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Posted: Sunday, Jul 07, 2013 at 7:49 PM Edited on 2013-07-07 20:29:24.0
Ptahhotpe was an old stone. Weathered, he liked to think, as much by wisdom as by the passing of time. His granite skin was chipped in places and colonies of lichen wove around his shoulders and across his broad back. Though he was not as tall as some of his brothers, he considered that a blessing. He was closer to the stone under his feet and less apt to fall as the high often did. Some folk believed that the To-Tanem did not feel the heat or cold as other creatures did. But this was simply not true. Today, as he stood watching his brothers and sisters carry and stack barrels under the blazing midday sun, he not only felt the heat, but was grateful for it. He was fond of the sun, of sunny days, and he found, especially as he grew older, that he longed to spend an hour or two, simply sitting under the high sun with his back against the warm stone and his feet on the cool earth. He had often thought it was the one thing that he truly had in common with the Children of Bast. He enjoyed, even longed for, rest – though in his case, it was because he felt that it was a savor to work. How could one, after all, truly appreciate one's labors without taking time to reflect upon them?

Though the To-Tanem did not have the sense of smell of the Basti or the Sebeki, even Ptahhotpe could feel the heat coming from the barrels and the sweet, almost cloying scent of the palm-wine chased with a hint of citrus. Although he could not see them, he could feel the eyes of the Basti on him hot as any sunlight and almost hear the beetle-skitter train of his thoughts. As his kin continued to stack and secure the heavy wine barrels, he thought he saw a tawny shadow detach itself from the sandy scrub and disappear over the hill. He smiled, though only another To-Tanem would have recognized it, and waved his hand. The To-Tanem continued their work as they would long into the night.

Many Stripes was eating fish when Swiftrunner flung open the flaps of his tent. The mottled cat held up his paw and leaned his elbow on the reclining table. The camp-follower, a fish still poised above the Cat Lord’s mouth, looked at him questioning, and, after judging the state of his scout’s agitation, he waved her away. “Well,” Many Stripes said,” I hope you have some very, very good reason for interrupting me.”

Swiftrunner nodded and puffed, almost out of breath, something Many Stripes had seldom seem in a cat, especially one with Swiftrunner’s athletic prowess. “The Stone People are making piles. . .of wine!” the tawny cat hissed, “Just piling casks in the sun!”

Many Stripes leaned back, reached for a fish roll and popped it into his mouth. There were some who said he always looked like he was smiling. But now he smiled in truth. “What would the Children of Ptah want with wine?” It was true, he knew, that the To-Tanem had dealings with the Asar and the Asar were nearly as fond of wine as the Basti. Nearly. Still, he could not see Children of Ptah spending much time or effort securing luxuries for their allies or even their liaisons. But, if there was one thing that Many Stripes knew about the To-Tanem it was that they did nothing without reason. The Cat Lord shook his ruff and reclined motioning for the camp-follower to return. “For now,” he said, “Go back and listen. Find out what the To-Tanem are doing and why they’re doing it.” The smaller cat turned and opened the flap momentarily flooding the tent with sunlight. “And, Swiftrunner,” Many Stripes said, “Don’t return until you have something more to tell me.”

The brazier fires were burning bright and the moon was high when Swiftrunner returned. The scout had spent the day listening to the grinding speech that the To-Tanem liked to call “the melody of the stone.” Swiftrunner, like all Basti, had a great passion for music and he saw nothing melodic about the gravelly conversations of the Stone Folk. Still, he had learned that the Asar had gifted the To-Tanem with several hundred barrels of aged palm-wine and that the To-Tanem, having no sense at all, had decided to use them to temporarily shore up a portion of wall. True, the barrels were sturdy, weighing nearly five hundred pounds for a sixty gallon barrel, but it was the principle of the thing. Palm-wine was for drinking, not for building! Using wine as building blocks was an affront to the Great Goddess herself!

The lithe cat could hardly contain himself, though he took special care to speak carefully around Many Stripes, as he made his report. At the end of it, Many Stripes said nothing, but his eyes flashed in the firelight and, after a while, he stroked his whiskers which were very long indeed. “Tell the camp-followers to prepare my litter,” Many Stripes said, “Tomorrow, I will be visiting an old friend.”

Soknopais was very fat. But that was fine because he was also very powerful. Only a Sebeki with many victories could have become so large and scarred as himself. He had won many battles. It pleased him to think of them and of the enemies he’d set fleeing. So, it did not surprise him that Many Stripes, who had been his ally at more than one of his greatest of victories, had come to speak with him. The Basti were good fighters. Not as good as the Sebeki. Still, they had much in common. The Children of Bast liked to fight and feast under the hot sun. And, best of all, the Basti always brought gifts. They were considerate that way. They understood that a lord as great as himself should be honored. And, likewise, he called for a feast to honor his old friend and his entourage, so it was a fine day indeed.

Soknopais called for beer and meat and drums. He noticed that Many Stripes cast his gaze for a moment on the casks of strong, dark beer that the Basti had brought as a gift. Soknopais would have it tapped later in the night. But, for now, he presented the Cat Lord with a brew of his own making – its sour, yeasty smell reminded him of the mud of the Nile and the many delicious things that could be found there. It was his favorite drink -thick, almost milk-like with a pale-yellow cast. Many Stripes sniffed once as the Crocodile Lord handed him a mug – no doubt admiring the fierce smell of the beer. Soknopais bolted his drink and called for another and then smiled as the old Tom threw back his drink as well. Many Stripes smiled back, with considerably fewer teeth.

“This is a very fine brew,” Many Stripes said, “Though it seems a pity that all your finest drink should be spent when the Children of Stone waste barrel upon barrel of palm wine.” Soknopais agreed that this was a terrible thing, but, then what was the purpose of drink other than to be, well, drunk. The Great Cat sighed, “True,” he said, “But surely our revels could only last a few days with the stock we have at hand. But, my scout has told me only today that the Children of Ptah are building a wall from barrels of wine. So foolish. Only the To-Tanem would do such a thing. Swiftrunner here,” he said with a wave of his paw, “Has seen the thing with his own eyes. A wall of wine! Can it be imagined?”

Soknopais agreed that it could not and continued to drink and eat pulling chunks of half-cooked meat from the spit with his great leathery claws. He had often found the To-Tanem hard to understand. They did not like to fight, but they were fierce warriors. They always seemed to be busy – building walls or devices or other things that to Soknopais’ mind served little purpose. What good was all this scurrying about when there was the mud of the Nile, the murk of the deep waters, feasts with friends, and the joy of a battle well-fought? Soknopais had once been presented with one of the little machines that the To-Tanem used to parcel out their days. It was a strange and useless thing. He slept when he wanted to, he ate, he fought, he ate again, and then he slept again. He did these things when he wanted. The Stone Folk were a strange breed.

Still, it did seem a foolishness that the To-Tanem were letting perfectly good wine go to waste. Stone was much better for walls than barrels of wine surely. He said as much and Many Stripes agreed. It would, Many Stripes, said actually be doing a favor to the To-Tanem if, say, the Sebeki were to liberate the wine. After all, if the barrels were removed, then the To-Tanem would be forced to build their wall with something more durable. And, wine, as everyone knows, is very flammable. What if someone were to set the barrels on fire? It would, in fact, be a kindness to the To-Tanem, Many Stripes explained, if the Sebeki were to remove the wine barrels this very night. Surely, it would be cruel to let the poor Stone Folk rest near such a dangerous wall.

The To-Tanem, despite their many flaws, had never done Soknopais any wrong. Though they gave bad presents and never invited him to feasts, they seemed to decent enough sort of folk, and, in fact, he had allied with them on many occasions. It did seem wrong to let them suffer, possibly being crushed by flaming barrels of wine. So, when Many Stripes quite decently proposed that the Basti and Sebeki remove the barrels this very night, Soknopais called for his river skiffs to be readied. It would be a long night of work for the Children of Sobek, but at the end of it, there would be feasting and palm-wine. Not for the first time, Soknopais thought it was lucky that he had such as good friend as Many Stripes.

Ptahhotpe had once heard the Asar use a saying that he had taken to heart, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” He took it to mean that one should never stand still, but more than that forward was the only direction that a wise man, even a stone one, took. There was no going back, but one could always move forward. Many years ago, when he was a young stone, unpitted and equally untested, he had crafted a clockwork device. It served little purpose, but it was a thing of beauty, a thing crafted in youth out of his simple joy of being. He thought of it sometimes and of the young, striped Tom who had pocketed it, probably drawn by its shiny exterior or its faceted gems, during a summit between the To-Tanem and the Basti. Years had passed and he had gained gravity and perhaps a bit of lichen, but he hoped no moss. And, the swaggering young Tom had become a great Cat Lord. And, though he knew in his heart it was a silly thing to dwell on a small piece of one’s past, he would think of the clockwork from time to time.

When the Asar had presented Ptahhotpe with a hundred barrels of aged palm-wine, Ptahhopte had thanked them. He understood that his friends from Memphis had given the gift from their hearts and they, being traders, knew that wine can easily become stone or metal or anything else given the right trade. But as he stood looking at the stacked barrels, he thought how much happier a Basti or even a Sebeki lord would be if he (or she) had been presented with a mountain of wine.

Though Ptahhopte often found the Basti hard to understand, he knew that asking them for anything was the surest way not to get it. So, instead, he set his kin to tirelessly stack and secure barrels of wine under the open sun which, even now, the Sebeki were noisily removing and the Basti, no doubt, would soon be noisily consuming. And, while they were at work, he visited a certain Old Tom’s camp and removed a small clockwork from the room of one of his camp-followers. It was easy enough to find in a camp littered with stone. It was another Asar saying that the stone has eyes, as, indeed, it does.

Ptahhotpe wound the little clockwork and watched it whirl. It had weathered the ages better than himself and was as bright and beautiful as the day it had been crafted. It had no doubt been polished daily by camp-followers with silk cloths and would, no doubt, not be missed by Many Stripes. Cats admired many fine things, but most of all themselves. And, after tonight, Many Stripes would be admiring himself for many days. Ptahhotpe watched the clockwork spin and smiled. It had been a good trade.

"My Kung Fu is better than Your Kung Fu!"

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Member Since: 08/26/2011
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Total Posts: 38
Posted: Monday, Jul 08, 2013 at 1:20 PM
My cat and I enjoyed the story. We did not have any palm wine but Old Smoky Mountain moonshine was a good substitute for it while I read the story.

Id rather be lucky than good.

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Member Since: 06/03/2006
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Total Posts: 236
Posted: Thursday, Sep 26, 2013 at 4:00 PM
That was an enjoyable read, and captured the essence of three of my favourite races to a tee.

All due kudos to the author.

Off with the Pharoahs at the bottom of the garden ...

Group: Site Member
Member Since: 06/30/2013
Member: 1960
Total Posts: 6
Posted: Monday, Feb 03, 2014 at 12:18 AM
I should have commented months ago; this is easily my favorite story on the site.
it is elegant, clever, and very satisfying. Well done.

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