The three returned to the ship, where Tara entertained herself watching the crew make final preparations for the long trip ahead. Everywhere, the cat-ladies were busy: messing with dials, leaning over mysterious ship parts or strange maps, rushing to and fro, especially to and from the bridge and the below deck in-gin room. Unfortunately, the crew seemed to think she was being ‘underfoot’ and the First Mate eventually came and ever-so-politely requested that she do her watching from the deck on the far side of the hold doors. That was boring, as the only thing the crew there was busy about was hauling various sized crates and lowering them by a metal crane-device into the cargo hold.
At least Paug was there, plopped down by a large gilded statue of a therian, absorbed in one of the books he’d purchased. His rocks sat about him, somehow reminding Tara of a group of children being read to. That might have been exactly what he was doing. When she was sill for a moment (trying to think of what she should do next) she thought she heard a low grinding sound coming from Paug, and there was a certain vibration felt—though that could have just been from all the movement on board the ship. But how could Paug and the rocks be so fascinated by something as tedious as a book when there were other things they could be doing?
She shrugged a little and took a moment to examine the therian statue. The metal sculpture depicted a lady standing on her hands and knees, head raised up in a manner as if the still lips were frozen an instant before she roared, her back arched so that prominent breasts pointed forward and a shiny gold butt stuck out underneath a stylistic cattail. A very shiny gold butt. It looked as though that particular spot on the statue had been polished to a far greater degree than any other. Tara took a moment to stop a crew member and ask about the statue. She was told it showed the image of the goddess Oratia, and that it was customary to rub the butt of the statue for good luck.
Paug looked up from his book at that, and immediately rubbed the butt of the statue. Then he began bugging the crew member as to how one knew if they had received the good luck or not.
Interestingly, he called out to each cat-lady by name, showing that the cook had taken Tara’s warning to heart.
Once she’d heard enough about the therian religion to bore her, Tara convinced Paug to allow the crew members to go back to their work. She pondered for a moment the apparent fact that they would stop what they were doing for him while she’d been relegated to the side as if she were some sort of nuisance. She’d have to remember to get Paug to come with her next time she wanted to ask the crew any questions.
Once the crew was out of easy earshot, she explained to Paug that rubbing the statue was just a superstition, which meant it didn’t actually do anything for real, just people liked to think it did. “That’s what most worship and religion is like,” she told him. “Just people making up silly rules and superstitions. You should hear about some of the religions in the Empire. Aesha’s empire, I mean, not Lady Ai’s. Lots of gods who no one ever sees, not even at their own celebrations. What fun is that? I think if a god’s real he’d show up at festivals and enjoy himself. That’s what Reave does. Then there’s the official imperial religion, which is just to worship their Emperor as if he were a god, when he’s just a person really.”
“The Emperor is a great deal more than a simple person,” a quiet voice corrected. “He has proved worthy of his place by word and deed. His works are legendary, and no doubt will continue to be so until the centuries take him.”
Tara blinked, startled to see Aesha standing just beyond Paug’s circle of rocks. How did the enforcer manage to be so quiet? “Centuries?” she wondered, unabashed at being caught uttering less-than-flattering words about the Empire. If Aesha was going to be impolite and eavesdrop, then Tara could be impolite too without apology. “Oh yeah, the Emperor’s an elf, isn’t he? So he’ll live… four hundred years?”
“He has already been alive for five,” Aesha informed.
“Is he immortal then?”
“Probably not.” The elven lady stepped carefully around the rocks to stand near the deck rail. Her eyes flickered over the side, then back to the deck, then on to Paug and Tara. “But he has resources beyond the ordinary. I cannot say how long he may live.”
“Reave’s never going to die, cause he is immortal. Cause he’s the god.”
“I believe his immortality is rather a quality of his race…. And it means only that he will not die of old age.”
Tara blinked, not particularly like that concept. The god couldn’t die! Of course, what did some stupid enforcer know? “Says you. Immortality could mean not dying ever, from anything.”
“Paug is immortal,” the weren noted thoughtfully.
“Really?” Tara turned to him eagerly. “Does it just mean not dying from old age then, or is it not dying from anything?
“Paug has never died. From anything.”
Tara giggled at this, realizing that the weren might not quite understand the concept of immortality. “Do other werens die? Do they get old?”
“Paug see some werens die. Paug not see werens get old. Elders become mountains. When Paug gets old, Paug become mountain.”
Tara considered Paug. “You said that before. You mean that literally? You become an actual mountain? How does that work?”
“When Paug done learning new things, Paug sit still for long time with rocks. Then Paug become mountain.”
Tara frowned, “That sounds kinda boring. Why would you want to sit in one place forever? And how do you know you’re done? There’s so many things out there. Stories and pretty sights and new people and… and… just everything!”
“I do not believe he refers to an actual transformation,” Aesha noted. “The reports mentioned an apparent custom to honor an elder of the race when he is… done learning. Likely when he is soon to pass away from age. The elder is surrounded and eventually covered by rocks—moving rocks such as those that follow Paug. The weren say that over time more rocks come until a new mountain is formed.”
The weren shrugged huge shoulders. “Rocks will help Paug to become mountain. When Paug is ready. Paug not ready to become mountain yet. No can concentrate so long. And still have new firsts to experience.”
“Reports?” Tara wondered of the enforcer.
“Scouts and researchers into the mainland have encountered several small weren villages. I believe there is discussion as to making the werens citizens of the Empire. Though the reports indicate some… cultural differences that must be dealt with beforehand.”
“Like werens eating people who don’t introduce themselves?” Tara guessed.
“That would be one issue,” Aesha agreed.
“Paug has never been citizen before,” Paug commented, looking at Aesha with interest.
“Don’t Paug!” Tara cried out. “The Empire’s always trying to take over everything. That’s why they’re over in the mainland in the first place. Cause they keep growing over anyone smaller than them.”
“Paug is much taller than Aesha.”
“There are many worse alternatives to the Empire of Everlasting Eves,” Aesha spoke softly to Tara, then stared rather pointedly at Paug’s arm piercing. “I know you do not believe it, but we do not take slaves. Unlike the governing power that controls most of this planet. Had your island’s… protector… departed before the Empire found this place, it would only have been a matter of time before conquerors much less inclined to allow you to live as you will came barreling down upon you from overseas.”
Tara jutted her chin out stubbornly. “Reave would have stopped them.”
“He has not stopped the Empire. And while we will prevail in time, those overseas are quite powerful even for the Empire to conquer. At least without bearing down on them from the skies, something we would like to avoid if at all possible. Ships attacking land colonies is a violent affair that does not leave much of value in its wake.”
Despite her ire with the Empire in general, Tara found herself appreciating the Enforcers candor. Most imperial representatives wouldn’t actually admit that the Empire grew by conquering other planets and people. They beat around the subject, claiming to be merely ‘assisting’ by taking over the main governing of the land. Tara, along with most of those in Haven, hated being treated like they were stupid. Everyone knew that the island, and more importantly a ship station that shown like a star in the night sky above the planet, was a staging ground to the Empire of Everlasting Eves conquering yet another world to add to its numbers.
Haven, and the others on the island, had been claimed by the Empire for no better reason than being in the way.
While Tara was thinking, Paug had begun bombarding the enforcer with questions concerning her Empire and what it meant to be a citizen. Despite Tara’s objection, he seemed quite interested, and sounded particularly pleased with Aesha’s claim that the Empire forbid slavery. Tara examined again the metal handle in Paug’s arm. “Do you want that out, Paug?” Tara asked the weren. “It might hurt a bit, but I bet I could get that handle out and heal everything up with nothing more than some scarring.”
The weren shook his head. “Paug keep arm piercing. Show other weren someday.”
“Oh. That’s a good idea. Then they’ll know to look out for being made slaves.”
“Paug not like slavery. No should be slavery anywhere. Tell others.”
“And then if anyone tries to make the werens into slaves, they’ll fight ‘em and stop ‘em all!” Tara cheered. She smiled brightly. So if Paug and the other werens did become citizens of the Empire, they’d help keep the Enforcers and all the others in check.
“The Empire would certainly not object to the werens’ help stopping the slavers on the mainland,” Aesha commented.
Tara’s smile faltered. The Empire was—not—on the side of good. Even if others did have slavery… But others didn’t claim Haven as their own, while the Empire did. So it was the Empire that Tara didn’t like. Anyway, Reave didn’t like Aesha’s Empire, so, slavery or not, Tara knew it was bad. “I’m going to go find Reave,” she decided, and with that, bounced up and away, not noting the Enforcer watch her leave.