Any viable culture has to make sense—on its own terms.
If it was possible to make a security area “adorable,” Poik-Paradise had done it. Adrian had a perfect view above the mob that pushed him and his wife from the shuttles toward the lines: staff wore lavender and orange uniforms, and the room was punctuated by enormous artificial conifers, while a syrupy little song played in the background. Posters of fuzzy aliens with striped tails and jet-black heads read, “The Poik welcome you to their Paradise!” So far, however, everyone was human. Adrian kept Qing in front of him, buffering her with his body from the general press. Sometimes his size did have advantages.
Really, they were here for Qing, who’d insisted they meet a friend for a short break before their ten-year diplomatic assignment on the Periphery. But he loved any opportunity to dig into a new language. To pass the time, he tested himself on the deliciously perverse local vowels. “Pôìk . . . Pôôìk . . . Pôìk . . .”
“Big Bear, you sound like you’re burping,” Qing said.
Adrian made his bear face. “Pôìk thèq, Xiao Qing.”
She laughed. “You’re speaking Poik and Chinese now?”
“Why not? Can’t you hear the similarity?”
“Well, all right.”
He grinned at her. “The official glossary only lists a limited vocabulary, but I’m sure there must be more. The Paradise Company shouldn’t call it ‘primitive.’”
Qing shrugged. “‘Primitive’ is marketing speak. They’re not linguists.”
“You are, love. Learn it with me?”
Qing brightened, then sighed. “I probably wouldn’t do it justice. I’m already worried I won’t fully internalize Khachee before we head out. Plus—” She flashed him an embarrassed look. “The Poik don’t seem very dignified.”
Adrian kissed the top of her head. “Maybe they’re more dignified in person.”
Through the crowd ahead, a childlike voice began to speak. “Welcome to Poik-Paradise, your treasure of nature and relaxation. For reasons of environmental safety, we must request that you leave all magnets behind at the checkpoint. Thank you for your cooperation. Have a nice day in Paradise!” As it finished the mob parted, and Qing gave a yelp.
The small creature nodding its black head at them wasn’t a real Pôìk. It was an automaton. Entirely correct—narrow snout, pointed ears, large eyes—but that only made it creepier. Adrian held Qing’s shoulders until they could move past it.
The magnet prohibition did fit with the planet’s heavily advertised “infallible wilderness guides,” however. The natives must have a compass sense that could be confused by imported magnets. Above the heads Adrian could identify the nearest row of detectors, disguised as trees with arching branches. There must have been a lot of magnets to confiscate, because the lines were interminable.
A young man wearing a cross-strapped magenta bodysuit with chrome triangles walked under the tree arch ahead, and sections of the bark flashed orange and green.
“Sir,” said a security officer. “Please step aside for additional scanning.”
“I will not step aside.” The young man put hands on hips, blocking the archway. “And I will not undress in front of two thousand people!”
Adrian raised his eyebrows. A bodysuit held on by magnets?
“Sir, this is a safety issue . . .” the officer began.
“Excuse me,” said a hesitant voice. “Officers Adrian and Qing Preston?”
Adrian turned around. A woman in a Poik-Paradise uniform cringed and took a step backward.
He gave her his most self-shrinking smile. “We are.”
“This way, please.”
The woman led them across four lines to a door hidden between fake tree roots. Adrian squeezed himself into a small white room where the woman scanned him and Qing by hand. Fortunately, they’d taken care to leave all their magnetic equipment on the orbiter. Then she led them out a normal-sized door into a warm office. The walls, beams, and ceiling here were all ruddy wood, and the floor was covered with mats of gray fiber.
“Welcome!” shouted shrill voices.
Qing hissed in shock.
Adrian tried to hide his dismay as seven aliens gathered eagerly around their legs. They were only up to his mid-thigh, some with the striking black heads, others with black only on their ears and noses. And they’d all been totally corrupted by the Paradise Company. Enormous dark sunglasses perched on their sharp snouts; their striped tails emerged from beneath lavender and orange uniforms, and they exaggerated their height with platform shoes.
A human woman in the dark blue uniform denoting Allied Systems authorities stood up from behind her desk. Her smile flashed white. “I’m Lizbess Alam, Systems Magistrate here,” she said. “I’m sorry for the delay in your arrival—we had no idea you and your diplomatic team were stopping here, or we would have been better prepared.”
“They called you,” Adrian guessed. “Do you need to see passports?”
The magistrate chuckled. “No, you’re done with that part. This office isn’t under the official jurisdiction of the Paradise Company; it was just the quickest way to get you through security. If you have any trouble while you’re here, come to me. Not that I think other tourists will hassle you, but it’s my job to handle such things.”
“Do you handle the Poik, too?” Qing asked, nodding to their welcoming committee.
“No, no,” said the magistrate. “I’ve never seen a complaint involving a Poik. These are my assistants—they’re good workers, and I treat them better than they’d get from Paradise.” She smiled down at the natives. “You kids don’t make trouble much, do you?”
“No, no!” They bobbed their noses, and waved wide-fingered hands with painted claws. “Lizbess is right, we are nice.”
Adrian blushed for them. “That’s great.”
“We’re staying with our friend Lydia,” said Qing. “She’s in—what was it?”
“Here.” Adrian checked his communicator. “Râm bíîk 35-A-4.”
The magistrate raised her eyebrows in surprise.
A stir ran through the natives. One creature at the back spoke up. “Adrian, Pôìk thèq.”
Adrian grinned. This was why it was a good idea to brush up on the local language. “Pôìk thèq,” he replied, wishing he could get that same effortless burr-and-whistle quality in his own throat-tones.
The small alien who had spoken clapped her hands, but at least two others glared, and the rest milled in seeming consternation.
“Showoff,” said Qing, and pinched him.
He rubbed his arm. “No fair. Of course I only know a little bit, but I can’t say ‘a little bit.’ They have no qualifiers.” And no question markers, either.
“Not good,” said a black-headed native by his feet. “Humans don’t speak Poik.” He flattened the lower tone out of his voice as if he were human himself.
“That’s my chief assistant, Mik,” the magistrate said. “Be fair, Mik, you’ve just never met anyone who can. Op seems happy enough to speak with him. Now, who wants to escort our guests to their tree?”
Every creature in the group, except Mik, raised hands. This was going to be impossible—Adrian smiled guiltily, but Op spoke up again.
“I want them.”
Four of the creatures immediately murmured, “Give now; give later.” One growled, but its neighbor rubbed its chest, and it calmed quickly.
Mik looked up, eyes invisible behind his enormous sunglasses. “Op always gets what she wants. She’s a liar.”
Op flattened her black ears against her head.
“Mik, have some manners,” the magistrate scolded, and cast an apologetic look up at Adrian. “Poor Op. The kids call her that all the time, but I’ve never caught her in an untruth. She’ll get you to your tree just fine. Go on, Op, take them over.”
Op’s ears came around again, and she led them out the door.
Adrian looked up.
The Paradise Company marketers weren’t kidding about “arboreal skyscrapers.” Conifer trunks towered all around, layered with pale yellow bark like enormous overlapping puzzle-pieces. The magistrate’s office had been built right against one of the trunks, so that its front door gave out on a branch as wide as a street. Several meters away, a wide beam-and-plank rampway led up to another branch, and another—this close to the trunk they looked almost like terraces. The Paradise Company port and security zone oozed in among the massive trees like some alien octopus, making a bright hole in the forest.
“It’s nice to meet you, Op,” Adrian said. “What’s your real name?”
Op chirruped. “Óp,” she said. “I like you. I will be your friend, because you speak Pôìk just like me!”
Did she really mean that? He wished he could have seen her eyes. “I’m not that good.”
“Yes, yes! All throat-tones.” Her enthusiasm activated the lower tone, as if her voice was breaking. “The Slicks don’t like it. They don’t know humans; they don’t care. They just play the I-am-human game.”
“This way,” said Óp. She led them up a ramp onto the branch-tip of a neighboring tree, then turned down its widening path. “Like Mîk. Slicks wear the purple and orange, but nothing to feel, only to see. I fixed mine.” She rubbed her hands over her uniform—it was embroidered with complex patterns, near-invisible because they matched in color. “The Slicks choose Slicktown to avoid the rules of the Mothers. They flatten themselves—wear flat clothes, speak flat, and sing flat of their own will. They are the day owls!” She cocked her head at them and chirruped. “A joke I learned from Magistrate Lizbess. You didn’t laugh. Did I do it wrong?”
“No,” said Adrian. If these people were nocturnal, then no wonder the Slicks wore sunglasses! Despite her uniform, Óp talked as though she wasn’t one of them. He brimmed with questions, but if he turned her into an impromptu research subject, he’d be little better than the Paradise Company.
“You did fine,” Qing said. “We’re just tired from traveling.”
At the branch-terrace area of the new tree, they climbed two flights of wooden stairs, passing through a cloud of giant silvery butterflies. Óp snatched one, and to Adrian’s delight, ate it while they walked. At last she stopped at a multi-story lodge that wrapped itself around the massive trunk. “Râm bíîk 35,” she said, and pointed. “A-4 is there.”
Adrian crouched down to her level. “Thanks for bringing us over, Óp. I’m glad you told us about the Slicks. Can we speak again?” No sooner had he spoken than he felt a pang of doubt. Would she feel patronized? What if the Pôìk didn’t appreciate eye contact?
Óp just nodded happily. “No goodbye,” she said. “Tell me what you want to see here. I will be your tour guide.”
“That would be great.”
“But not now, thank you,” said Qing. “We’ll let you know the next time we see you.” She pulled Adrian toward the door.
“Next time,” he promised.
Óp stayed near, running her hands over her embroidered uniform and exclaiming, “I like you! You speak like me! No goodbye!”
Adrian ducked in. The suite’s common room was full of rustic wooden furniture with an unusual, wide grain. A bright blue gecko skittered up one wall. The syrupy little song from the security area was playing in the background.
“I’ll be right there,” Lydia’s voice called from deeper inside.
“I’m not comfortable with this,” said Qing. “What do you want to bet those aliens aren’t really ‘kids’?”
Adrian shrugged. “Apparently the dark nose and ears do indicate immaturity—Slicks might be the rebellious teens of the Pôìk. But we’re here to have fun, so let’s not complain to Lydia.”
Just then Lydia walked out of the back in hiking clothes, with her hair in a ponytail. She gave Qing a hug.
“Thanks so much for coming out to meet us,” said Qing.
“Hey, I’m going to miss you guys when you’re out speaking otter-lingo,” said Lydia. “Some planet, though. Can you believe the habitat destruction?”
Adrian cast a look at Qing. “Habitat destruction?”
“Absolutely,” Lydia said. “I’ve seen at least three fake trees, and the port zone makes me want to sue. I’ve been taking recordings.”
he patted her hip, where a spherical recorder hung from her belt. “No magnets in here, by the way—in case you were worried.”
Adrian couldn’t help smiling. Lydia had dampened some serious corporate aspirations during her years combating illegal development on Omori World. “We’d actually been noticing exploitation of the native sentients,” he said.
Lydia snorted. “You should bring the Allied Systems down hard on these guys.”
“Companies skirt legality all the time,” said Qing. “And Adrian and I promised we wouldn’t bring our work with us, didn’t we, Big Bear?”
“We did,” he agreed. “I still hope I can talk to Óp, though.”
“What about a hike?” asked Lydia. “Bet you’d love to stretch your legs, not to mention get away from that stupid song.”
“Hm, yes.” Now he could hear the syrupy song well enough to discern that it was in Pôìk—but human child-voices had flattened the words into incomprehensibility. He frowned.
“We need a rest first,” said Qing. “Is there any way you can turn it off?”
Lydia made a face. “Believe me, I’ve tried. By the time you’ve been here a couple days, either you won’t notice it any more, or it’ll be driving you crazy.”
* * *
The song was driving him crazy.
Well, not the song precisely. Its ambiguous words nagged at him like the voice of conscience—he’d bet Óp knew what they meant. Adrian walked into the common room and set both hands on the table between the two women, altering the projected topography of the trail map they were studying.
“So. Can we take that tour with Óp today?” he asked.
“Op?” asked Lydia.
“She’s the native who brought us over here,” said Qing. “She works for Paradise.”
“Ugh,” said Lydia.
Adrian put his hand over his wife’s. “Óp isn’t like the others. Please, Little Qing. If we go with her I bet we’ll discover more than what Paradise wants us to see.”
Lydia nodded. “And with a uniformed native along, we won’t even be tailed.”
Adrian blinked. “What?”
“You’re being tailed?” Qing asked.
“I’m within the law,” said Lydia. “Paradise can’t do anything to me.”
Qing’s eyes widened, but she only said, “Right. Well, I’m sure Op would enjoy seeing Adrian again.”
Indeed, it seemed that Óp had been looking out for them. Before they’d even arrived on the magistrate’s main terrace, she emerged from the office, crying, “Hello, hello!” She then led them on an hour-long, enthusiastic hiking tour, all the way to the Falls of Sàth.
Largest in all the Allied Systems,” she announced, as if she were as well traveled as any of them. She trotted across the observation deck to the rail, where she perched with bare clawed tiptoes on the bench, her striped tail slowly moving side to side.
Adrian, holding his arm around Qing, went to join her. From this vantage point the top of the falls was invisible, the bottom lost in a cauldron of boiling mist. Before them stretched a world of shifting ropes, clouds, and curtains of water. Human hover-divers shrank to insignificant motes between the rainbows.
Adrian raised his voice. “Óp, what does Sàth mean?”
“Falls,” the alien replied.
Adrian laughed with her—they’d long since agreed that humans would never escape their weakness for translation redundancy.
Óp cocked her ears. “You laugh?”
Lydia patted her shoulder. “Don’t mind them,” she said. “They like words, that’s all.”
Come to think of it, Lydia probably thought their line of work was crazy. “We study words,” Adrian explained. “That’s how I learned some Pôìk.”
“Oh!” cried Óp in delight. “Then I tell you. Sàth means falls. Also, big. And a feeling. I call it, maybe, amazed.”
“Amazed? Seriously?” That word—in fact, that entire emotional judgment category—didn’t exist in Pôìk. “Óp, you speak English really well. Do you find it difficult?”
“Yes, no,” said Óp. “Some sounds are hard. Some words, hard to remember to say.”
“But easier for me.”
He frowned. “For you? Why?”
“I need them.” She turned her pointed nose toward him; for an instant, the angled light revealed night-dweller’s eyes behind her huge sunglasses. “Adrian, if you like words, come see.”
She hopped down and slipped into a zone of café tables further along the deck, where people ate and drank behind a force wall that reduced mist and sound. Adrian followed, but couldn’t fit between the backs of chairs nearly as well, and had to apologize when startled members of the brunch crowd glared up at him.
The café was watched over by a human headwaiter, while to one side a black-headed Slick handled a display of souvenirs—preserved sprigs of the skyscraping conifers, shirts and hats, hiking supplies, trinkets, and hover-diving tickets. A male tourist was arguing with the Slick, who stood on the counter. When Adrian ducked under the awning, Óp climbed the rope-wrapped pole that supported it and snatched three metal discs off a nearby hook.
They were medallions stamped with intricate raised patterns—trinkets, but obviously based on real art. “Óp, these are words?”
“Yes.” Without losing her foothold on the pole, she leaned on his forearm and placed in his hand a disc with forking lines over a background of concentric stippling. “This one is Pôìk,” she said. Parallel stripes over tiny repeating starbursts she called “Sàth,” and a whorl of curves with crosshatch behind it was, “Mêd, for the sky humans come from.”
Adrian ran his thumb over them. “Qing, Lydia,” he said. “Look at these.”
“Nice,” said Lydia.
Qing pulled his arm slightly down. “Oh, wow. How much are they?”
Óp chirruped at the Slick. “I want these.”
The human man ahead of her growled, “Wait your turn, Poik.”
The Slick flinched, but said, “Wait your turn, Liar.”
The disgruntled man returned to arguing; apparently the Slick had made some error in selling him a hat.
Óp made a bi-tonal crooning sound. “The Mothers say,” she insisted.
The Slick flinched again.
The man, hat dangling in his hand, glared at Óp. “Are you finished interrupting?”
“Adrian, we go,” said Óp.
“No, please,” Adrian said. “I want these for Qing. I’ll wait.”
Óp plucked the medallions from his hand, climbed down the pole, and gave them to Qing. “Now we go.”
Qing stammered, “But—”
“Now, wait a second,” said Lydia.
“You’re walking off with merchandise?” the man with the hat demanded. “Stupid Poik.”
Óp bristled, literally—the fur stood up on her head and her tail puffed.
“Oh, sir, no,” the Slick protested, waving its hands. “It is her right. Give now; give later.”
A chill that wasn’t mist blew across Adrian’s neck. This Slick hadn’t been in the magistrate’s office, but it called her a liar too. Give now; give later—Op always gets what she wants . . .
“Believe me, sir,” said Lydia sourly. “We would never expect the Paradise Company to give us anything free.”
Qing put in, “I’m happy to pay for them whenever you’re finished.”
“So now I’m slow?” The man turned on her. “Is that your problem?”
Enough. Adrian stepped between them with fists clenched. “We don’t have a problem. Our business is none of yours. Take your complaint to the magistrate if you want, but leave us alone.”
The man hesitated only a second, then stormed off muttering imprecations under his breath.
The Slick called after him, “Have a nice day in Paradise!”
“Good grief,” said Qing. She abandoned the medallions on the counter and turned away. Lydia hurried to her, talking in her ear. Qing shook her head.
Adrian ran after them. “Are you all right?”
Qing sighed. “Lydia’s trying to defend me too, but I don’t need it. Let’s go home.”
He recognized that disappointment. There was no winning; he couldn’t stand by and let her get bullied, but she was always saddened when he used his size. Said it was unlike him. At least she knew what was “like” him; most, like the people in the café, just assumed he was a bully.
Óp caught up as they stepped off the deck onto the branchways. “I’m sorry—very,” she said, rubbing her hands. “Very sorry. I like you. Was trying to make a gift.”
“Right,” Lydia muttered.
“Little one,” Qing said, “That’s not how humans make gifts.”
Adrian tried hard not to blame Óp. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why would you take things? And why would that Slick say it was your right?” He broke off at the sound of quick footsteps.
On preposterous platform shoes, the Slick was hurrying toward them. Lydia grabbed Qing’s arm and walked faster—handing him the responsibility of dealing with it.
Adrian said firmly, “Can I help you?”
The Slick didn’t answer. It bowed to Óp, pressing the medallions into her palm. “Give now; give later,” it said. “Don’t tell the Mothers.”
Óp’s fur bristled. “The Mothers hear your heart-tones.”
The Slick glared at her, then turned to Adrian. “Don’t mix with the Liars, human,” it said. “Liars deserve the hate we give them.”
Adrian stared at it. The Liars? Was this not a personal insult, but a social slur? “Why would you say that?”
“Liars are broken. They only take. They don’t feel, like others do.”
Óp wilted visibly at that, and Adrian flushed. “That’s ridiculous. Of course she has feelings—just look at her.”
“No, no.” The Slick barely turned its head. “Liars don’t speak.”
“She was talking to you just now!”
For a second, the Slick bristled—but then it relaxed and its fur smoothed. “Halfmutes,” it shrugged. “Have a nice day in Paradise.” It walked back toward the falls.
Adrian stared after it, struggling to find a model in which its strange combination of deference and insult would make any sense. “Óp, I’m sorry,” he sighed. “I don’t think he treated you fairly, but I really don’t understand your situation. Why does he call you Liar?”
Óp self-consciously groomed her head and hands. “Because I can lie.”
“Anyone can lie. You don’t, though, do you?”
She was silent for a moment. “Adrian,” she said at last. “I think I take you to hear the real song.”
“The song Paradise Company made slick. It is the waking song, so wait until dusk. When you hear it, you will understand.”
* * *
“Little Qing,” Adrian asked, “you don’t want to understand?” Had she ever said that in her life?
Qing, who was sitting in the common room chair, rubbed her hands over her face. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean that,” she said. “It’s just that the whole thing on the deck really upset me.”
“Adrian,” said Lydia, pacing between the windows. “She doesn’t owe Op anything. Neither do you.”
Adrian snorted. “You don’t owe the trees anything, but you’d fight for them anyway.”
Lydia looked annoyed. “Just come with us to the Tauth party tonight.”
“I will. But the song is at dusk, and it won’t take long.”
“This isn’t about the song,” said Qing. “It’s about Op. I’m not sure we can trust her.”
“Magistrate Alam trusts her,” said Adrian. “She might be called a Liar, but I don’t think she’s ever lied to us. And as for those medallions—you should have heard the way that Slick spoke when it came after us. Deferent one second, hateful the next? It was screaming at me.”
Lydia frowned. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“He means the situation,” Qing said. “Whenever you see a social contradiction, that’s a clue that something deeper is going on. It’s clear, even from the interaction we saw on the deck, that the rules of the Poik Mothers sometimes conflict with human rules.”
So she was paying attention. Adrian smiled. “By the same token, we shouldn’t assume we understand what Liar means. Whether the song is directly relevant or not, I bet we’ll learn more if we go with Óp.”
A knowing smile quirked the corner of Qing’s mouth, but she spoke seriously. “Here’s my problem. We know Op sometimes breaks human rules. So what about Poik rules? Are you sure we’re allowed to hear this song? What if the Mothers arrest us?”
“Don’t make me have to bust you two out of jail!” Lydia hooted. “But honestly, the Paradise Company couldn’t have co-opted that song if they’d never heard it themselves. If there had been incidents, they’d have laws forbidding interaction between humans and natives. They don’t.”
Qing doodled on the armrest with the tip of one finger. “Big Bear, if you’re so fascinated, maybe you should just go by yourself.”
Adrian blinked. Good suggestion—they’d been separated by work plenty of times. He knelt and stroked her dark hair. “I think I want you with me because of the Khachee assignment.”
She leaned into his hand. “You’re nervous too?”
He chuckled. “A little. The thing is, on the Periphery our success will depend on our working as a pair. Inseparably. And I—rather like the idea.”
Her dark eyes softened. “That will be nice. I’m just not up to climbing trees in the dark. Tell me about the song when you get back?”
He kissed her. “I will.”
“Have good linguistics fun out there,” said Lydia.
So Adrian climbed up to the wide branchway above the lodge, trying to ignore his disappointment. When Óp appeared, he almost didn’t recognize her. Her sunglasses were gone—her large eyes glimmered deep, ringed with black that matched her ears and nose. In place of her uniform she wore a fascinating jacket that left her slender forearms bare. Qing would have loved it: the gray fabric wasn’t woven, but knotted into wildly complex textural patterns incorporating copper rings and medallions.
“Óp?” Adrian asked.
“Hello, hello!” the alien replied. “Ready, Adrian?”
He nodded. “That’s a beautiful jacket. Are the medallions words?”
“Yes, yes! Come, now—singers gather above the bachelor houses and below the Mother houses. We must climb quickly.”
They didn’t leave the tree, but climbed straight up. He followed Óp up stairs, ramps, and rope ladders at a stiff pace that kept him from asking too many questions. However, he did manage to figure out that a “Mother” meant any female with offspring, and that the Mothers made homes for their children in the upper regions of the trees, leaving mature males to settle lower down, in group homes partially tunneled into the wood.
They stopped in a place where the branches were much denser than in the Paradise zone below. Óp stood close beside Adrian’s leg. Subtle movements here and there betrayed the positions of approaching aliens. They came in strange silence through the canopy, avoiding all invading rays of sunlight. Even the dark-pointed children scarcely made a sound.
As the light dimmed, the temperature dropped and the Pôìk started arranging themselves into an arc. He thought it must be a circle around the trunk until he spotted several more aliens in the upper branches, and realized it was a sphere. Whenever one Pôìk pushed in, the others instinctively redistributed themselves. Amazing. Why hadn’t Qing come to see this?
“Óp,” he murmured. “Thank you so much for bringing me.”
In front of them, a Pôìk turned its head; a wave of attention spread outward through the sphere. “Liars belong in the center,” another Pôìk said. “Óp, go in with the three.”
“I stay with Adrian,” said Óp. She pressed close to his leg.
“She’s acting as my tour guide,” Adrian explained. When they looked away again, he whispered, “This song—is it sung to the Liars?”
She nodded. “Every dusk. To honor us, and to heal us.”
Adrian frowned. To honor them? It was starting to sound like Liar was no casual label, but might even rank up there with Mother. Was the song meant to make up for the rude treatment they got for the rest of the day?
The last shaft of sunlight vanished. The space between the branches faded to twilight, against which the gray aliens in their colorless garments nearly disappeared.
Every Pôìk began singing at once.
There must have been more than a hundred throats. Each one carried two notes, a sweet melody undergirded with a dirge. Stamping feet shook the branch, while dense tones made the air throb. Adrian’s heart pounded. This didn’t feel like a song of celebration. What could it possibly feel like for the Liars at the center?
The first time, he caught no words at all. As it repeated, though, he put it together. Night wind reached cold fingers up his neck. They were singing the same verses, over and over:
Day falls. Night rises.
So we wake; we sing thanks, Liar.
Your pain, our joy;
Our hate, your burden, Liar.
Live on! Endure!
He didn’t want to accept it. He triple-checked the tones, trying to force it not to mean that the Pôìk deliberately hurt the Liars for their own pleasure. The dark verses pounding through his body wouldn’t yield anything else. By the time they stopped he could hardly speak. “Óp,” he said hoarsely.
“Adrian, you see?”
He couldn’t see at all. He dropped to his knees, felt for the textures of her jacket and grasped her shoulder. “Óp—what are they doing to you?”
She squeaked. “Nothing!”
This time he knew she was lying. “Damn it, Óp, you brought me here. Why won’t you just tell me what it means?”
With a wordless sound of fear, Óp squirmed free of his grip and vanished.
Copyright © 2012 Juliette Wade