Chapter 23: Tanu's Gem

Kois could nearly taste the difference in atmosphere when she and Rara returned to their camp on Meana's tail, as if a gathering storm, black with furious clouds thick on the horizon, had dissipated into clear skies. Not a few moments ago, tensions were rising and nichelings were close to showing off their claws and teeth. Now everyone gathered around Tanu, who was still scratching his chest and looking bewildered at all the sudden attention. Meana trotted up to his side and the two exchanged a few words, too quiet for Kois to hear.

Kois didn't know Tanu well, but like Meana she was grateful to him for helping Yuki through the storm. They had shared a few words through the journey, and she had come to think of him as a typical disperser - a young, dissatisfied sort, looking for new worlds beyond his home tribe. Upon Kois' approach, the gathered nichelings stepped aside, and she remembered what Rara said. She hadn't asked for it, but for her age, strength, and tales of Yuki, the explorers saw in her a leader, and they expected a few words. She dipped her head before Tanu. "I see you've grown some, while I have been away."

A few amused purrs rumbled across the clearing. Tanu, who had been scratching his chest with his ears flattened, let out a small laugh, though he turned away from the extra attention. "It was going to happen eventually." He moved his paw away letting Kois see the newly emerged gem. Traces of blood smeared over his dusky pink fur, where the skin had broken to reveal the gem underneath, green like its fellows. Tanu nibbled at the fur around it, trying to lick away the blood. The spot would be painful and itchy for a few days, something Kois remembered all too well from her own emergences.

Anameis and Yuki, though, had no sense of ceremony between the pair of them, and nudged their way through to get a better look now Kois was here. Yuki looked down at his own single gem, and rubbed a paw on his chest, feeling for any developing gems of his own. "Is that what it's like?"

"Itchy and bloody?" Tanu licked his paw. "Yes, that's it."

"What are you going to do for it?" Anameis said.

"I have to do something?" Tanu said. "I don't know, what did you do?"

"Well, I don't remember my first," said Anameis, "but for this one-" she tapped her second gem with her smaller paw- "I didn't really have anything to do. So I went out and ate-"

"Nobody wants to know what you ate." Laana sidled up to Kois and rubbed against her flank in greeting.

"I was only going to say 'four stink-fruits'." said Anameis.

"Well, that's nearly as bad!" said Laana, with a resigned yet amused purr.

"Come to think of it I think I saw a tree up on the ridge... Tanu!" Anameis dipped into a play-bow. "I dare you to eat stink-fruit!" You've got to do something for your final gem!"

Tanu looked back and forth.

"It doesn't taste as bad as it smells," said Kois, who had tried a little out of curiosity in her days in Anameis' den.

"What the... I'm not scared!" Tanu sputtered, flashing his clawed paw.

"See you later then!" Anameis spun around and brushed Tanu on the nose with her tailtip, prompting a swipe from his claws and a muffled laugh from Meana. But Laana jumped in before she could leave.

"I don't know, Anameis," she said. "I know you live here... but I don't like to think of anyone going out there alone." She absent-mindedly scratched at a patch of regrowing fur on one foreleg.

"I can take care of-"

"Need help?"

Kois looked over her shoulder to see Iskome approach, Kirro not far behind. The sheen of their gems had started to return, and they caught the light again as the two passed under dappled shadows.

"We'll come with you," Kirro said.

"Yes, being sick is boring," agreed Iskome. "If I don't find something to do, I'll gnaw my own tail off. And that would be a great loss." She waved her own silky black fluffy tail to demonstrate.

Anameis looked up at Kois, making an effort to focus her eyes in the same direction. "I can't stop you," Kois said. "We scented a bearyena earlier, but the trail is old and I know you can handle that."

"Right, let's go!" Anameis tore off into the grass, and Iskome and Kirro paused only to give Tanu a couple more swats on the nose with their tails before following. Kois watched them vanish into the undergrowth.

"Do you think they'll be safe?" Laana said.

"It'll be good for her to make friends," said Kois, and immediately she closed her eyes in a realisation of what she had said. Dear Yuki, she thought, I've adopted her! But she didn't voice it. Swearing to Yuki came naturally to her, but less so when a small version of him was scampering at her feet.

Yuki himself had turned his attention back to Tanu. "Does it hurt?" he said, rearing up on his hind legs to get a better look at his gems. "Are you really going to eat all those stink-fruits? Why are your gems green? They should be pink! Then they'd match you like Meana's!"

"Yes, yes, and... I don't know!" snapped Tanu, but he crouched down anyway to give Yuki a better view, so he didn't have to squint with his bad eyes. Yuki sniffed at the emerging gem. Most of the blood had dried and flaked away, leaving the freshly revealed surface to catch the light and sparkle.

Kois ambled closer, and Tanu looked up. "Don't you do the tail thing!" he said.

"No such intentions," said Kois. "My congratulations on your third gem. Come on now, Yuki. I think Tanu needs some space."

She settled down at a respectful distance, by the fallen log that Yuki and Anameis liked to play on, rubbing against its mossy sides to relieve an itch on her flank. Yuki bounded on top of it, tail wagging. "Now I'm bigger than you!"

"You got me," Kois said as Yuki clambered onto her shoulders, kneading at the thick fur of her ruff as if it was his nest and he was about to go to sleep.

"Kois, Yuki, really." Laana came to sit by them, tucking her paws to her chest.

"It turns out that soft little paws are my one weakness," said Kois. From her shoulder, Yuki let out a squeaky yowl of a roar.

"Why do we have gems, anyway?" said Yuki.

"Your gems are who you are." Laana brushed a paw across her central gem. "They are your centre and your soul. That's why they shine bright when you are strong, and why they grow when you do."

"What about the colours?" Yuki said. Kois felt his weight shift and his paws sink into her fur as he turned and settled down between her shoulderblades. "Why are they all different?"

"Mine have always been red." Kois peered down her broad muzzle at the three deeply shaded stones set in her ruff. "I like them that way. But they can change if you know how."

"Like Rara?" Yuki said. "All her colours are different, but she never tells you how she did that!"

"Nobody knows how Rara changed her gems," said Laana, "but I can tell you how I changed mine."

"In the caves!" Yuki must know part of this story, having spent most of his short life with the seers, but Kois could feel his excited shuffle as he leaned over to listen to Laana's words.

"Oh, you know that story. When I was Tanu's age, I had to go deep into the caves. My gems were green then, like your mothers'. In the caves there is no sun, and all you can hear is your own breath and heart. But you have to go down there to find your connection to the deep, just like Doeli in the abyss." She traced her paw over her gems again, a distant and wistful expression upon her face.

"What happened to you down there?" Yuki was now perfectly still on Kois' back, drinking in every word with the focus of a hunter stalking his prey in silence.

"That... that is hard to say. You spend so long in the dark that you don't know how may days passed by. You forget the surface. You forget who you are. You are everything and nothing in the dark and... oh, it is so hard to say! I sound so silly, I know." Laana pawed at her face and antlers. It is as if you vanish, and something else joins you in the dark, and that is the gift. You are like a... a drop of blood in the ocean. And then I returned to myself, and the surface and the light. Kois was waiting for me, and your mother too, and my gems were blue."

"I remember," said Kois. Her memory took her back to that time, when she herself had been a few days from her final gem. The skin coating it started to itch and its hard, rounded surface had been palpable underneath. She remembered harsh sunlight and sea winds blowing salt over the seers' tidepools. For three days she and Reko waited outside the cave mouth. The seers waited too, sometimes giving the two outsiders strange looks, but nobody had been willing to chase away Laana's sister and closest friend. So they remained under the hot, shadeless sun, living on crabbits and seaweed, until Laana emerged, stumbling and blinking, with gems as blue as the sea and sky.

She felt a light touch on her paw. Laana brushed her own small, rounded paw over Kois' great claws, lost in silence. Her eyes gazed off into the canopy, through criss-crossed branches and sprays of leaves as long as her tail, through the dappled interplay of light and shadow to the sky beyond.

"What about you, Kois?" said Yuki. "What did the Yukirs do when they got their gems?"

Kois trailed her claws through the dirt, tracing memories. "I don't know." She remembered the stories she grew up with. Half remembered traditions, all of them - the blessing of bones in the nest, the trials of the sick in the snow, and most of all, tales of gods and heroes, of Annka and Nikisha and Yuki. And all of them passed down from the last of a lineage splintered countless generations ago, until the sun and stars turned so many times that stories faded and traditions became a few small rituals. "My parents took me into the deep grass, and said a few words they thought felt right. My father, mostly. He was always good with words. I'm afraid I got my mother's aptitude there."

"What was that?" said Yuki.

"Hammer tail first, questions later!" Kois dragged her own tail in a slow sweep over the ground. Now she imagined she felt a little of Laana's grief as she recalled the her mother and father. They had been alone together, and wished for a large family, but the whims of fate had not been so kind. Kois had been their only cub, precious to them for her rarity. She grew up knowing she was unlike any other nicheling on the meadow, but she never doubted she was loved. As the river flowed from the cave, so a well of grief buried deep within flowed to the surface of Kois' thoughts, and she dipped her head and closed her eyes in memory of the two, now bones in the remains of their nest on an island far away.

"So Tanu makes his own rite," Laana said. "Silais told me everything changes on a new island, whether you want it to or not."

Just like Rara said, thought Kois. And just as she had been thinking during her days in the forest. And somewhere in that well of grief she felt the love that rose from its depths, and silently she thanked the cub on her back and his many lives before that Laana had come into her life and followed her on this journey. Her purr sounded throughout the trees, deep and slow. Upon her shoulders she felt Yuki settle back down, nestling into her fur. "I think I like the change," she said.

Once more, Laana touched her paw to Kois'. "So do I."

Kois opened her eyes. Laana pressed up by her side, her own blue eyes watching her and a quiet purr of her own in her throat. "You remember," Kois said, "what I said about having my mother's way with words."

"But you... you feel this way too?" Laana rested her head on Kois' chest, her nose against her gems.

"I do."

Laana nuzzled Kois' gems, her scent mingling deep into the surrounding fur. They spoke no more. Yuki dozed off on Kois' shoulders, and Kois felt herself drift away with him, grief transformed into love for the cub and the seers. Different forms of love, but both as fierce as the sun and strong as the mountains.

And so time slipped away under the rainforest canopy amongst the moss and ferns, so far from the home that was and the home that would be, yet exactly where they needed to find themselves in that moment.

Their silence was broken, eventually, by an assortment of whoops and calls as Anameis burst back into the clearing, mouth laden with yellow fruits the size of her head, closely followed by a similarly burdened Kirro and Iskome. They dropped their prizes where they stood and joined in the cries, and Yuki, roused by the noise, jumped down from Kois' shoulder and ran to investigate. Kois got to her feet, yawned deep, and stretched to her full length.

There could be no mistaking the moment when Anameis tore open the first fruit in front of Tanu. Laana's nose twitched at the foul scent, as though the fruits had been left to rot for the flies under a burning sun. For Kois, the scent returned her thoughts to Anameis' den in some strange nostalgia, remembering when her love first stirred. "It really isn't as bad as it smells," she said.

"That may be," said Laana, "but I will stick to berries."

Tanu, steeling himself, took the first bite of the syrupy flesh inside, chewing slowly before licking his lips and declaring it to be "not so bad." But it soon became apparent he wouldn't get to eat all the fruits whether he wanted to or not - the rest of the tribe were curious too, and soon they joined in. From Laana's accounts, Kois knew that Ki-Roku's cave court stocked many jungle fruits the tribe had never seen before, but never the stink fruits. ("And a good thing too! Imagine that smell with nowhere to go!") Soon the rite became a feast, with nichelings alternating between wrinkling their noses at the fruit's disgusting odour and licking their lips at the taste. Kois tried some, finding the mild flavour just as she remembered, and even Laana gave it a tiny, hesitant lick, though she declared the taste "unremarkable" and not worth the smell.

Soon the fruits all vanished, and the tribe sat in a circle, lounging and grooming one another, tails and ears twitching in the heat, and Laana and Kois once more at one another's side. "Do you know what is always welcome in a celebration?" said Kois.

Yuki, sat a little way off by Anameis, was quick on the uptake. "A story!" he said, and immediately the tribe broke out into calls of agreement.

Laana shyly turned her head away. "If you say so."

"You are the best of us," said Kois.

"You would say that!" Laana playfully swatted Kois' ears. "What would you like?"

A chorus of suggestions, every hero and god Kois knew and even a few she didn't, filled the air, but Meana drummed her clawed paw on the ground above the noise. "Tanu should pick! It's his gem!"

With a murmur of agreement, all eyes fell on the dusky pink male. His ears flattened a little at the sudden attention. "I don't know! But I..." he scratched his shoulder, "I sort of like the one where Tata had to trick the bluebirds for his tail."

"Isn't that one a little..." Laana began. Kois could see what she meant. Donnu, the more timid of the young twins, had begin to tremble, and no wonder - he was barely big enough that a bluebird wouldn't take him away. His brother Prinu seemed to have been quicker to outgrow the fear of talons from the sky despite being no bigger, but to Donnu the primal horror remained all too close.

"I tell you what!" Kuku, sitting by his twin cousins, lay his smaller paw on Donnu's back. "Let's go digging while she tells it. There's some strange old roots back in the grass. I want to see if they're good to eat." He nodded at Laana. "I know the story, I don't mind."

"If you say so," said Laana, as the two vanished into the grass. "Well, if everyone is happy..." she cast a glance at Yuki, but he was rapt as ever - "here it is. The Tale of Tata and the Bluebird King."