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July 08, 2024

The Aser Stories 42: Natural Selection

By Sand Pilarski

Office politics in action on the trail with an eight-foot troll, a talking dog, and two educated baboons.

"If you don't stop barking at those baboons, I'm going to have you made into sandwiches," Margot the troll told her dog, after his bow-wow-wow woke her for the fourth time.

"I can't help it," said the dog, arching his back and putting his head near his feet in humiliation. "When they look at me that way, I get the shivers in my spine and the barks just fly out to stop the shivers."

Margot wadded her blanket up under her head. "Then don't look at them, and that's an order." She shut her eyes again.

I got up from my blanket and hunkered down in front of the baboons where they perched on the lower branches of a tree above our packs. "Quit smiling at the dog. It makes him nervous."

The larger of the baboons parked his pencil in the side of a leather case. "I assure you that I have not been smiling at that animal today, and the reason for this is that he urinated on an anthill from which I intended to breakfast this morning. As far as I am concerned, he does not exist."

The younger baboon tore some leaves off his branch and threw them in the air in anger. "I get blamed for everything. 'Guillaume, don't leave the cap off the ink. Guillaume, shut the door, the flies are coming inside. Guillaume, try to look more cheerful. Guillaume, stop looking cheerful.' But no matter how simple the task, everyone says to that hyena, 'Good job, Dog! Good boy, Racer!' And what do they tell me?"

"Guillaume, stop complaining, it is unbecoming," said his older brother Narsai.

"If I tore a branch from the tree, and rushed toward you, shrieking and slapping the branch against the ground, what would I be saying to a baboon?" I asked the young one.

He looked pouty, and unwillingly replied, "You would be saying, 'Stay right there, Puckerbutt, I am coming to kick your unappealing ass'."

"And so I wouldn't say that to someone with whom I had to share a campsite and a trail. When you show your teeth to the dog, you say the same thing in his native language."

Guillaume draped his arms over his head and face and turned toward the trunk of the tree.

"Shall I beat him later for his insolence?" asked Narsai, continuing to write in a notebook he'd insisted on bringing along.

"I think he got the point, Narsai. What are you writing, may I ask?"

"So far it is a journal of my experiences of insects on this trip." He showed me the pad of paper. "Here, the ubiquitous boxelder-beetle is portrayed with her distinctive markings. I shall add the orange colors when we are settled in a civilized clime. The boxelder-beetle has a taste like stewed cigarette ends; thus it is an unpalatable choice. And this is the exquisite so-called June Bug, whose savor and crunch surpass that of chicken salad on toast with garlic pickles on the side."

"Nice drawings," I said. Good thing Margot was asleep. She had a notoriously queasy stomach and would have taken exception to Narsai's dining reviews.

"'Nice drawings'" muttered Guillaume, in a pinched tenor imitation. "Nice ruff, Narsai, nice turn of phrase, Narsai; Narsai, would you like to accompany me to the opera..."

An explosive shriek split the air as the older baboon leaped, fangs bared, from his branch to his brother's. Guillaume scrambled off through the underbrush. Margot jumped from sleep to a defensive crouch. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded.

Her dog backed up and sat down. "That wasn't me, I'm innocent."

"There are reasons trolls don't keep pets," Margot said grumpily. "And these are three of them."

"And here I thought it was just because you guys got hungry and ate them. Young Guillaume is going through a phase, I fear. Too young for an adult, too old for a child. He's grown less dependent on his brother, but is quite attached to Danner."

The troll looked at the height of the sun. "Speaking of whom, where is your cousin? Wasn't she going to find fodder for the horse about three hours ago?"

"Cousin?" I shook my head. "Yes, she was, and Cloudraft went with her."

"Oh, yeah, like that wizard would know grass from gardenias."

"I think he's just depressed and wanted company."

"Hey, I just want to get past Skuleflight Harbor and back to the beaches. That's hard enough dragging along a screwball hedge shaman and a talking dog that won't shut up, let alone a couple monkeys and a wizard in a funk. Do we really need them?"

This is a question that comes at the beginning or at least quickly in any campaign or organization. Who is important? Who can we lose? Who is in charge?

The archer with the longbow slung across his back and the crossbow in his hands looks like he's one formidable asset, but then someone in his gang notices that he can't tell ducks from finches, and suddenly priority one is to get the weapons away from this ally, or risk getting shot being mistaken for an orc with an agenda or an antelope packing a set of prime ribs. Get this one disarmed, and who will keep an eye on him?

You're on the move alone and in danger and at an inn, you meet up with a band of adventurers who are headed for the city of your own destination. Do you hook up with them for safety in numbers? Are they competent, any of them? Which one is calling the shots and can he call them well? Or are they the kind of crew that gets themselves into so much trouble that you're better off not even following them at a distance?

Two new-hires move into their office cubicles like mice dropped into the starting box of the maze. Run! Find out which fellow employees are helpful to the career, which ones carry The Plague, which ones are actively seeking your destruction and setting you up for failure just because there might be layoffs next year. Does your supervisor observe what is going on and coordinate the staff, or is she a loser who wears a target on her back that will arouse the ire of Corporate and get her sacked along with anyone else who appears to work closely with her?

I spent some time at a monastery in the mountains of Cadran, once, recovering from a fearful injury. The monks were dedicated to caring for the afflicted wayfarer, but also to recopying ancient texts. In spite of having a common goal (nowadays translated as "mission statement"), the internal jockeying for primacy and preferment was the number-one objective of each of the monks. Who got to handle the gilt paint for chapter headers? Who received the most coveted manuscripts to transcribe? Whom did the abbott consult when deciding on the next project? Brother Lars has a knife with a blade so sharp he can cut a new quill in two strokes, keep on his good side. Be careful, don't antagonize Brother Wilmuth, or you're likely to find that your inkwell has been contaminated with flour or ash.

It's a kind of sorting out that people just do when they're thrown together, noting strengths and weaknesses, motives and productivity. You're not just looking for who you can trust, but what you can trust about them; and you can be assured that all the others are looking to see what they can trust in you.

Our peculiar little company had only been on the road together half a day since we left Oceanwind Castle, and the sorting out process had already begun. I was the only one who knew everyone in the band, and so I was the only one who knew that they could all pull their own weight. Indeed, only the dog, the horse, and Guillaume the adolescent baboon were dependent on any of the others; this congregation could split up and go their separate ways at any time. I hoped that we wouldn't, at least for a while.

Although the wizard was really depressed about being evicted from Oceanwind Castle, he did have enough magical talent to have earned the name "Cloudraft the Great" -- and besides, he could conjure The New York Times every morning if we treated him well. Danner was still learning her wizard tricks, and was still a junior shaman, but damned if she couldn't find good taverns better than anyone else I knew. If you were looking for a great conversationalist, you'd be hard put to find one better than Narsai, for all that he was a baboon.

As Margot asked me, did we really need them? "Yes, I think we do. We did an excellent job of ticking off a dangerous and possibly vindictive villain back at the castle, and I wouldn't put it past him to try to snuff us all out to cover up his evil deeds. I think we're safer in a group."

The troll stood and began packing up her bedroll. "And I think we'll be safer if we move on as soon as we can."

"I'll find Danner and Cloudraft," I said, following the little trickle of stream beside which we'd rested. Ten minutes walk brought me to a glade where the horse grazed, and Danner sat, with the wizard's head resting on her leg while he dozed. He had a daisy-chain on his hair. "You two are fair to middlin' disgusting about each other," I told her. "It's time to get moving, though. Give me the horse's lead rope and you can catch up. Just don't get separated by too long."

She nodded and handed me the rope.

We saddled the horse (to whom Danner had given the name 'Melvan') and fastened the various packs to the saddle. As we moved off from the tiny stream, both baboons came springing out of the tree branches and leaped onto the top of the packs, simultaneously grinning their teeth at the dog who had pursued them, raising the middle finger of both hands at him while they clung to the baggage with their feet.

"Fingers," said the dog, as he came to walk between Margot and me. "A dog has no fingers, and so he's screwed. "

"I bet you ten gold that we have to ditch these weenies before we get a week down the road," Margot said to me, brushing leaves out of her mohawk.

"You're on, and you could already pay up," I replied comfortably.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-03-10
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