Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Stone that Sings 9: The Matron of Summer

After a week, the Initiate T’Sana told the novices the sandstorm had ended, and that once cleanup was over, daily duties were to be resumed. Among many of the novices, there was a sense of restrained relief. Three days before, the monastery’s power had stopped, turning familiar corridors into a silent, lightless maze.

Juliette had stood breathless, trapped in the sudden darkness when the collective dismay of every Vulcan in the facility crashed into her, toppling her against a wall which she clung helplessly, fighting the undertow of sudden emotion, her eyes clenched tight.

The roar ebbed to a stillness intensified by the loss of the ever-present hum that was the mechanical pulse of the monastery. Without circulation, the air settled thick and hot about Juliette as rested her head against the wall. When she opened her eyes and found no more light than when they were closed. After some fumbling her fingers grasped the small light secure inside her sleeve. It stuttered, then flickered, and finally held, the amber glow joining the other motes that floated through the darkness. The initiates’ calm refrain, “Novices, return to your cells.” echoed down the halls.

On the way back, she sensed a swirl of surprise and confusion down another hall. There, she found a novice shuffling along the wall, groping for the emergency light cabinet. The novice’s apprehension faded to relief at the sight of her light, then back toward caution when he realized it was her. The novice had courteously thanked her; Juliette gracefully accepted.

Initiate Pylkau had been adamant she was not allowed near the holo-projectors systems until she had completed Master Surot’s first task of replenishing the zattre stocks. The other novices decided they would volunteer to operate the sand blowers instead. Even among the Initiates, Danek was the only one who volunteered.

Danek stepped forward. “I will accompany Novice Sri.”

T’Sana looked sidelong at Juliette, then back to Danek. “That hardly seems proper, traipsing around the desert unescorted.” 

“It is far more proper than sending Novice Sri to collect zattre by herself. She is a guest of my family.”

“I suppose that does make you responsible,” T’Sana said with a gravity that implied deeper responsibility than gathering zattre.

They arranged to meet in the courtyard the following day, and Juliette arrived early, eager to be out and feel real air. She arrived before Danek, but was not alone and she watched a team of novices wrestle with the tarnished hulk of a sand blower, its dingy hoses bucking with each mound of sand it gulped down, only to be spit out over the wall by another team holding yet another hose. A heavy clump of sand caused the exhaust hose to tear free from the novices’ hands, and it flailed about. With a whiplike flick, a novice sprawled backward. Despite his discipline, Juliette felt his sudden pain and surprise. 

She rushed forward to the fallen Vulcan while another pair of novices tackled the thrashing hose. She helped the tall Vulcan back to his feet. He wobbled dizzily, his nose bent at a bad angle gushed a tributary of olive blood that mixed that from his torn lip to pooled at his chin and soaked the front of his robe.

“I’ll help you to the infirmary.”

Her voice brought his attention back and he took a staggered back from her. “I will go myself.”

“But you’re--”

Another took the injured Vulcan’s arm. She shouted through her dust-caked mask, “We shall take care of it, Novice.” and hauled the other away without as much of a glance in her direction.

Juliette sat and sulked to the far corner of the courtyard, part of her cheering for the obstinate sand blower, but worried at each plume of dust that escaped its weathered seams that someone might really get hurt. By the time Danek arrived with a pair of shovels and some cloth sacks, her mood was sour and dark.

Isn’t it silly to have a courtyard if it's only going to get filled up with sand every time it storms?” 

“During the time of awakening, much of the mountain was destroyed. This chamber used to be inside the mountain.”

Juliette ooked back to the red haze of the courtyard, and tried to imagine it as just another chamber within the rock, then torn open to the sky. “Their weapons to destroyed part of the mountain?” 

“Our weapons nearly destroyed everything.”

Juliette huddled in her robe. “That’s crazy.”

“It was Vulcan before we embraced logic,” Danek said as he held a small lump of moss to Juliette. ”This is Orrus. Be careful not to crush it. It releases a chemical that stings. We will burn it to drive Kli’mari away from their stores of zattre.”

Juliette examined the dry bramble in her hand. Everything on Vulcan seemed to be poisonous, caustic or stung. She looked back to the chaos in the courtyard. Everything.

Danek pushed back the sand drift with his foot in the doorway. The switchbacks were still in shadow; the sun just started to peek over the horizon. He paused and pointed to a myriad of tracks in the silt and outlined a large set. “Look, that’s--”


Juliette matched his look of surprise with a shrug. She spread her fingers out and hovered the heel of her hand over the track. Her hand was not even half the length of the track.

Danek said, “Sehlat do not usually come so close to the monastery.”

“Can we follow her?”

“It. And no, we are going out to gather zattre.”

Juliette sighed. “Yes, Initiate Danek.” 

The outcropping shimmered in the early morning glow. Juliette squinted. “Oh, I like how that rock shimmers.”

“It’s not. Those are Kli’mari crawling on the surface.”

Juliette sighed. “Do they bite or sting?”

“Only if the detect us. Watch out for the scouts. They blend in with the ground--”

“There’s one,” Juliette said, pointing. “And there, and there.”

Danek squinted toward the ground. “I do not see them.”

“I don’t see them yet either.”

Danek arched a brow.

Juliette approached the closest scout. Its carapace made it appear as any of the stones that littered the plain. It whirled toward Juliette as she knelt, rearing back on four spindly legs with its two others held high, baring a twin set of curved mandibles far too large for its small head. It lunged, scrabbling across the rocky ground. 

Danek flicked the insect aside with the flat of a shovel. “I suggest caution. Their bites are quite painful. Move slowly, and look for a line of them marching, their zattre stores will be nearb--”

Juliette pointed. “Over there.” 

“Fine, we’ll follow that.”

While his tone was even -- almost casual -- his annoyance prickled against her. “I thought you wanted help.”

“Your assistance is not unappreciated, just I do not wish to return to the monastery early. To do so is to be put be put to work with a sand blower.”

“Oh,” Juliette said, fidgeting with her fingers. She was ruining his plans without even trying. “Well, it is important that I learn more about Vulcan.”

Danek thought for a moment. “I do not think that could be disputed. Though we must be honest to not seem improper. Let us gather the zattre, and then we can practice Federation Standard--”


“And Vulcan. We could even go back home, and help clean up from the storm.”

Juliette frowned. “I thought you were trying to avoid blowing sand.”

“I am trying to avoid blowing sand at the monastery. Home is different, and since it won’t be storming this time, father can take us back to the monastery in the hover.”

A chance to be useful -- even helpful, and P’nem wasn’t all nervous around her. Juliette warmed to the idea.

The line of Kli’mari led to a small outcropping of squat woody shrubs with deeply ridged bark. One by one, slender Kli’mari marched up the side, and into a small hole burrowed into the barrel-like trunk, alternating with plump ones squeezing their way out.

“They use the water and partially-digested pulp from the Dornyal to make zattre.”

Juliette wrinkled her nose a moment, then shrugged. “It still tastes good.”

“Agreed. We’ll find their storage nearby.” He rose and followed the line of plump Kli’mari to a hole in the ground. Those that left were thinner than those that went in. Danek took his Orrus and held a firestarter to it. The dry moss smoked heavily and Danek shoved it into the hole.

Juliette noticed a puff of dark smoke puff from the ground and a frantic stream of Kli’mari. She watched fascinated until the stream thinned to a trickle. Danek handed Juliette another shovel and they scraped away layers of the hard ground. Danek had her stop as he scraped more gently, revealing a ridged, pulpy bladder. He reached down, twisted at the top, and pulled. It wobbled in his hands.

“You have to make sure to tie off the end of the zattre’kack carefully or it -- Juliette, you should pay attention.”

The words caught in her throat. I feel like we’re being watched. But the sense was distant, hazy. If she told Danek, he might want to go back to the monastery. “Oh yes, I’m sorry, I was just looking.”

“At what?”

“At everything.”

Danek finished tying off the zattre’kack. “I find it quite beautiful myself -- especially after being inside so long because of the storms. To the east are a network of caves, that because of background radiations cannot be scanned easily. We are still trying to map them all.”

“Could we--”

“We do not have the time, nor the means to protect ourselves around the caves. Perhaps another time, between sessions at the monastery.”

Other feelings mixed with the attention that nagged at the back of her mind. Caution. Hunger.

Juliette set her Orus clump over the remnants of Danek’s until it caught, reviving the thin trail of smoke that flowed into the hole before she reached into the dirt and hauled out two more bladders from the ground, covered in dust.

“We have enough zattre.”

“Does it spoil?”

“No, but we need to leave enough for the Kli’mari.”

“I felt dozens of sacks.”

“That doesn’t mean we should be greedy.”

“I know,” She placed the third bladder on the ground. “Can we go now?”

“Or wasteful,” Danek said, his face etched with a frown as the bladder oozed a dense, ebony puddle.

“It won’t. Some animal might find it. They might be hungry.”

Danek crossed his arms, and surveyed the horizon. “I do not see any hungry animals about.”

Juliette grabbed his sleeve and tugged him in a promising direction -- one away from being observed. “No, you don’t.”

Even with the sun barely over the horizon, its heat brought cobalt-finned lizards lizards from under their rocks to bask and flash their salmon bellies to the in search of a mate. Naturally, the most dazzling were the most venomous. Juliette and Danek traded standard and Vulcan words and phrases until the sun smouldered in the sky and they followed the dusty trail back toward the house. By the time they approached the mesa. The first waves of heat rippled over the plain as the sound of insects baked away to a blistered silence.

“Do you hear...singing?”

“What? No.”

“Yes, I hear music, and singing.” After a moment, Danek winced slightly. “Bad singing. I think it’s for you.”

“What does it say?”

Danek shook his head but walked faster. Soon, what started as a keening in the desert heat settled into words.

Juliette Sri! Juliette Sri
I’m the box, the box for thee!
It's a special day, as all can see,
Because I’m a gift for Juliette Sri.

“It’s a gift box,” Juliette said with a groan, staggering to a slower pace along the dusty trail.

“You do not sound happy to receive it.”

Juliette rolled her eyes. “They’re for children.”

The box repeated the refrain as it squatted near the front door. On the front, a moon-face was embossed in gold and bronze. Its wide smile broadened as they approached.

“Oh Joy! People! Are one of you, Juliette Sri, perhaps?” It asked in singsong tones.

“I am, so you can signing.”

“How can I not sing, when it’s such a wonderful day! I have found Juliette Sri! Juliette Sri, Juliette Sri--”

“Does it always sing?” Danek asked.

“Constantly. Box, Please stop signing.”

“I can see why my mother left it outside.” Danek said.

“No one was home,” the box said. “So here I waited for Juliette Sri--Juliette Sri --”

Juliette and Danek exchanged a look. “It is unusual that she is not home.” He said.

“Help me get it inside, then I’ll find out how to turn it off.”

Danek had a far easier time with his end than Juliette had with hers, but at least she convinced the box to hum instead of sing as they bounced and rattled it down the hallway to her room. With a heave, they managed to get it perched on a small table where it grinned at them expectantly.

“I will see if mother left any messages,” Danek said while Juliette carefully searched the outside of the merrily humming box.

“How do I turn you off?”

“Only Juliette Sri has the key to turn off me!”

“I’m Juliette Sri! Now shut up!”

“You do not have the key, pseudo Sri!”

Juliette pinched the bridge of her nose. “Where is the key?”

The box opened its moon-mouth wide, like a baby bird.

“The key is in your mouth?”

“Ah Hagh.” It nodded, keeping its mouth wide open.

Juliette grimaced and stepped back from the box. “That’s disgusting.” She decided to ignore it and washed the zattre and sand off her hands. 

It hummed open-mouthed. Loudly. Juliette continued to ignore it, and concentrated on rinsing the zattre from her robe. 

The box paused for an exaggerated breath and continued its open mouth sceneade. Juliette glared in the mirror and frowned at her bowl-cut hair, trying to brush it into a different shape.

Behind her, the box continued its song.

“Fine!” She said, storming to the box. She shoved her hand into its mouth, groping round the wet insides for a key.

Its teeth clamped around her wrist. 

Juliette shrieked, as something wet and leathery slathered over her hand between her fingers. She clenched her fist and the slimy tongue slide out of her grasp. Juliette screamed again, hammering the box with the brush in her free hand.


The box grunted with each smack of the brush across its face. The brush splintered into plastic shards that zinged across the room. Juliette jerked backward, the table wobbled dangerously as she pulled. With a loud smacking sound, the box released. Juliette tumbled backward, stumbling over the meditation bench. She fell backward on the floor, staring at her hand as it dripped with a clear, viscous fluid.

She heard footsteps in the hallway. Danek’s face appeared and he looked about until he found her on the floor.

“Are you alright?” He asked.

Juliette swallowed. The box was quiet, and looked at her wide-eyed. It blinked.

“I-I’m fine,” She said, letting the remnants of the hairbrush drop from her fingers and scrabbling up with the benefit of her unsullied hand.

Danek looked between the box and Juliette. “Are you sure?”

Juliette nodded wide-eyed as she casually swabbed her hand on her robe. She tried to ignore the glistening smear down the front. “Of course.”

“I’ll go back to my meditation. Father will not be home until late. Mother has business in ShiKahr City, and will be staying over.” He glanced between Juliette and the now-silent box. “I’ll resume my meditation.”

After he was gone, Juliette lunged for the sink, washing her hand with water as hot as she could stand. She glared at the box, and she ground a towel against her hand. “You are horrible. Matron promised I would never get another after my eighth birthday.”

The box lost its cheery countenance as the face went slack. “Forgive me, Juliette Sri, biological verification was necessary.” It’s flat, quiet voice held no singsong or lilt. It wasn’t even jovial.

Juliette’s breath caught, and she slid her door shut. “What’s going on?”

“The holo projector is not to be trusted. This box can provide communications back to Betazed periodically. It is here to see to your safety, Juliette.”

Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the box. “But how can I trust you?”

The lid clicked and slowly opened wide. 

Nestled among neatly wrapped packages, a leaf was held suspended.

“You may take it out, Scion of House Sri, it is yours.”

“How do I know you won’t trap my arm?” 

“I will not. We are passed the need for games.”

Despite the assurances, Juliette snatched the leaf from inside the gift box. It was suspended in a cube of crystal so clear as to appear floating between her fingers, fresh and healthy as if it had been recently plucked from a vine full of the stuff of hot summer days, stretched and entwined into a velvet tapestry draped over the garden trellises and embracing tree trunks. How many days had she spent bending and tying lengths of that endless purple skein into bracelets and tiaras until there was scarcely a house within the Pentahectad who had not been gifted by Juliette Sri, the Matron of Summer?

Banned on Vulcan, they were a pair to be tossed back to Betazed if discovered. There were no velvet gowns; the Matron of Summer would not appear. Juliette wiped her cheek.

“Okay. What now?”

“I am able to send and receive messages back to Betazed, but it takes a long time.”

“How? I thought communication--”

“It is best you do not know, but know that it takes roughly a standard month to do so. First you must tell me what you remember of your last communication home, and any message you want to get back. For you, this message: Study. Learn. We love and miss you. Light years mean nothing to us, and you will return to Betazed.”

Juliette’s legs gave out. She sat back on her bed.

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