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Chapter 2

The next morning I awoke and shuffled into what I referred to in my own mind as the living room, where I found Twapa asleep with her head on the table amidst a collection of screws and tools. She clearly had not managed to repair the device. I sat down across from her and tried to make sense of the situation.

I understood well enough the fact that without the right parts, Twapa might not be able to fix the machine at all, in which case we would be stuck here until her friend Bob, an invisible being who possessed the ability to travel between worlds, showed up to rescue us. But who knew how long that could take? Bob had a habit, as I understood, of vanishing for long periods of time. And with the sort of schedule Twapa and I had kept in recent months it could be awhile before anybody back home got worried enough at our absence to use Twapa’s “emergency beacon” which was supposed to alert Bob somehow.

The thought occurred to me that I was probably going to lose my job, too, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter very much anymore. Hot Topic was a world away and my life back home had no bearing whatsoever on what went on here in this alien place.

Twapa stirred and lifted her head, blinking groggily. She looked at me with a furrowed brow, seeming disoriented.

“What are you doing here?” she grumbled, rubbing her eyes.

“I just got up and came to see you” I answered truthfully.

“Oh, crap. I was hoping this place was all just a weird dream” Twapa sat up and looked around her despondently.

“I take it the thing is broken.”

Twapa glared at the metal box hatefully. “Damn piece of garbage. I’ve got half a dozen blown capacitors and there is no way I am going to be able to do ANYTHING without replacements.”

I stared grimly at the box. “Crud. So… we’re stuck, huh.”


I ignored her ill temper. “The good news is I’m quite well-liked around here. I met Khair's girlfriend, too.”

Twapa stared at me, incredulous. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

“Nope, I met her at the party last night. Her name’s Ajul. Apparently she was betrothed to the guy they think I am.”

Twapa rolled her eyes. “Trust you to find the most complicated ways to make friends, Keer.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Twapa didn’t answer, but instead began picking up the screws which were scattered about the table. “Anyway, we’re not trapped here forever, so don’t get too attached. Bob will show up. Eventually. I hope.”

Twapa looked a little depressed, so I didn’t want to make things worse by telling her that the people here apparently didn’t care for redheads. Instead I tried to say something that she might find encouraging.

“You know as long as we’re here you might as well treat it like an extended expedition. I know you love studying... Stuff, so why not just make use of the time by, you know, writing down observations or whatever it is you do? Just stay out of everybody’s way this time, please?”

Twapa looked miffed. “From the sound of it you’re the one who’s meddling” she said.

“Look, I can't help it if-”

I didn’t have a chance to say any more because at that moment Adiya walked in. “You two should come out and get some breakfast,” she announced, impatiently. “What are you sitting around for?”

Obediently, Twapa and I got up and followed Adiya outside.

Looking up I could see a broad sliver of bright blue sky above us. It was another sunny day. Given that we were in the desert I suppose that was to be expected. I had gathered that the shadow of the cliffs kept the canyon nice and cool throughout most of the day; the only time the sun really hit the floor was during noontime. I inhaled deeply as a pleasant breeze drifted by. 

Adiya led us to what appeared to be a large communal kitchen, an area which was only partially enclosed by a roof made of thatched palm leaves (palms being the only sort of trees that grew in the oasis) and temporary walls on two sides. We sat on a well-worn rock and Adiya served us each a plate with some kind of… food.

I prodded at the stuff on my plate with the spoon (a rather crudely beaten piece of metal) I had been given. The texture of the food was something like couscous, but seemed to be made of quite different ingredients. I ate a bite and found it to be not bad. I finished off what was on the plate and thanked Adiya.

“That always was your favorite. I put in extra termite grubs just for you- and you know those aren’t easy to come by!” said Adiya, sweetly.

I smiled wanly and nodded, trying not to think about it.

Twapa made a coughing noise and announced that she was quite full, thanks, and asked if she could go back inside.

Adiya gave her permission, but turned to me with a frown when Twapa had gone.

“Why is she so obsessed with that metal box? It’s safe enough in my house. It’s a bad sign for a person to sit around counting his treasure all day.”

“The box is very important to her. It’s broken and she’s trying to fix it” I said, trying to explain while being as vague as possible.

“It looked all right to me” said Adiya. Then, in a lowered voice she asked “Is all of that treasure what you’ve amassed since you left us? You shouldn’t let her try to hoard it herself. Perhaps you should take it to the treasury.”

“Treasury? What… uh, what do you mean?” I whispered.

Adiya looked at me like I was being stupid or crazy. “Far be it from me to tell you how to spend your earnings, but it would probably be safer if you put some of it away, is what I mean.”

I was utterly confused. Adiya seemed to think that the device was some kind of valuable treasure or something, though I couldn’t understand what had given her the impression. Presumably she had seen what was inside when Twapa took it apart yesterday…

Then it hit me. The thing I had noticed when we first arrived but had completely slipped my mind.

I had seen it here and there. These desert-dwellers didn’t like to flaunt their wealth much, but still I had caught glimpses. They supposedly lacked what I considered “modern” technology, but they had these bits and pieces of it. They had jewelry made of metal parts – nuts and grommets and stuff – strung on lengths of copper wire. They were using electronic components as beads and buttons. The cookware in the kitchen, I could see upon closer inspection, had been shaped out of irregular chunks of metal into serviceable forms.

Why hadn’t I caught on sooner?

I excused myself, telling Adiya that I thought her idea was a good one, and I would go and discuss the matter with Twapa right away.

I hurried towards Adiya’s house, but halfway there I found my path suddenly blocked.

“Khair, we were just looking for you! You’re in quite a hurry, where are you going?”

Ajul stood with her hands behind her back, smiling. A small gaggle of young girls accompanied her at a distance. They giggled and grinned shyly at me.

“Ajul – I was just going to, er, find my friend, Twapa… I need to tell her something.”

Ajul took a few steps closer. “Oh, I haven’t met her, yet. Will you introduce me?”

“Um, I think she’s rather busy…” I found myself inspecting Ajul’s costume more closely. In daylight I could see that her headband was decorated with colorful beads. Some of them appeared to be ordinary – made of clay or something - but a very few were brighter than the others and translucent red or green. They looked kind of like LEDs. I made a mental note of it.

Ajul looked at me. “Is something wrong?” she asked, waving her hand in front of me. “You were sort of looking off into nothing, there.”

I shook my head. “Hey, Ajul, I’ll come back and talk to you later, all right, but right now I have something really important to take care of.”

“All right, Khair. I’ll be up by my father’s house. Promise you’ll come find me when you’re done with whatever it is?” Her eyes shone with hope.

“Yes, I will,” I promised.

“Okay! See you then!” Ajul skipped off lightly, followed by her entourage who cast curious glances at me over their shoulders.

Free for the moment, I continued quickly on my way lest I be further detained by more of my


I reached Adiya’s house and went inside to find Twapa sitting in the same place she had been for the better part of the last day and a half, tinkering with the device.

“Twapa!” I exclaimed, wasting no time, “I’ve just realized something! These people have got bits and pieces of technology. They think it’s treasure. Maybe they have the parts you need, somewhere!”

Twapa looked up at me like I was insane, a look I was well familiar with by now. “What on earth are you babbling about, Ciaran?”

I tried to explain it, a little slower this time. “I’ve seen people wearing jewelry that’s made of parts of electronics and stuff. Adiya kept referring to the dimensional-traveling-device as a ‘box full of treasure’, and she mentioned something about a treasury. I think they’ve got a stash of parts that they use like currency or whatever, and maybe there’s something you can use to fix the machine!”

Twapa seemed dumbfounded. “But… but where’s it coming from? They don’t have any modern technology, Keer. Are you sure you’re not mistaken?”

“Remember Ajul, that girl I told you about? She has a headband with LEDs sewn into it.”

Twapa almost laughed. Almost.

“Keer, if you’re right we need to find out more about this. Where did this stuff come from, first of all. And second, how can we get our hands on it. It seems to me that the status you’ve got from them thinking you’re this ‘Minzar Khair’ guy could really help us out. Maybe you can get them to let you into their bank or whatever and you can find some capacitors!” Twapa was practically rubbing her hands together with glee.

“I can try. What sort of capacitors are they?

“1000 microfarad capacitors with a voltage of 10 to 20 Volts” Twapa rattled off.

I blinked. “Say that again?”

Twapa sighed and held up the box, pointing to a black cylindrical piece which appeared to have ruptured on one end. “These.”

“All right, I’ll see what I can do!”

I left quickly. It was getting warmer outside as the sun crept down the wall of the canyon, and no other people were in sight. I started walking, seeing no better course of action than to seek out Ajul and see if I couldn’t get her to help me in my quest for parts.

It occurred to me that I didn’t really have a very good idea of the lay of the land, since I had not ventured very far from Adiya’s house in daylight. I also had no idea where Ajul lived, but I figured maybe I would either bump into her or find somebody who did know, so I just walked on.

Most things in the ravine, I observed, were a uniformly sandy reddish brown in color. The bricks the houses were made of matched the cliff walls closely. Some of the houses were formed from caves situated pretty high up the rock face, these being accessed by makeshift ladders which seemed to have been cobbled together from a variety of materials. Wood was at a premium here, and it almost seemed that random pieces of metal were easier to come by, judging from the composition of various objects which I saw in the village.

I still couldn’t figure out where they were getting all of these things, though. I would have to try and get Ajul to tell me. I had promised I'd talk to her after I saw Twapa, and I felt that I had better keep my promise.

I had traveled some distance up the canyon (which wound around on itself considerably, so that

I could not tell how long it really was), when, conveniently, I found Ajul again.

The young girls were sitting around a little table in an area enclosed by a short fence made of woven grass. Something that resembled a sort of herb garden took up the far end of the area (presumably shade-loving plants, since direct sunlight only fell here for a couple of hours a day), while the nearer half was covered with an old and dusty rug upon which stood the low table. Between the two was a small path lined with stones leading up to the door of the house.

Ajul got up and curtsied when she saw me. She was wearing the same grin as the last two times I had seen her. “Oh Khair, you came back more quickly than I expected!” she exclaimed, enthusiastically taking me by the hand and pulling me into the “compound”.

Ajul invited me to sit and so I took a place on the rug next to her. There was a plate on the table bearing some kind of flatbread pastries, and I took one at Ajul’s prompting. It tasted quite good.

The girls had been engaged in a giggly conversation before I arrived, but now that I was there they seemed much too shy to speak freely. They watched me keenly, cupping hands over their mouths to hide flirtatious smiles. I felt extraordinarily embarrassed.

I tried to ease into the subject on my mind. “Ajul, that’s a very lovely, uh, headband” I said, somewhat awkwardly. “Who made it?”

“My mother made it” said Ajul, turning her head to the side so that I could admire the ornamentation.

“Where did she get those bright colored beads?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

“She bought them from the treasury, I guess” Ajul shrugged.

“But where did they come from? I’ve never seen anything like them.” I knew I was treading on shaky ground, but I felt I must press the issue.

Ajul stared at me in disbelief. “They come from the desert, <i>obviously</i>.”

I couldn’t help but smile to myself. Twapa would have probably answered me in a similar manner, although doubtless with considerably more sarcasm.

“Well, yeah…” I shrugged, “I was just curious. Do they have a lot of that sort of thing in the treasury?"

Ajul shrugged and nibbled on one of her cakes. “I suppose so” she said.

I leaned back, looking thoughtful. “I wonder if I could have a look at the treasury” I said, scratching my chin.

“Why?” asked Ajul, suspiciously. She glanced from me to her friends and back again.

“Just curiosity!” I explained, trying to give the impression of innocence. “I’ve been gone for a long time. Aren’t I allowed to do a little sightseeing?”

“You’re allowed to be curious” Ajul conceded stiffly, “but you can’t just go into the treasury. You have to have a really good reason or express permission from my father or the elders.”

I shifted on my knees. Maybe this was going to be harder than I had thought.

“Well, I could ask your dad, then. Is he at home?” I glanced towards the house.

Ajul folded her arms. “I don’t see why you’re so interested in the treasury all of a sudden” she huffed.

Had I stepped on some sort of cultural taboo? I tried my best to soothe her ruffled feelings.

“Hey, we could go together, huh? Have you ever been there?”

Ajul paused, and I could tell that I had scored a point. “Well… no.” she admitted. “I’ve never been inside.”

“Well we can’t possibly do any harm. Let’s ask your father if we can go and see it!” I said exuberantly, jumping to my feet.

Ajul looked up at me, contemplating for a moment, then got up gracefully, nodding her assent.

“All right, Khair. We’ll go.”

Ajul turned to her young friends. “You all can stay here and wait for us or what ever you want.

We should be back in a little while.”

The others whispered amongst themselves and swiftly got up, said goodbye to Ajul, and hurried out of the yard and down the path.

Ajul shrugged. “They’re just kids. They’re not allowed in the treasury, anyway, and I think they’re all scared of the Treasurer, too.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that last remark, but I didn’t have a chance to ask as by that time we were inside her house and heading for what I was beginning to worry would be some kind of confrontation with Ajul’s father.

He was seated at yet another low table in what appeared to be a central living room, not unlike the one in Adiya’s house, and appeared to be deeply concentrating on mending a garment with a needle and thread. Only now did I fully realize that Ajul’s father was, in fact, Rabeen, the leader of the village – the one who first greeted me by Khair’s name when I arrived.

Ajul got straight to the point. “Father, Minzar Khair has a request to ask of you.”

Rabeen looked up at us with a look of contemplative suspicion which was betrayed by the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “So, have you decided you’re ready to marry my daughter already?” He asked, setting down his work and staring hard at me.

I sputtered a bit. “Ah, no – well, that is, I’m not averse to the idea, but that wasn’t what I wanted to ask just <i>now</i>.” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, feeling horribly, horribly awkward.

Rabeen laughed sharply and I looked over at Ajul, who was standing with her hands clasped behind her back, and certainly showed no intention of helping me out.

“What I did want to ask was, uh, if we could please have your permission to see the treasury?” I asked, sounding much less confident than I had hoped.

Rabeen raised an eyebrow and folded his arms, not moving from his seat. “Why do you want to do that?”

“Really, I’m just curious” I said, humbly.

Rabeen scratched his chin and looked at me appraisingly for a long, long, thoughtful moment. “I do not see any harm in that” he finally said. “Very well, you have my permission. Go down and have the Treasurer take you on a little tour.” He removed a ring from his right hand and gave it to Ajul.

Ajul took the ring and bowed. “Thank you, father!” She said.

I quickly bowed, as well. “Yes, thank you very much, sir!”

Rabeen waved his hand and picked up his sewing work once again.

We left the house and Ajul led the way even farther up the canyon. I began to wonder just how far the village extended, although, logically it made sense that since they had such a narrow space to work with they’d just spread their settlement out lengthwise along their sheltered environment.

The sky far above us was blue and clear as ever, but now the sun was directly overhead and beat down on us furiously. I wished I’d worn my hat, goofy-looking though it was. I was going to have to get a hold of some local-style clothes. I couldn’t just walk around indefinitely in the clothes I had been wearing since we left home yesterday morning.

Was it really only yesterday morning? It felt like ages. I mean, here I was, with a whole clan of alien kangaroo rats thinking I was a long-lost son finally come back home, and on top of that I seemed to have picked up some kind of girlfriend along the way!

I kept turning that little fact over and over in my head. It was highly alarming, yet somehow flattering at the same time. I had to admit it felt kind of good to be well-liked, maybe even adored, for once.

Somehow I knew I was being a little too nice to Ajul. She had mentioned that Khair used to act as though he was less than fond of her, and I could have used that bit of history to my advantage, but somehow no matter how aloof I tried to be I just couldn’t bring myself to reject her outright. I’m just not cruel like that. Not like… well, like Twapa.

I cringed inwardly. I was being cruel, because I had allowed Ajul think I liked her and in the end I was going to break her heart. This was far more sinister than anything Twapa had ever inflicted on me. At least Twapa was honest. She was being herself. Right now I was being… something else, entirely.

Ajul chatted as we walked, and I gave monosyllabic responses, absorbed as I was in my own thoughts. Every time she looked back over her shoulder and smiled at me I died a little more inside. But there was nothing I could do short of blowing my cover, so I smiled back weakly at her, knowing that I was only digging my metaphorical grave deeper by the minute.

The walk to the treasury took less than ten minutes, and very shortly we were standing outside a large door set into the mouth of a cave.

The door was made of many small pieces of metal all layered on top of one another and painstakingly bolted together. It was not a very impressive security measure, but I was sure it was more than sufficient for the needs of an isolated community like this.

Ajul banged (not too hard) on the door with the side of her fist. “Hello, Treasurer, are you in there?” she called out.

In a moment or two we heard sounds coming from inside and a small rectangular window opened in the door and a pair of eyes peered out at us.

“Yes? What is it? Ajul? What are you doing here?”

Ajul held up her father’s ring. “My father gave us permission to have a tour of the treasury. If you’re not busy, that is.”

“Pfeh, when am I ever busy?” muttered the voice from inside. The eyes disappeared and soon the door was heaved open.

The Treasurer was an old fellow with graying fur and a sour expression. He appeared to be arthritic in his movements and slouched even when he walked. He curtly invited us inside and closed the door behind us.

I felt a little claustrophobic. We had to walk through Treasurer’s house, which was a simplistic dwelling, to say the least. Beyond the living area, though, was a second metal door, which

Treasurer unlocked with a key which he produced from inside his robe.

Treasurer picked up an already-lit lamp and wordlessly went inside. Ajul and I followed, practically holding our breath.

Inside the room, the light from the lamp caused eerie shadows to leap out from every corner of the cave. It seemed at first that there wasn’t much to see. There were a number of large clay jars and pots, and a rather disorderly array of broken bits of things made of a variety of materials. Treasurer used the lamp to light a torch on the wall, which improved the lighting somewhat, and allowed me to see what was in the earthen vessels.

Cautiously tiptoeing forward I peered into the jar nearest at hand. To my surprise, it was full to the brim with bolts and screws of various sizes and configurations. I glanced up at the Treasurer who stood with his arms folded, watching me like a hawk. Seeing no prohibition, I strolled out into the middle of the cavern, casually glancing at the contents of the various containers.

There was all kinds of junk here. Metal and plastic parts, many quite worn or rusted or broken, but still quite jealously guarded as treasure. I was beginning to think I had an idea of what kind of story must be behind all of this, and it sent a shiver down my spine.

Ajul had said this stuff came from the desert. They must have been picking up junk out there for generations to have accumulated a stockpile like this. These things could have only come from an advanced modern civilization, which there was apparently no sign of now save for these trinkets salvaged by a clan of desert-dwelling ‘roo rats.

What happened to the society that produced these things? The people here clearly had little clue as to their original purpose, since they were using them as currency and jewelry components. It was possible that this canyon was simply so remote that civilization had not reached it yet, but it seemed unlikely, given the sophistication of the items that apparently had existed (over here was a small bowl containing computer chips!).

Was I looking at the salvaged remains of a fallen civilization?

I didn’t have time to ponder the ramifications right now, though. I had to find those capacitors without making it look like I was really searching for something in particular. I slowly circled the room with Ajul in tow, looking around as though I were most impressed. I had almost come back to my starting point, having seen no sign of what I was looking for, when I spotted a small door in a corner of the room.

“Where’s that door lead?” I asked the Treasurer, pointing.

The old kangaroo rat grunted haughtily. “That’s where we keep the most valuable things. You can’t get in there without a vote from the elders.” He eyed me suspiciously.

Disheartened, I returned to the door through which we had entered and we left the cavern. The Treasurer locked the door securely behind us, and led the way back through his home and out to

the front gate.

“I trust your youthful curiosity has been satisfied” said the Treasurer, bitterly.

“Yes, sir. I suppose it has” I replied quietly.

Once we were outside the Treasurer shut the big outer door and locked it from within.

Ajul and I stood blinking in the brightness for a few moments.

“Well, what now.” I muttered.

“What do you mean?” Ajul asked, turning to face me.


Ajul wasn’t convinced. “Khair, you were looking for something in there, weren’t you. And I take it you didn’t find it, either?”

I winced. “Okay, you got me. I was looking for something. Twapa needs something and I thought

I might find it in there.”

“What does she need it for? I heard she’s got a whole hoard of treasure.”

Boy, news sure traveled fast here.

“Yes but she doesn’t have a certain sort of thing, and she needs it for her, uh, collection.” That sounded pretty stupid, but it was the truth. “She might even be willing to trade for it” I added.

“Well if she wants to trade she’ll have to go through the appropriate channels,” said Ajul in a scholarly tone.

“And what would those be?” I asked, feeling suddenly tired.

“You need to submit a proposition to the elders. They’ll vote on it, and if they think it’s a good deal then they’ll vote yes and the trade can go through. But if they don’t think it’s a good idea then I’m afraid there’s not much you can do. My father’s word can’t override the elders.” Ajul kicked at a pebble idly, looking bored.

“Okay, I think I understand. Let’s go back, now. I’ll have to tell Twapa what you just told me.”

I started walking and Ajul followed, grabbing onto and locking arms with me. I sighed, not wanting to seem cold by shaking her off.

“Khair?” Ajul said, stopping suddenly, which meant that I had to stop too, since she was holding tightly to my left arm.

“What is it?” I asked.

Ajul looked up at me and brushed a stray lock of dark hair out of her eyes, tucking it under her headband.

“Khair, I know my father was half-joking earlier when he asked if you were going to marry me, but now I want to know, too. You’ve been avoiding the issue, I know, and I’d just like to know why.”

I inadvertently let out a groan, instantly regretting it.

Ajul looked hurt, and abruptly let go of my arm. “You… you really <i>don’t</i> like me, do you. Well, fine, there are... <i>plenty</i> of other people I could marry.” She didn’t sound as certain of this last statement as I knew she meant to. She continued, “You’re so busy with your weird friend…”

Ajul suddenly stopped at looked at me pointedly, searching my eyes.

“Has she bewitched you?” She whispered.

“W-what?” I said, half laughing.

“They say red-haired people are witches. Has she put a spell on you?” Ajul’s wide eyes grew wider.

“Ajul, I can assure you she has done no such thing. And anyway, to answer your question, I don’t <i>dis</i>like you. I’m just… not interested in getting married right now. Is there something wrong with that?”

Ajul looked away and fiddled with one of her braids, forming her response.

“It’s just that… well, you saw my friends. They’re all little girls. Everyone my age is getting married and starting their own families already. In case you’ve forgotten how things work, I’m still considered a child until I’m married.”

“What’s so bad about that?” I knew that was the wrong thing to ask.

“It’s <i>embarrassing</i>, that’s what!” Ajul nearly shouted. Tears were beginning to well in the corners of her eyes.

I put a hand on her shoulder. “Shh… Hey, come on. It’s okay, Ajul. I’m sorry for being insensitive. It’s just that I’ve only just got back and I’m still not quite myself. It’s a lot to think about all at once, you see.”

Ajul wiped her eyes and sniffled resolutely. “I know. I’m just… lonely. That’s all.”

I felt bad, and so I hugged her – in a friendly, non-romantic sort of way – and patted her on the back. “I’m sorry. Just have patience, okay? You don't know what the future holds.”

Ajul threw her arms around me and buried her face in my neck. “I’m sorry too. You’re very sweet and kind, Khair. I apologize for getting upset.”

I gently pulled away, trying to smile. “Don’t think about it, okay? C'mon, I'll walk you home.”

Ajul agreed, and soon I had dropped her off safely at her own home, and was walking briskly back towards Adiya’s house.

I found Twapa still sitting on the floor, though she seemed to have finally exhausted her options as far as trying to fix the device, as she was no longer tinkering but instead staring despondently at the box.

“Well, I checked out the treasury, and there’s good news and bad news” I announced.

Twapa sighed and said nothing, but I could tell by her expression that she was waiting intently to hear what I had to say.

“The good news” I continued, “is that I think they may have the parts that you need <i>somewhere</i>… But the bad news is... They may be locked away in a room that I wasn’t allowed to see. And getting into that room requires special permission from the town elders or whatever.”

Twapa clutched her forehead in one hand and shook her head slowly, sighing.

I didn’t want Twapa to think I was letting her down. “But look, it’s okay, it’ll just take a little more effort. You don’t even have to do anything – I’ll take care of it, okay?”

“How?” she finally asked, looking up at me crossly.

“Simple, I’ll go meet with the elders and get them to let me trade for some new capacitors.”

“Trade what?”

I shrugged. “Uh, well, your old, broken ones, I guess.”

“And you’re going to try and negotiate this,” she muttered.


“What if they won’t agree?”

“Why shouldn’t they? I’m everybody’s darling here… I mean, for example, Ajul, she's the chief's daughter. And she totally wants to <i>marry</i> me. She'd basically do anything for me.”

The corner of Twapa's mouth twitched, then she let out a derisive "HA!", then she scowled darkly.

Crud. I knew I should have kept the thing about Ajul to myself.

“Keer, you idiot!”

“Why am I the idiot? I didn’t even do anything!” I protested.

“Riiight,” Twapa rolled her eyes. “I’ve known you way too long to buy that. You’re a huge flirt and you know it. And as to why you’re an idiot, it’s because I told you to play along with the notion that you’re their long-lost hero or whatever - not get romantically entangled with the locals!”

I bit my lip. She… was kind of right. More or less. Sorta. I probably had been flirting with Ajul.

Though I was a little surprised by how perturbed Twapa appeared to be. Her tone was merely scolding, but the look on her face hinted at more than detached frustration. If I didn’t know better, I’d have said she was jealous. But I did know better, so I decided she was probably just mad at me for being a screw-up.

I half-smiled to myself and shrugged.

Twapa sighed again in exasperation and folded her arms. “And you don’t even care, do you. Fine, you do whatever you want, Keer. I’m going to try and come up with a plan to get us out of this mess.”

“Why is it a mess?” I asked. “I thought you <i>liked</i> manipulating people.”

“Only when I’m in <i>control</i>.” Twapa stuck out her tongue impudently.

“At least you’re honest,” I shot back. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and work on getting us back home. You have fun with your brainstorming or whatever.” I turned on my heel and marched out of the room, wishing I could see the look on Twapa’s face but knowing it would spoil the effect if I looked back.

I stepped back outside. It was still midday and most of the people were indoors where it was nice and cool. I stood in the shade provided by a large overhanging bit of rock and contemplated my next move.

I decided that I would have to get advice on how best to proceed from someone who knew the details of life here quite intimately, but, more importantly, someone who <i>wasn't</i> Ajul. That person, of course, was Adiya, so I set off for the last place I had seen her – the outdoor kitchen.

Happily, I did find Adiya there. She was seated on a rock under the shade of the awning, chatting with two other middle-aged ladies who smiled at me as I approached.

I smiled and waved nervously. “I hope I’m not interrupting” I said, quietly.

“Not at all!” exclaimed one of the other ladies, moving over so there was room for me on the rock.

Politely I accepted the seat.

“How is your friend?” asked Adiya, cordially.

“Twapa? She’s fine” I replied.

“I heard you took Ajul to see the Treasury” Adiya said, tilting her head to indicate her conspiratorial curiosity.

“Uh, yes," I fumbled, "Er, you see Twapa wants to trade for something, I guess. Ajul said I would have to ask the, uh, elders, though?” No doubt Adiya’s friends would have the news of my doings spread all over the community before I ever had a chance to follow through with any of my plans.

Adiya raised an eyebrow and exchanged a glance with the other two.

“Yes, that’s right, but what under the sun does she need to trade for? She’s got more wealth in that treasure chest than most people I know keep at home.”

I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain it. Adiya probably wouldn’t know what to make of the notion that the items her people regarded as pretty baubles were, when assembled properly, parts of a machine which did something that could only be described as “magic”. We certainly didn’t need anything like that added to our reputations.

“It’s… sort of hard to explain. She’s… collecting them. For a reason. I’m really not sure what it’s

all about, but I assure you it’s nothing sinister whatsoever.”

I winced. Holy crud, I was an idiot. If that didn’t sound suspicious I didn’t know what did.

Thankfully, Adiya didn’t seem to notice my stupidity. “I see. Well, it’s her business, I suppose” she nodded in acquiescence. “I presume she’s having you do her errands for her, then?”

I grinned apologetically. “Yes, she’s… rather shy. She doesn’t want to cause a stir, and she thought that everyone would be more inclined to listen to me.”

All three of the ladies chuckled lightly at this.

“Well, Khair, I can give you plenty of advice on how to negotiate with the elders, if that’s what you’ve got your heart set on,” said Adiya, helpfully.

“Thank, you, ma’am. That’s all I really wanted to ask.”

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