They made their way to a large suite that the Samar had reserved. Given Kubiri's low-key approach to everything she was somewhat surprised at how opulent it was; it would have shamed the finest hotels on Metsenia. They had hardly had time to look around when they were met by their two Samar dining companions. Kubiri introduced himself (with his full name, which still sounded quite as fantastic as it had the first time she had heard it) and Katja.
The first of the new Samar was light-gray in color, almost powdery white. He looked quite old. He wore a caftan like Kubiri's, but of vivid orange and gold. It would have drawn the eye, except that he had on his head a truly remarkable hat. It was a great pluming thing, vividly purple, like a large violet mushroom, almost a third as tall as he was. It was decorated with gaudy feathers of white and purple. What was most fascinating about it, however, was the fact that it was tipped precariously to the side and constantly looked on the verge of falling off, when it wasn't on the verge of sweeping things off the walls or shelves.
"It is a delight to meet you both," he said gravely in a deep and mellifluous voice. "My name is--" Here Katja braced herself for a long and unrepeatable Samar name, but she was not prepared for what was actually given. He opened his mouth and gave what started out as a deep-voiced shout, then soared up screaming into a high register, then rose up and down the scale. Having given this startling performance, he swept grandly past both Kubiri and Katja into the dining room part of the suite.
"Is that his real name?" Katja asked.
"It is," said Kubiri, "but he is still playing a joke on you. Nobody uses full tonal pronunciation outside of poetry recitations."
"He does this on occasion," said the other Samar. "His short-name is Pagali, and it will be fine if you call him that."
The second Samar had dark brown fur, except for a few lighter patches, and he looked much younger than Pagali. His caftan was cream-colored, very similar, in fact, to the color of Katja's shirt. His hat was opposite to Pagali's in almost every way: it was small, with a small brim, and fit the head closely, although it, too, was tipped to the side. He gave his name, which started out as something like Zuvansanapuri--, and his short name, which was Ansani. Then they all joined Pagali at the table. The robotic steward, a more advanced and less boxy model than the one on the Ylfae ship, began putting appetizers in front of them.
The two Samar were apparently engineers. They had been on a tour of little-visited worlds, some of them even without Portals and Oracles, none of whom had full spacefaring ability, and some of whom had no spacefaring ability at all.
"Are there really any such worlds?" asked Katja in surprise.
"There are a great many, actually," Ansani said. "Especially in this Universe. They are part of the Alliance in some sense; despite not having an Oracle, they know of the Tanaver, and have at least some vague notion of the Alliance, to which they usually aspire."
"They would generally be worlds that need help before they can really take a place in the Alliance, but who for various reasons cannot simply be made Wards of Protectorates like the Ylfae," Kubiri said to Katja.
"The Ylfae!" snorted Pagali. "Making a society a Ward of the Ylfae is a good way to ruin them irrecoverably."
"Katja's people are Wards of the Ylfae," Kubiri said.
"The Ylfae are not as bad as Pagali suggests," Ansani said. "Their approach just lacks...nuances."
"Nuances of intelligence," said Pagali unrepentantly. "I have argued for years that we need to assign someone permanently to the Ylfae simply to make sure they don't ruin everything everywhere."
"It is true," said Kubiri reflectively, "that they sometimes fail to approach things sensibly. One of my earliest Consultations related to the Ylfae was helping to restore a small Ward. There was no intentional failure, and they intended only to help. But if you are a vast Protectorate with Guardianship responsibilities, you must make considerable effort to guarantee that your assistance is always cooperative, not in competition with the Ward. A society with fewer resources in direct competition with a society possessing more resources is in danger of being poisoned by the relationship as they are repeatedly outcompeted in competitions they cannot avoid. Use of intoxicants, suicide, violence, self-destructive behavior, can all begin to spread. The Ylfae tend not to be careful enough on this point. Tending civilizations is an artform they have not yet developed. They are better than they used to be."
"How did you solve the problem?" Ansani asked.
"I negotiated half a dozen economic treaties with other Protectorates, including the Ops, which was the one that turned the tide. Interstellar trade is never high-volume, but it can provide options that would not otherwise exist."
Another course was laid out by the steward. Ansani asked about Katja's story, and she summarized the events of the past few days. (Days! she thought. Only days!)
"What interests me especially," said Pagali, "is this building of ships by the Ylfae. That would be a fleet in the millions. And these are not minor ships, either."
"It fits with the way things have been moving for some time, though," said Ansani. Then, to Katja: "Protectorates have basic civil defense responsibilities. In practice these are generally quite minor: the occasional case of piracy, a large-scale emergency here and there. But it has become clear over a very long period of time that the Tanaver are increasingly giving emphasis to these responsibilities; the Oracles are making suggestions to improve anti-piracy systems and emergency preparedness on an extensive scale, and often to specifications well beyond anything that would ordinarily be required."
"It all points in one direction," said Pangali.
"What direction is that?" Katja asked.
"That the Tanaver are preparing the Alliance for war."
Katja looked blankly at him, then with equal blankness at the others. "War with whom?"
"That," Ansani said gravely, "is the right question." He looked thoughtful and began to hum.
Pagali and Kubiri both began to hum as well. Each hummed a different note, so together the three hummed something like a chord. Katja had any number of other questions, but it felt like it would be interrupting to ask them while they were all humming in deep thought. She wondered what it would be like to be in a room with many Samar in deep thought; a symphonic hum.
After a while the humming faded out, and Kubiri said, "In any case, the essential task remains the same."
Pagali nodded and said, "Through seasons without cease, rooting all transformation, beginning all emergence, the principle of receiving and giving."
Both Ansani and Kubiri nodded at this cryptic statement, so Katja supposed it was a quotation or allusion cognizable to the Samar. The discussion turned to other things, many of them above Katja's head, although she did enjoy Pagali's and Ansani's tales of developing tool cultures for societies with limited manual dexterity, and some of the other stories were quite funny, particularly when told by very expressive Samar faces. Much of it she would not remember later, but she always remembered one particular comment, which Ansani made in the course of talking about a particularly difficult Consultation on a system of dams.
"It was a new type of system for them, and they were very worried about it. They kept asking if it would really work, and kept raising objections, which we continually answered; but no matter how much we explained the system or assured them it would work, they kept coming back and asking if it would really work. Finally Pagali said, 'If it does not, I will take great enjoyment in mocking you for your incompetence, since that is the only way it could possibly fail.' Not diplomatic or tactful, but they stopped asking us. Sometimes the best diplomacy is cold and hard."
After the end of dinner, Katja napped -- she felt as if she were always sleeping, but the Samar, being sleepless and (it often seemed) untiring, never stopped, and she could not keep up with that. So she relaxed back in a chair and let them discuss the logistics of satellite deployment in asteroid-heavy regions and transactional densities for economic systems in spiral galaxies and all the other incomprehensible things toward which conversation among Samar naturally seemed to tend.
At the end of the evening (it was not actually 'evening' in any ordinary sense of the term, but it was impossible not to think of it as a long dinner party some holiday evening) Ansani and Pagali had to return to their ship to prepare for their Portal trip. As they stood saying their last goodbyes, Pagali held out his palms toward Kubiri and Katja and said:
"Kubiri and Katja, the Universes are vast, and it is likely we will never meet again. But if you should ever be on the Samar world of Svasa, and are able to travel to the Emerald Forest-lands to the north of the Undying Hills, visit if you can the village of Chitya-amara,in the northern part of the Forest, and ask for me, Pagali. And if I am there, I will take you to the High Forest Peak, from which you can see the whole of the Forest curving down below you, out to the shimmering Lake of Infinite Species of Fish. We will picnic on the mountain as the butterflies dance in the air, and we will speak of beautiful things."
Then Ansani held out his palms in the same way and said:
"Kubiri and Katja! The Universes are vast, and it is likely that we will never meet again. But if you should ever be on the Samar world of Gotisa, and are able to visit the western shores of the Sea of Blue-green Glass, stop at the village of Anita-ma-satya; it is easy to find, because it is known for its basaltic obelisk dedicated to Anjanam the Wise, marking the spot where she first worked out the mathematics of electromagnetic propagation. Ask for me, Ansani, and if I am there, I will take you out in a boat upon the Bay of Ordered Tranquillity. We will drink tea as we watch the sun set and the phosphorescent fish splash in the sea, and we will speak of beautiful things."
Then Kubiri also held out his palms toward Ansani and Pagali. He said:
"Pagali and Ansani, the Universes are vast, and it is likely that we will never meet again. But if you should ever be near the sixteenth moon of the second gas-giant planet of the Samar system of Nibiru, visit the domes there if you can. Ask for Kubiri, the son of Narsidi and Harsanam. If I am there, we will visit the Observatio Dome and look up at the vast multi-colored rings as the planet rises in the sky. There is a chorus that sings at that time, and we will quietly listen to them beneath the never-ending stars. And when they are done, we will speak of beautiful things."
Then Pagali and Ansani were gone, and Katja and Kubiri returned to their ship to wait their own Portal trip.