered it. Those two over there." She waved an arm in the proper direction.
Ruwena nodded, and assumed the slight trance-like expression that meant she was Mind-speaking someone. "She'll be along right away," she said after a few moments, ears wiggling in amusement. "This will be right up her path, what with all those mysteries she's been reading. 'I believe it was those two, with the flower, in the Gardens!'"
Jarin laughed, wrinkling her muzzle up into a grin. "It certainly is, and was." Her eyes scanned the room, from Annira, to the Mul and Alpha, to the doorway where hopefully any second Master Xinaya would walk through.
Annira was a little surprised by Xinaya's arrival, but she lost no time in explaining the situation.
"Ah, I see them,' the pink Dimar said, ears wiggling slowly. "Come along, and we'll see what they have to say for themselves." She padded firmly away, nodding pleasantly at others who moved out of her way.
"Excuse me, you two," she said in a friendly tone of voice when she reached them. Out of the corner of her eyes she noticed Annira, Jarin and Shari move closer to hear the confrontation. "Could I have a few words with you about a certain horticultural project?"
'Nice touch,' Annira thought, watching the expression on the Alpha's and the Mul's faces turn from haughty confidence to uncomfortable grins. 'Like cornered morrak.'
"Ah...yes, sure," said the Alpha, trying to recover some of his lost bravado. His eyes scanned his surroundings, noting the presence of three others, two of which looked rather accusingly at him.
Xinaya sat back on her haunches, eyeing the Alpha, then the Mul. "Firstly, your names? I can't say I've had the pleasure of meeting you personally until now."
The Mul spoke up this time. "I'm Leron, and this is Perilan. If this is about that blue StarFlower we created, then we are indeed the guilty party." His tone was sombre, and he bowed his head submissively. "Whatever punishment you decide, we deserve, and will carry out."
Xinaya looked crestfallen. She hadn't expected them -- or at least one of them -- to acquiesce so easily. Having had most of the impetus of a looming tirade removed, she was at a bit of a loss for words. "Well," she said after some thought, "at least now we know what to call the thing. What on Dimar possessed you to pull such a stunt? Surely you knew that it might cause some harm? Annira here," and Xinaya waved a paw in her direction, "was very ill for a few hours. Headache, vomiting, itching..." She trailed off, watching their expressions.
Perilan nodded, shooting a dark look at Leron for giving up so easily. "We didn't mean to make it so...obnoxious to anyone. It was originally meant to be just for show, but somehow we managed to breed into it a really powerful fragrance, so much so that it would cause nausea in most people who smelled it. The pollen was a little more planned. So many people seem to suffer from allergies to pollen that we thought it would be a great joke to come up with a pollen that everyone would be susceptible to. We never actually tested it on ourselves, so we had no idea it would be so strong."
Xinaya nodded. "I see," she said. "So all in all it was a joke that backfired slightly, yes?" Two nods answered her question. Her next one was directed to Annira. "What do you think would be a suitable punishment? Within reason, of course."
Annira thought. The Muck Room seemed a little harsh; after all, it was only just a joke, however misguided it was. "How about a taste of their own medicine? Let them have a sniff, and see how they like it." She said it with a certain amount of satisfaction.
Both Leron and Perilan winced visibly. "If we must," Leron murmured, bowing his head again.
"Very well. Meet me in the infirmary in...half an hour. I'll bring one of the flowers with me. At least you'll have medical attention, should you need it, close at hand." Xinaya nodded to the Arrallin and the Mul, then turned and made her way out of the Chamber.
Annira approached the two, and looked each of them in the eyes. "I just want you to know that I forgive your error in judgement. Jokes have their time and place -- that just didn't happen to be one of them." She smiled then, and turned to her friends. "Well, I guess we have a whole day ahead of us to enjoy. Any suggestions?"
"A walk round the Gardens," suggested Shari, her eyes sparkling, and grinning with amusement.
"Ha ha," Annira said, chuckling wryly. "I'll just settle for having a portrait done, if you have the time? Perhaps Jarin could join me -- I'll pay for it."
"Sure!" Jarin agreed. "I didn't really have anything fascinating to do, anyway. Why not sit still for hours on end being drawn or painted?"
The trio started walking toward the exit, leaving behind them two rather disgruntled practical jokers stewing in their own juices.