The Caurach guard stood at the doorway calling names into the gloom.
“Tokmyr! Rekoi! Fomur! Shorakuk! Qeykari!”
As they were called, each Porruka emerged from the darkness, passing the guard and lining up in the hallway.
“Qeykari?” There was a pause. “Qeykari! Now!”
Qeykari slowly moved into the light. The Caurach swung wide and backhanded him. Qeykari pulled himself from the wall. His body drooped in shame.
“Go. It is your time, like the others. Perhaps you’d rather be back on your home world?” The guard waited for Qeykari to answer.
“No. Thank you for allowing us to stay. I will go.” The guard marked his list as Qeykari flowed into position behind his fellow Porruka.
“Just for that, Qeykari, you’ll be the honored guest at the head table.” The guard laughed loudly. Qeykari ignored him.
Tokmyr glared at Qeykari. “What are you doing? This is bad enough, without you giving them reason to lengthen our time of service.” Qeykari remained silent.
The Great Hall of the Caurach stretched for hundreds of feet down the center of the Royal Palace. Rows upon rows of tables were aligned, set for a feast. Caurach servants bustled among the tables, filling pitchers of drink, arranging utensils and crockery, straightening linens. Loaves of bread and chunks of cheese were set properly in the center of each table. As the meeting bell tolled, the servants scurried to their stations at the side of the hall and awaited the guests.
The guards were the first to enter. Each took a stand near a table or a doorway, watching all, seeing all. They remained motionless in their positions while the guests mingled and merged. It took only moments for the room to fill with stately Caurach. Each was formally dressed, the colors of the clans emblazoned on their torso wraps.
In the rear of the room gathered the Farm Nobility. The section glowed with their green. They proclaimed their presence with loud conversation. The Farm greens flowed into Combatant red closer to the main podium. As the Combatants found their seats, the conversations near them was drowned out by the clanging of metal on metal. The blades that hung beside each collided with one another, with the tables, with everything around.
“Blasted soldiers! Must they make an armed camp out of all their functions? Just once, a State function without the armaments would be a pleasure! Ah, what’s the point?” Marancha removed his white cloak, handed it to a waiting page, and sat at his own table. The others at the table awaited Marancha’s continued speech.
Marancha saw through the stares. “What? What more is there to say? At least we can say we have some class! No more about this. Pay attention, now. There is much to be learned here this evening.” Marancha flipped his finger toward the main dias two or three times. He companions turned to watch where he was pointing.
A Caurach guard stepped onto the dias, raised a horn, and blew. The sound pierced the bickering, the conversations, the clanging, the disorder. In seconds, the Great Hall fell silent, waiting. When the quiet was complete, the guard stepped to the side of the platform and nodded off-stage. From both sides, Caurach filed in, clad in brilliant blue robes. They moved slowly, deliberately. When the heads of the two lines met in the middle, the entrants stopped, faced the crowd, and bowed. Each of the crowd followed suit from their chairs. A Caurach wrapped in a blue robe, laced with white ropes, stepped into the gap in the center of his blue acolytes. He lifted his arms and proclaimed, “Let us thank those who provide us with such a fine feast! Let us thank them by enjoying it to the fullest possible measure. Bring out the food!” He clapped his upraised hands loudly.
The other Caurach on the stage straightened and seated themselves. The crowd righted themselves in their seats. The servants began wheeling around carts containing various foods. There was banging and clanging of utensils as the servers moved among the tables, filling bowls and goblets with the various substances. From the other side of the room, servers in black aprons moved to the tables, setting flame to grills beside each.
“Ha! This will be a fine meal!” A soldier yelled.
Marancha spoke to his fellows. “This will be extraordinary. What you willsee here is reserved for special occasions only. Watch and learn.”
The sound of confusion from the farmers’ section changed to excitement when more carts were wheeled into the Great Hall. Upon each was a Porruka, still, sullen, and quiet.
“I am Shorakuk.”
Several of the farmers looked at the Porruka, then at the grill.
“Yes, fellows, this is what he is for. He is our dinner. Please, help yourselves.” Leiyroch stood among the confused farmers. “This is the feast. You take part, cook it on the grill to your tastes. Then pass him along so we all may enjoy. See?”
Leiyroch took a carving blade from the table along with a skewer and approached Shorakuk.
“Kind Shorakuk, are you ready?”
When Shorakuk did not answer, Leiyroch poked a couple of times with the skewer, then pressed it into the Porruka’s flesh. With the blade, the stuck meat was cut from the wincing Porruka’s body. Leiyroch held the steak in the air.
“Nothing to it,” he said, looking at the meat. “Nothing at all. Then, cook it.” He set the skewer on the grill. “No harm in not cooking it, but it tastes better this way, I think.” Leiyroch smiled and returned to his seat.
Shorakuk had slumped over to the damaged side, covering the wound. The fluids had already stopped flowing from the cut. The missing chunk of flesh had begun regrowing itself.
Another farmer stood beside Shorakuk, blade in hand. He looked for a place to cut, poked Shorakuk in the same area as Leiyroch.
“You might want to go to the front this time, Aknona.” Leiyroch spoke with his mouth full and motioned with his free hand. “Give that side a chance to grow back for later.”
Aknona acknowledged the advice and moved to Shorakuk’s front. Shorakuk looked around to his fellow Porruka, but remained silent in his misery.
“So, what are you called?” Marancha stared at the Porruka.
“I am Rekoi.” Rekoi offered no more.
“Well, Rekoi, do you know who we are?” Marancha’s companions listened intently.
“You are Caurach.”
“A simple response to a simple question, yes, Rekoi,” Marancha countered, “but I meant much more in the asking. Do you know who we are, we at this table?”
Rekoi replied, “You are Caurach.”
Marancha laughed. The other Caurach at the table laughed nervously with him.
“You really do not know, do you? Well, Rekoi, tell us of your world. You see, we are gatherers, we seek to bring into us all that is around us. We enjoy good conversation as much as a fine meal. Won’t you indulge us?”
“I am Fomur.”
The soldiers laughed loudly again.
“Fomur, huh? Interesting name. What does it mean? Supper?”
The soldiers banged on the table in merriment.
“More wine!” one called out.
“Wine, Hell! Mead for us all!” cried another.
“What’re you going to do with him, Asena? Joke a piece of meat out of him?”
Asena turned from the Porruka to Vornak. “Vornak, if you weren’t so drunk, I’d take you out and flail you, just for the sake of amusement!”
“Whose amusement? Yours… or mine?” Vornak broke into hysterics. Asena shook his head and turned back to Fomur. Asena held a skewer in one hand and a blade in the other.
“So, Fomur, what do you think it should be? Here?” Asena touched a flank with the skewer. “Or maybe over here?” Asena traced from the side to the front with the metal rod. “Or maybe up here…” As the rod approached the aural openings on the side of Fomur’s body, he spoke.
“You are barbarians. I can’t take this any longer.” Fomur wrapped a portion of his body around the skewer, yanked it from Asena’s hand, and flung it to the floor.
“Oh, ‘Don’t play with the food’, eh? Is that it?” Anger rose in Asena’s voice. “I think that you need to be taught a lesson…”
“You know me, King,” said the Porruka on the king’s left.
“Yes, Tokmyr, I do. But you,” the monarch turned to his right, “I do not.”
“I am Qeykari, King.” Qeykari was slumped forward in his tray.
“Rise, Qeykari. You are in a place of honor. You are to be my dinner.”
“It is no place of honor, King. It is a place of shame.”
“Qeykari! Be quiet!” Tokmyr interjected. “King, forgive him. He has not been at the royal table before.” The king motioned Tokmyr to calm himself.
“What is this about shame, Qeykari? I am curious. Continue.” The king made a circular gesture with his hand.
“King, this is a place of shame. I am here because I resisted. We are here because our world died. We now exist only to feed you.” Qeykari shifted in his cart. Tokmyr turned himself away.
“I have been told many times about your world, Qeykari. Tokmyr has been very informative. It seems he has grown accustomed to being at my side during feasts such as this.”
“He is but one, King. We each deal as we can.” Qeykari spoke at the tabletop, not the king.
The king’s attention was drawn from Qeykari to a disturbance in the center of the hall. He leaned back toward an aide and asked, “What is happening out there?”
“A soldier’s dinner is apparently disagreeing with him, Sire,” the aide replied, grinning.
“Well, send someone down there to finish it. I’ll not have the military ruining this event.” The king turned back to Qeykari.
“Right away, Sire,” he said, his grin fading rapidly. The aide whispered instructions to a nearby guard.
“Tell me more, Qeykari. And you, Tokmyr, jump in here, eating can wait. I want to hear if you have anything to say as well.”
“I’ll not be talked to in this manner, Porruka! I am master here!” Asena dropped the carving blade and pulled a dagger from his belt.
Fomur rose to his full height.
“You are no master of mine,” he Porruka said. “You are but a waystop on our return to greatness!”
Fomur spat upon Asena’s jacket.
“I will kill you now, insolent.” Asena took a deep breath and focused on the cart.
“Stop!” An Imperial Guard stepped into the fracas. “Asena, of the First Division, you are to cease. This disturbance has angered the king, and he has ordered it to stop.”
“Ah, how convenient, an Imperial Guard to come to the rescue of the food. Not got any good salads to protect lately, Guard?” Asena turned away, toward his fellow soldiers.
“Let this end, Asena. It does no good. It is the king’s will. It is over.” The guard relaxed a bit as Asena took another step away from the Porruka.
Asena spun back to the Porruka. The Caurach dagger lead Asena’s brief charge to the cart. Before the Imperial Guard could intervene, Asena had split the Porruka from top to bottom and plunged his arm through the
opening. When the guard pulled Asena away, Fomur’s heart was still beating in Asena’s hand. Fomur’s body collapsed to the cart, lifeless.
“No, Guard,” Asena panted, “now it’s over.”
The Imperial Guard turned Asena loose. Asena threw the organ on the floor and stomped out of the room. Two other soldiers got up from the table and followed Asena out. The rest sat quietly and awaited another Porruka cart. The Imperial Guard shook his head.
“Don’t eat any of that one,” one of the remaining soldiers started saying. “Dead Porruka is poisonous.” He nodded as he spoke, encouraging the others to nod as well.
“Oh, for the sake of decency, do they always have to be so brutish?” Marancha turned away from the spectacle of Fomur’s death.
“Hand me a slice, would you?” Marancha asked of Skitee, one of the apprentices at the table.
Skitee removed a slice of Rekoi’s left side, placed it on a plate and handed it across the table to Marancha.
“Thank you, Skitee. Perhaps you would like to question Rekoi next?” Marancha took the meat and set it on the grill. Skitee turned to talk to Rekoi while the flesh sizzled behind him.
“Rekoi, I have heard tales of great magic on your world. Perhaps you could grace us with a demonstration?”
“It is not possible,” Rekoi answered. The latest wound was healing quickly. “The magic was trick, like all magic. I have none of what I require. Why do you wish to see?”
Marancha was cutting off a bite-sized piece of his steak when he answered. “We’ve already told you, Rekoi, we are gatherers of knowledge. Yours is, or was, anyway, a very different world from our own. We enjoy hearing tales of the different, the unusual. It helps us learn about ourselves, as well.”
“I have told you much this evening, I wish to rest. I am tired, weary from your dining. I want to leave if your hunger is satisfied.”
“Only the physical, Rekoi. We never fulfill our hunger for information,” Skitee interrupted.
“Skitee, that will be enough. I thank you, Rekoi, for your willingness to talk, to add to this fine meal. Server?” Marancha stood up and called for someone to remove the cart on which Rekoi sat.
As the cart was being pushed away, Rekoi said, “Perhaps another time, Marancha.”
“Perhaps so, Porruka. Good eve to you. I will have to see about getting you your magic tools.”
Rekoi listened to Marancha’s words but returned none of his own.
“King, I could not stop the killing.” The Imperial Guard stood beside the king with his head hung.
“King, this is an outrage!” Qeykari yelled. “Something must be done! Please!”
“Qeykari, mind your place. Just because you’ve managed to bend the king’s ear for a time doesn’t give you the right…”
“Easy, Tokmyr, easy. Qeykari is right, unfortunately. I must do something. There aren’t that many of you, and I can’t have you being killed for no good reason. Guard? I want you to find that soldier. Make sure he is punished. Make the punishment fit a crime of, say, stealing from the palace. Yes, because that’s what he has done, stole the life from an element of the palace. Go now.”
“Ye-yes, Sire. Do you really mean royal theft, Sire?”
The king sat in thought for several seconds. “Yes, that is what I mean. He will think twice next time with only one hand. Go!” The Imperial Guard bowed, then scurried off the dias.
“Only a hand, King? For a life?” Qeykari asked bravely. Tokmyr cringed.
“Ah, now you’re pressing your limits, Porruka. I have been generous, you’ve been barely touched throughout the whole meal so involving is this discussion. My judgement is theft, and so it will stay.”
Tokmyr spoke up. “How much longer is the dining portion of the gathering, King? We are weary, and must rest if we are to recover for another occasion.”
“No longer, Tokmyr. Rest bekons me as well.” The king clapped his hands in the air twice. Servants flowed from the recesses of the hall entrances to take the Porruka carts from the room. Tokmyr and Qeykari were the last to be wheeled out.
“Thank you, King, for your generosity.” Qeykari bowed as best he could. Tokmyr did the same.
“We will talk again, Porruka. I wish to know more. Yours is an intriguing society,” the king responded.
“Was, King, not is. We are no more a society,” Tokmyr offered.
“Yes, yes, whatever. Next time, Tokmyr.” The king motioned them away. Tokmyr and Qeykari were wheeled off the platform and back into the kitchen.
“Get in there,” a guard shouted. The cell door clanged shut, blocking the hallway light.
“Qeykari, how could you do that?” Tokmyr asked.
“Do what?” questioned Rekoi.
“Yes, what are you talking about, Tokmyr?” said Shorakuk.
“Please, please,” came Qeykari’s response, “I only wished to help. I managed to get King’s ear, and so I talked about us, about our past. I wanted to tell him all about who we are! And I got him to listen… for a brief time, anyway.”
“Got us a double tour on meal duty is what you did Qeykari. I tried to stop you, but no. You seemed to want it.” Tokmyr slid into a corner away from the rest.
Qeykari followed and stood next to Tokmyr. “Tokmyr, don’t you see? We have nothing else, nothing to lose. If King learns more, then perhaps we will be treated better. I think it’s worth a try, don’t you?”
Rekoi joined Qeykari. “Yes, Tokmyr, there were others interested also. The Learners, they wanted to know about Porra, about what we were like back then.”
Shorakuk interjected for Tokmyr, “What do we care anymore what we were like? It is all gone now. We will never regain it. What we are now, that is what’s important. Look at poor Fomur. Do we all want to end up like that?”
“Don’t you see, I’m trying to end that! I’m trying to help us regain something of what we lost!”
“Qeykari,” Tokmyr said softly, “if you can succeed, good, I will welcome it. But I do not expect it. Now, I am tired and will have to face the cost of your attempts tomorrow. I must rest. I suggest you do the same.” Tokmyr moved between Rekoi and Qeykari to the rear of the room.
“There’s hope, if we last long enough, Tokmyr…”
“Yes, yes, Qeykari, whatever. Tomorrow…” Tokmyr slipped into sleep. Moments later, Shorakuk and Rekoi joined him.
Qeykari sighed and wandered around the room. As day broke, he finally succumbed to sleep as well.