Tlisli* struggled to wake up. It felt a little like when she had been a small child and had almost drowned in the river. She had wanted to breathe, but couldn’t. She had struggled toward the surface, but it never seemed be there.
As she struggled, images passed through her mind. She was struggling through the jungle, following the river. She was trying to fish with a rough, hand made spear. She was starving to death, thirsty, realizing the difference between being a young girl trying the things that the men did, and actually living in the wild as a hunter or fisherman. She remembered thinking she was going to die, and wondered if she was dead. Perhaps she was about to enter the afterlife.
With that she awoke fully and found herself staring a nightmare in the face. It started with the long, sharp, pointed teeth which were almost directly in front of her eyes, maybe half a meter away. Her eyes flicked back and forth, taking in the reptilian red skin, the rounded eyes with lids that closed from both sides.+ The hands with their sharp claws were reaching toward her as well. It was a Tlazil, and not only that, a red Tlazil, known mostly for their rarity and poisonous bite.
She seemed to remember waking up to this sight before, but she couldn’t quite get hold of the thought. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the Tlazil’s eyes. She felt herself preparing again for death, with hardly a conscious thought. She completely gave up hope. Truly the world was too much for her.
“Ah, small one,” said a voice. “It appears that you will stay awake this time.” She couldn’t imagine it was the Tlazil. Wasn’t it a known, well-confirmed fact that Tlazil couldn’t speak human languages? Yet the Tlazil’s mouth moved and the voice seemed to be coming from that direction.
Tlisli was naturally curious—too curious, her parents had frequently told her. The fear of death faded into the background.
“You speak my language?” she asked.
“How did you know?”
“I knew which human language to use because you spoke in your delirium.”
Tlisli thought for a moment. It hadn’t occurred to her to wonder how the Tlazil knew which language to speak. She vaguely knew that there were other languages than the one spoken in her small city, but they weren’t important to her. Even the troops of the god-emperor spoke the same language, though oddly accented. “What I meant was, how is it that you know how to speak human language? I thought that was impossible.”
“Actually, it’s quite common where I come from. Most humans regard your language as very hard to pronounce. That’s because it’s derived from a Tlazil language.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Believe what you will. Facts don’t care about your beliefs. But consider the sound combination that begins both your name and the name of my species. It is not common in languages not related to Tlazil.”
Tlisli was more relaxed than she should be. She wondered if she was drugged. She still knew she would be eaten, but it didn’t seem very important. “So when do you eat me? Am I lunch, or dinner?”
“Actually, I don’t really like human flesh,” said the Tlazil. “And you are thin and probably stringy. I have this hog roasting. You and I will share it for lunch, and then we will see.”
“But Tlazil eat people.”
“Not quite accurate,” said the Tlazil. “Some Tlazil eat some people. That’s not the same thing.”
“Oh.” Tlisli didn’t know how to respond to that. She also suddenly realized that while the Tlazil had referenced lunch, he really had not promised not to eat her for dinner.
“So Tlisli-human,” it continued, “What are you doing out here alone in the jungle? It seems an odd place to find a young female human.”
“What do I call you?” Tlisli wasn’t even sure if the Tlazil was male or female.
“I doubt you could pronounce my actual name. How about you call me Azzesh? It means ‘I eat girls for dinner’ in my dialect.” Tlisli was unsure if the sounds it made afterward were laughter or if its expression was a smile.
After a moment’s thought she realized that if her language was related to Tlazil, there was no possibility such a short word meant all that. “You’re teasing me,” she said.
“Indeed I am.”
“So what does it mean?”
“Nothing. It’s an abbreviation for my name. Were you to say my whole name, that would mean ‘honorable mother finder of rare divine blessings’. But you would not pronounce it so. And if you mispronounced it, it would mean ‘daughter of mother claimed to result from divine intercourse’ and if you said that, I would have to bite your head off so as to avenge the dishonor.”
“You use that expression a good deal. One could get the idea that your head was empty.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You could ask me who I am, where I’m from, and what I’m doing out here.”
“But Tlazil live in the jungle! Where else would I expect to find you?”
“And doubtless I’m out here looking for girls to eat. Do you have any idea how rare it is to find a human girl wandering about in this part of the jungle? Were you only more tasty, you would be a rare and expensive delicacy.”
Tlisli skipped over the part about eating, which she was beginning to believe was humor anyhow, though why she believed that she could not have said. “Rare in this part of the jungle?”
“Yes. There are other parts of this jungle that are fairly swarming with girls.”
“I don’t understand. Surely their men wouldn’t let them.”
There was that sound again. Was it Tlazil laughter?
“Oh, small human girl, you have truly lived an isolated life. ‘Their men wouldn’t let them?’ I should tell that to the governor of the city where I live. She would find it quite amusing that a man would prevent her from doing what she wished.”
“But that would be a Tlazil. Are all Tlazil ruled by their females?”
Azzesh stared at Tlisli for a moment. “Do you know nothing of the world at all? Your city must be quite isolated.”
“Well, I thought Tlazil were ruled by their men, just as are humans.”
“Not at all, not at all! Tlazil may be ruled by men or women, though thankfully, more by women. But humans may be ruled by either. My queen is human. Well, not precisely. A different subspecies. But she’s so much like a human as makes no difference to me.” She paused. “But enough talking for now. You need to get some food into you. You’re beginning to be ready for it. The poison of the Tlerississ fish is very debilitating.”
“Yes. The one that is red in the middle, black around the edges and nearly clear between. The Ixstl is red and black in the same way, but between is an off-white rather than clear. Ixstl make good eating.”
Tlisli almost forgot about the prospect of being eaten while she ate. Ever since she could remember she had understood that to be captured by a Tlazil meant one would be eaten. Yet Azzesh showed no sign of hostility, or of culinary interest at all. She roasted fish with a selection of herbs and provided some fruit to go with it. It was, in fact, a delicious meal, every bit as good as anything she had eaten at home.
The next day, when Azzesh pronounced Tlisli ready to travel just a little, they broke camp and started to move downriver. As they traveled, Azzesh pointed out a variety of plants and animals, discussing their value as food, fuel, or building materials, and pointing out ways to hunt or harvest them as appropriate. She was not a particularly good teacher. She never stopped and took questions, and she apparently no longer thought Tisli needed rest. Tlisli, in turn, surprised herself with how quickly she was gaining in strength, despite what seemed to her excessively long days.
Tlisli didn’t really pay attention to how much time was passing, nor did she consider running away. She was learning too much. She kept trying to imitate Azzesh’s work with her hunting bow, but all that got her was a few contemptuous hisses and no kills. She simply couldn’t manage to hit a moving target, and often she missed even those beasts that were standing still. She hit a target a couple of times only to find that she had not hit anything vital and the arrow was not fatal.
She had practically forgotten about her sword. It was not very useful as a knife, and she had yet to find the jungle creature that would allow her to get close enough to allow her to kill it with a sword. She had kept it in her pack because it was clumsy to carry at her belt without a proper scabbard.
As soon as she had it out and was cleaning it, Azzesh reached out and grabbed it. After a few minutes running her hand over the blade, and examining it carefully she said, “It’s bad to be lazy and stupid, and to fail to learn the simplest of lessons, but the only consequences are that you die and your body feeds the jungle creatures who are somewhat more useful than you are. But to take a fine sword and treat it with contempt—that is unforgivable.”
“Fine sword?” asked Tlisli.
“Ah! There is some glimmering of intelligence and discernment in you after all. Perhaps for that I will forgive you the sacrilege, even though it is unforgivable. At times Azzesh accomplishes impossible things, such as restraining herself from running you through with this sword and consuming your flesh for dinner.”
“But the sword,” said Tlisli. “I was unable to discover anything it does.”
“Does? Does?” Azzesh paused. Tlisli still could not read Tlazil facial features, but if she had she would have been frightened. Azzesh radiated astonishment and contempt in equal measures. “What do you suppose a sword is supposed to do?”
Tlisli could recognize the anger in the voice, and so she remained silent, looking for the right words that might redeem her in Azzesh’s eyes.
“A sword,” Azzesh continued in a few moments in a steady and controlled voice, “is supposed to sit there and be sharp, be balanced, be reassuring to its owner because of its characteristics. A sword is not supposed to ‘do’ things. A warrior does things with a sword.”
“But what of magic swords?” asked Tlisli, too curious to restrain herself. “They regularly do things like flame, or put up special defenses, or even pass knowledge on to the swordsman.”
“Pah! A sword that does things like that is really just a magic staff in the shape of a sword. It may be useful in its own way, but it is not really a sword. Now this,” she continued, picking up Tlisli’s sword, “is a sword! It has a powerful lineage. It should be treated with great respect.”
Tlisli was now fascinated. “Did it tell you that when you performed that magical ritual?”
“What magical ritual?” asked Azzesh, again astonished.
“Well, when you ran your hands over the sword and mumbled some sort of magical words.”
“That was the great magical ritual of running your hands over something so you can feel its shape and characteristics more precisely and at the same time of talking to yourself. It’s power is that sometimes you know something about the object you examined that you didn’t before. It’s weakness is that idiots believe you are performing a magical ritual, or alternatively that you are insane.”
“So by feeling the sword you figured out that it had an important ‘lineage’–was that the word you used?”
“No, stupid! I figured that out by reading the inscription on the sword!”
“Oh.” Tlisli paused for a second. “What do you mean by lineage?”
“When I use that with reference to a sword I mean who made it, and who has used it. In this case we can know who made it, because he inscribed his name on it, and we know the general category of people who used it. We also know how ancient it is.”
“Who made it?”
“His name would mean nothing to you.”
“So how do you know he was great?”
“Because he made this sword.”
“Isn’t that circular? He’s great because he made the sword, and the sword is great because he made it?”
“No, no, no! I know the sword is great because it is great. Because it is great, I know it’s maker must be great. I know his name from the inscription. From other factors I know that the sword is old, but not ancient. It’s somewhere between 200 and 250 years old. It probably dates to when your city gained independence from the Tlazil Empire.
“Tlazil Empire?” asked Tlisli, amazed in turn?
This time Azzesh was simply amused. “Of course you learned a rather different history.”
“I learned history! The great mother led the first inhabitants of Sirixistlan to the fertile and safe land on which our city now stands and taught them the various civilized arts, thus distinguishing them from the uncivilized Tlazil. That was many, many generations ago, longer than you can imagine.”
“I can imagine very many generations indeed, and your city is a thing of yesterday, historically.”
Tlisli settled in to listen. She could sense a story coming, and she loved stories. She didn’t care if they were true or not.
“A thousand years ago,” Azzesh started, “This entire continent of Porana was ruled by Tlazil. It is said that even now, on a group of islands in a great inland sea there is still an emperor of all the Tlazil, and there are those of my people who believe that the empire will return and restore Tlazil to their rightful place as rulers with humans as their slaves.
“Five hundred years ago, more or less, nobody knows for sure, the coastal cities began to rebel against the Tlazil rulers. There were many, many humans in those cities and very few Tlazil. The Tlazil of the coast sent messengers to their provincial governors who sent them on to regional princes, who sent them on to the Imperial City, all asking for help.
“But it could take months to travel from the Imperial City to the coast, even if one was hurrying. The imperial bureaucrats didn’t hurry. The governor would take time to discuss the issue, inevitably determining that he had too little resources to help, then he would take time discussing the message that should be added to the packet before it was sent on to the capital.
“When the message reached the capital it was often read by officials who found fault with the message itself, and would reply with a request for more information, for clarification, or might point out that the official who signed the request was not the correct one, and would the originators please pay attention of Section R10765.4.3c of the official code (I made that number up, of course, but you get the idea) which specifies the proper persons to certify need in the case of the request for official support.
“Of course, no imperial official would think of bypassing the chain of command, so the messages would be sent back through the regional princes, the provincial governors, and finally to the city in need. Often that city would no longer have any Tlazil administration by the time the message got back to them. The humans would be fully in charge.
“What made things much worse was that the Tlazil bureaucrats had grown lazy. They had human slaves to read and write for them, and often they trusted the human slaves to think for them as well. As a result, human slaves were often answering messages relating to conflict with their fellow-humans elsewhere in the empire.
“The fact is, that had the Tlazil imperial army been deployed, it would have been impossible for such a rebellion to succeed. As it is, it is quite possible that there still is an imperial army toward the interior of this continent, but in any case, it never got anywhere near the coast. We don’t have any communication or commerce with folks in those parts.
“So, little girl, your ancestors were presumably slaves who rebelled, and you are the descendant of such rebel slaves. The other story does sound much nicer. I understand why they adopted it.”
Tlisli just looked at Azzesh for a long time. On the one hand the idea of a Tlazil empire was preposterous. On the other hand, Azzesh herself was preposterous, and yet here she was telling wild tales. Was it possible that Azzesh’s story was the true history of her city?
To be continued . . .
*This is part of the continuing story of Tlisli. It is obviously a work of fiction, and anything that resembles anything in the real world is purely accidental.
+Earth readers beware—a Tlazil has some reptilian features, but is not a reptile.