1.3 Conversation over Lunch (II)

Kubiri took yet another helping of salad and fruit as the Ylfae steward brought out soup cups with lids for sipping; he seemed to eat an extraordinary amount for his size, certainly more than Katja. "In any case," he said, "it is fruitless to speculate about the general situation until we've seen the station itself, and had further exposure to the concerns of the parties involved. We lack the information that would be required for reasonable simulation, and excessive prejudgment spoils negotiation." He took one of the soup cups and sipped.

"I have not had this before," he said. "Malate-based."

Katja took a sip of one and could not stop herself from making a face. It was extremely sour. Kubiri's lips pushed forward in what was almost certainly the Samar version of a smile.

"If you do not like anything, please do not feel you need to eat it," he said. "The cuisine here is Ylfae, and while they were given strict instructions to guarantee that all the food would be compatible with Sylven physiology, edibility eludes measure in ways compatibility does not."

"The taste is not bad," said Katja. "It reminds me a bit of a sour fruit pastry, if one left out much of the sweetener. It is just too strong."

She set it aside. "I would imagine that you have been faced with 'compatible but not edible' quite often, traveling the Universes."

"I have usually found that I could eat most of what was set before me," he replied. "But I work almost entirely with species that have an ylfoid physiology, like yourself; ylfoids are one kind of secondary samaroid, and it is generally the case that such species are more delicate in matters of food than primary samaroids are. But you get peculiarities at the margins." He adjusted his fedora slightly. "I was once negotiating an economic treaty for an ylfoid species whose primary condiment was petrolatum. They made everything with it. My breads came buttered with petroleum jelly. My salads came tossed with mineral oil. And nothing I could do could get them to leave it off. They would reduce the amount, but it was always there. Even asking that the food be given to me raw did no good; if you wanted something served as food, you put petrolatum on it, and they could not more imagine that something might be eaten completely without petrolatum than they could imagine turning into reptiles. I was very glad to finish that negotiation."

He told the story with much animation, his monkey-like face allowing for a much greater degree of animation than a Sylven could probably have managed, and had Katja laughing almost immediately. It felt good to laugh. She had been torn from the routine of life and hurled without ceremony out among the stars to a future that was even more obscure than futures usually are. She had not understood how much worry had been locked inside her chest and abdomen until it came loose with the laugh.

"Of course," said Kubiri, "other Samar often must deal with more exotic situations in their Consultations than I do; people who consult with Involescence, for instance, or who do first contact. My work is generally quite routine."

The steward brought out some samples of a strange polyp-looking thing, ugly gray and smelling like rusty metal. Katja passed, but Kubiri took two.

"What is it that you do?"

"I consult on economic and diplomatic matters -- usually the intersection of both, although other things do come up. I was finishing a Samar Consultation in another galaxy in this universe when I received the directive for this Consultation. That one was concerned with improving Ylfae relations with one of their Ward territories. They tend not to grasp that merely being juxtaposed to a more resource-rich society is detrimental to less resource-rich societies unless active cooperative steps are taken to make clear the worth and beauty of the latter. The Ylfae may want to be a Core Protectorate someday, but there is much they still need to learn about cooperative equilibria under real-world conditions."

He finished his polyps, then said, "I was told very little about you, I am afraid. You mentioned that you write and translate reports. On what do you report?"

"I work for the Ecological Institute of the University of Sylvenia, and I mostly collate information about glaciation and make sure that the reports for my division are translated correctly."

"Important work."

"Not at all," Katja replied. "I do nothing original; I just check for errors make the information more widely available."

"It depends on the information," Kubiri said, shaking his head in an almost Sylven way, "but establishing and maintaining correspondence networks is of extraordinary importance, and there are Samar whose careers are largely devoted to developing such things. I tend to do work with infrastructure and the flow of material resources, but even I once consulted on a problem whose most elegant solution consisted of establishing a center for the translation of texts. The only question of importance is whether your work is beautiful work -- useful, crafted well, elegant, illuminating, coherent." He looked at her with something like a twinkle in his eye. "What do you know of the Samar?"

"Not much beyond the fact that you are one of the Core Protectorates, I'm afraid," Katja replied. "That is to say, no more than anyone else does. Or at least any Syylven."

"We do not, like the Ylfae, span galaxies and Universes in uncountable numbers; we are a small Protectorate in Universe Two. There are perhaps a hundred twenty billion of us, most of us spread out very thinly doing the work of the Alliance over six of the seven Universes. Hardly more than a drop in an ocean. But it does not matter. We seek what is beautiful, and we seek to do what is beautiful. There is a Samar proverb: 'Harmonies are infinitely diverse; regardless of the situation at least one is worth singing'. We are a Core Protectorate, and one of the great powers of the Seven Universes, not because we do grand and flashy things, but because we pursue beauty in all things. That is what matters. That is what is important."

Remembering the plaque in the Commissioner's office (how long ago it seemed, although it was only this morning!), Katja quoted, "...every part lovely and full of use."

Kubiri pursed his lips, which gave his monkey-like face a humorous tenor. "Truly. Is that a quotation?"

"From the Sylevid," she said. "It is a description of the House of Minne, the palace of wonders; Minne was the sister of the ancestress of my people, and it is said she was a great artisan who spent her days making beautiful things."

"Then she lived with Samar soul."

Dessert came, a kind of minty foam, and conversation turned to other things: the story of the Sylevid, the songs of the Venahana, Samar singing (it was apparently a major part of the culture, with males singing to woo females: "We are a singing people," said Kubiri, "but the males sing with both lower and higher registers than the females"), and more.