San’s life thus far had been an unpredictable thing, to say the least.
No, that was an understatement. A seer would have been hard pressed to have foreseen a life such as his, though his parents hadn't been the type who would have consulted one on the birth of a child to begin with. Until the age of eleven, perhaps, it had been the life of an ordinary boy, without much divergence; and since then it had been both rather fraught and somewhat strange. As of late that dynamic had been reversed - it was suddenly becoming less fraught and more strange, and now it had reached a pace that San deemed completely headlong. The node… And then Seveth, and Ichaival, and some recent revelations about Rei… it was all a lot to take in.
With everything he had been through, San had thought he was beyond surprises, at this point.
And yet some part of him still had some capability for shock; it managed, somehow, to be surprised when he found himself escorting a massive reptile into a labyrinth of mountain caverns.
It was a job. It was always a job. Most things he did these days, he did for money. It was, in some sense, not so different from the life he had lived; back then he had done it merely to survive, on orders from superiors who didn’t care whether he lived or died, so long as he got the job done. The trouble was that if he couldn’t do those jobs, he was worthless to them, and discarded as easily as men drew breath. And so there had been little choice back then. The meals and the like had been free, or at least not something they had to concern themselves with, but that was merely because it would have been inefficient otherwise.
The Watchful Ones had at least recognized the value of keeping their agents in good physical health, even if they cared for little else beyond that. There was only so much one could accomplish with intimidation and terror, after all, and a body that was not in a state fit to work was useless regardless of its other extenuating circumstances.
Now, working for his own livelihood, he had something more like freedom of choice, but he found that the choices he had were often between two unpleasant things. Or more than two; often more than two, and often too many to properly think about without expending more effort than he would like.
Some variant of those decisions had brought him here. There were bills to be paid and, more regrettably, Seveth’s various frivolous expenditures to cover. And the one who had offered the job of ‘socializing’ this reptile had offered well.
’It’s a popular way to make some side income,’ Roku had said, with a flick of his ear that added, take it or leave it. Apparently there were mineral deposits in abundance in this range, and as a result it had been carved out like so much swiss cheese. Everywhere he looked on his way up, he had seen a different tunnel. In the end he had chosen one at random, having decided that, with no prior experience, there was no way for him to tell what would be good or not.
The reptile, fortunately, seemed indifferent to the whole affair at the moment. Indeed, based on its behavior up until now, it seemed indifferent to almost everything, San included. It followed on the lead attached to its neck sometimes, and sometimes San had to bribe it with some sort of treat.
San had been apprehensive about this whole affair; it was a large creature, and he was not used to dealing with creatures to whom he could not speak directly, but who nevertheless had the capacity for human intelligence. Roku and Ichaival both had their ways of making their words known, as had most of the creature agents of the Watchful Ones, what few there were.
San had wondered, at first, whether he ought to pretend with this reptile as he did with his human neighbors, putting on the hapless guise of Linyü to obfuscate his true nature. But it had been so indifferent toward him that he could not quite bring himself to believe that it would bear tales of him to its… what? Its master? That was the word San had first thought of, but then he thought of himself and Ichaival and Roku. And… And Rei.
Revulsion shot through him at the very concept of… Not Rei. And he knew he was being unfair, because she looked like him and Roku, for instance, did not; but even so, the sensation remained. But then, it wasn’t as if he had much hold over what Roku or Ichaival did either; in some sense they were all merely cohabiting with him. And if they enjoyed certain legal protections they might otherwise not have if they did not… That was a benefit, nothing more.
The legal protections were probably the only reason Roku stayed. That, and the convenience of a companion to whom some of your idiosyncrasies were already known. In this case it was his food preferences, and perhaps the easily manipulable guilt of someone who owes you a debt. San was not insensitive to what he did owe to the cat, and made up for it by budgeting around some excruciatingly expensive feline diets.
Very well then - not the master of the reptile, but the companion who offered it its legal protections, thought San, watching the reptile lick its chops. Or perhaps it was a master after all. San didn’t know. San was paid not to ask questions. Not that this one could have answered in such specific, articulate terms; but if it knew something of Common, he might at least venture to ask if it was happy in its current situation.
… But what he would do with that knowledge… No, it was better not to know. It was neither his desire nor his place to interfere.
Regardless, perhaps because of his own biases, he found it difficult to keep up that required level of tension around the reptile when it was just the two of them. And so he had reverted to being… if not himself, then at least not ‘Linyü’ either.
His… sense of self was a little vague now, and if he was being honest maybe it had been for a long time, but there was nothing like the advent of an entire other self to make one question one’s own identity.
The reptile did not speak, however, and if it judged him for anything he did not know about it. Together they entered the caverns, or at least San did, and the reptile followed when prompted. It had a shuffling sort of step, short legs on a long body, with opposite legs moving in tandem. San had never seen anything like it, or at least not on such a scale. The lizards back in Ningjing were small scuttling things, who basked on rocks and went scrambling into their hiding places when enterprising boys tried to snatch them up. Or else they were the clinging kind that ran along walls in the dark of night, the kind that…
… The kind that had frightened his sister when they were young.
San stilled for a moment. The thought of his sister - habit, so deeply entrenched that he was doing it before he had even caught himself, forced the thought away before it could completely overwhelm him. The pain flared bright and hot in his chest for a moment, and then abated as he quelled the errant thought. But the awareness of that pain remained, and with nothing to distract him, it was difficult to keep himself from probing at it again, like a sore.
Perhaps it was fortunate that he had a companion. The reptile deigned at last just then to make a noise - a low hiss, at something it had seen or sensed. San didn’t know what had prompted it, and for a moment he was caught up in the necessary task of keeping a careful eye on it.
He was watching it for cues that it might bolt, or else lash out at him or the rock around it. The reptile went very still, and stared intently into the darkness for a while, but at length it seemed to regain some level of composure.
San himself had not sensed anything, but this was, by the job giver’s own admission, a creature that had not seen much of the world. Some of the employer’s hopes in hiring San for the job had been to rectify that, and allow the creature some greater breadth of experience than they had found time to give to it. And this, strange as it was, was a kind of experience.
In other words, suffice to say, San did not put very much stock in its instincts. In the matter of sensing danger around them, at least, he privileged his own opinion over that of this untried individual.
Whatever else one might say about San, and even taking his age into consideration, he had accumulated more than enough experience with detecting threats from his time as an agent.
The reptile remained wary, and after some time, San said, “It’s alright. There’s nothing there.” He hoped to calm and reassure the creature, so that they did not remain stuck here at the entrance to the caverns. He would be paid regardless, of course, but San had some interest in exploring this place. Roku did mention that it could be a profitable venture, and San wished to see what he could find here to be of use to himself, or to sell onto some interested buyer somewhere down the line. And there were slim possibilities of that if the creature accompanying him refused to go any further, as his first and foremost job was to keep this reptile safe.
After all, the person who had hired him for the task would hardly be pleased with him if he returned a dead or injured charge, and even one that now spooked at the dark or tumbling rocks would not be looked upon favorably. Or rather, San would not be looked upon favorably for letting something like that happen, he supposed.
The reptile did not budge at first, remaining rooted to the spot. Perhaps it did not understand Common - it wouldn’t be a matter of difficult vocabulary, San thought, as the words he had used were very simple. But he could hardly try Xin, for no one spoke it here except himself and those of his own acquaintance. It was, for the most part, a blessing that there were not more immigrants and visitors from his homeland here. It made it easier for him to hide, and he certainly felt more at ease because of it.
Moreover, no one could gainsay anything he might claim about his place of origin, except that which might be revealed by an encyclopedia or wide-reaching history book to be grossly inaccurate. That was a convenience that made it easier to construct his identity here, and he was not ashamed to say that he sometimes lied about the nature of Xinzhou where it suited him.
But the fact that his native tongue was no use to him did… also seem a waste. He supposed he could always speak it with Roku and be sure of not being understood, which was a small boon.
Perhaps he could pick up another tongue, one that saw some use here which wasn’t Common. The thought interested him, and he put it away to ruminate on later at a more appropriate time. He was busy, it was true, but the trouble was that he had felt increasingly… restless lately.
The sense of constant pressure from his days as an agent had largely abated, and that ought to have been a good thing, but somehow San found it difficult to cope with all the same. Now his days felt strangely aimless, and bereft of purpose; and when he thought of the future, there was a great deal of uncertainty, whereas before he could see no change in his circumstances except relocation or death.
One would think it would be easier to adjust to the idea of not having to stare death in the face so consistently. And yet, here he was.
But eventually the reptile did decide either to trust San’s judgement, or that its own had been in error. Or perhaps whatever figment of its imagination that had startled it before had finally been deemed to have passed. Regardless of which it was, the reptile now allowed San to lead it further into the cavern.