It is not greatly surprising that Wrath of Trees got another rejection; ysabetwordsmith said of it, "The Wrath of Trees is a delightful and exceptionally original story … at a time when the mainstream publishers are favoring (based on the review copies they send me) lightly tinted variations on Same Old Stuff and Hot New Thing Everybody’s Doing."
I'm more annoyed with Sam's Dot Publishing for taking six months (and six prompts) to get back to me, after telling me it would be six weeks, than for rejecting it.
Anyhow, do you have any suggestions for what I should do next with it? Another small press, maybe -- but which one? Try to find an agent?
Here's the first chapter, anyways. Enjoy, or not.
The Wrath of Trees
Preface on Language
Pronunciation is largely as in English. However, final "e" is always pronounced: "Matake" is pronounced "mah-TAH-kay"; illone is "ill-OH-nee".
English words are sometimes used for things on Kono. "Bamboo" isn't terrestrial bamboo, as any botanist could tell. Seagulls aren't terrestrial gulls; they are smaller and somewhat blue, and have markedly different reproduction and social organization. But they're close enough. There is plenty of vocabulary that doesn't have good English words, so we use English words when we can.
The lakku philosopher wagged her tails as she hammered nails into my trunk. Not the pleasant companionable wagging, but wagging them so that they cross each other: the gloating of a victorious predator. I was small at the time, and three of the nails poked out my bark on the opposite side. They ached, of course, but a plant does not feel her body as acutely as an animal would. Nothing had eaten my fruit, so I had no way to resist her, or even complain.
"And you certainly look pleased with yourself, Pyzot. Though I must admit that I don't quite know why you're looking that way -- nor why you and Saet have invited me to your private garden in such secrecy to watch you hammer nails into trees," said her overlord.
"One moment, Utsuse; I must finish my precautions." Pyzot unwrapped four more nails from their careful bags of grey silk, and walked to my brother. He was planted nearer the center of the garden, and got more of the square day-sun and round hour-sun than I did. His fruit had already come ripe. He now commanded four songbirds, and had since dawn, though he was scarcely expert in their use.
When Pyzot started hammering the first nail into him, he assaulted her with three of them, sending them chirping at her and pecking her futilely with their tiny beaks. She batted at them with her mallet, just as futilely. Her husband Saet whipped off his short cape and lashed at the birds with it, tangling two of them. He extracted them and popped them in a cage. The third bird flew off, terrified beyond my brother's ability to control.
Utsuse picked a small brush out of her belt-pouch and groomed her mauve face-fur a moment. "You grow vicious birds in here, Pyzot."
"It's their diet, Utsuse. You'll see soon," said Pyzot. She returned to driving nails into my brother.
Utsuse looked into the picnic basket. "And lunch today is ... heavy gardening gloves, an axe, a lit candle in a cunning little lantern, a bottle of lamp-oil, and ... whatever this is." She picked up a shining philosophical implement of curved ivory and shell, niobium fittings and a brass hand-crank. "Very dramatic, but not very filling."
"That's an Ehekinet lever. Put it down immediately," said Pyzot, her tails crossed threateningly.
Utsuse obeyed. "Though I must say, that's not the tone that a kotane generally expects from her faction members." She tugged her crimson sea-silk tunic smooth, in case it had gotten mussed by the insubordination.
Saet laughed. "Forgive my wife. A careless turn of the crank could destroy two years' work. And condemn Rorojro to remain a Medium Faction forever."
"Oh, I know that Pyzot is hardly an ordinary faction-member for me to command," said Utsuse. "She thinks she's the greatest natural philosopher of our age."
Pyzot finished the last nail, and wiped the fishy soil from her hands on her purple-fringed sarong. "The bravest natural philosopher, at least. Nobody else would have dared what I have done!"
"Fighting songbirds and driving nails in ... what kind of trees are those? I've never seen that sort of frondy little leaf, and those thorns with berries on the end don't look familiar either."
"They're not technically berries, though I call them that too for want of a better word. They don't have seeds, and they're not for reproduction," said Pyzot.
"A technical clarification, to be sure, but what are they?" Utsuse looked at the plaque in front of me. "Zweneo thorn currant trees? How did you get them? I didn't know that anything much from Zweneo had found its way to Kkulan. Did you secretly build your airship and go on a year-long expedition to our ultimate destination yesterday without mentioning it to me?"
"That would have been brave and audacious enough, Utsuse, but I went much further and faster and brought back much more than that. These signs are lies. The trees aren't from Zweneo, nor anywhere on Kono."
Utsuse's tails and fur went entirely flat, and the joking tone left her voice. "The last time natural philosophers brought plants to Kono from other worlds, we lost the entire continent of Ozotta to them. We wouldn't be on this slow raft to Zweneo if it weren't for philosophers playing with Kykkekekererueng's Dumbwaiter, and bringing in doomsome plants."
"Rayuppa and her associates were fools, and did not know what they were bringing here. They imported pink bellgrass to grace their gardens with its lovely color and delicate chiming, can you believe it? I am not such a fool -- if only because I have their example to warn me. I know precisely what maraleni trees are, what they can do, how they reproduce -- and how to kill them and how to control them," said Pyzot.
Utsuse was silent for a time, twining the tassels of her sarong between the parallel thumbs of her left hand. Then she said, "I am not so certain. I will listen to what you have to say about them before I command you to destroy them. Regaining our status as a Great Faction is important to me, to be sure, but keeping our last refuge against pink bellgrass safe is more important." I wished that I had some way to plead for my life, not that I had any idea what might persuade her.
"Well, first the reasons that they're safe. Maraleni mature very slowly and produce very few offspring; pink bellgrass is dangerous because it matures quickly and spreads even faster. Maraleni are not poisonous ... well, not exactly ... and pink bellgrass is. If you chop down a maraleni to the roots, it will die. If you mow a patch of pink bellgrass down to the roots, it will sprout back up," said Pyzot.
"How can you know this?" asked Utsuse, flattening both crests and both flame-shaped ears. I learned later that the gesture was one of worry or distress, for lakku.
"I did not simply copy Kykkekekererueng's Dumbwaiter and reach into another world and scoop out whatever I happened to find. I established contact with a mighty natural philosopher of that world, discussed my needs and plans, acquired several monographs on the maraleni, and only then brought two to Kono." She cross-wagged her tails dominantly.
Utsuse mused a moment, and then said, "Accepting that they are not dangerous -- with trepidation, I must admit -- and noting that our picnic lunch seems to consist entirely of ways of killing trees and mysterious implements of natural philosophy -- why do you think that these alien trees will be the least bit useful to us? Their branches are quite thorny, to be sure, but we are not numerous enough to defeat our enemies by lashing them with thorny branches. And we're not so poor that we can't afford better weapons, if it comes to that."
Pyzot slipped her arm around her husband's waist, standing on tiptoe to nuzzle the marriage-square shaved into the fur of his upper chest. "Originally I asked my correspondant about mighty gods of power, greater than Kysinne, perhaps the equal of Koronno. She would have been happy to supply one. But on further consideration, as you say, we are not so numerous or well-allied as to be able to use such a god. Instead, I asked for a spymaster, a force useful in the mess of intrigue and blackmail and bribery that lost us our Great Faction status."
Utsuse's mood had largely recovered. "And what could make a better master-spy than a thorny tree? I can imagine them now, slinking stealthily into the chambers of the Omojro faction hall. If anyone discovers one, they'll simply say, 'Potoni has redecorated with potted plants, and, alas! has forgotten to get the pots.' Unfortunately, they look a bit well-rooted to slink around, and a bit mouthless to tell us what they have overheard."
Saet scratched the handsome crimson wattles under his neck. "My thoughts exactly, when Pyzot told me."
Utsuse scratched her own femininely smooth neck, and bared her teeth briefly. "Pyzot, you really should discuss your plans with me first, before your husband, no matter how loyal and helpful he may be. I am, as I recall, the kotane of the Rorojro faction."
Pyzot wagged her tails in parallel, a sociable, conciliatory gesture. "I did, actually, when I started the project. You gave me your consent to investigate whatever ways natural philosophy might help our situation -- and gave me a substantial budget for it -- on condition that I discuss my proposals thoroughly with you before I put them into effect. We are currently having that discussion."
"Ah, right. I remember your budget acutely, though the conversation more dimly. Carry on; I will attend."
"The method is this. Maraleni are intelligent trees. Whatever eats their berries is, thereafter, subject to the maraleni's observation and influence, through subtle currents. A suitable philosophical device will protect against the influence, though not the observation -- I sent one over to the offworld philosopher to check. By 'influence' I include mental control -- of small animals of only minor intellect and will, unfortunately, we shall not be able to dominate Potoni or Ttika. But it also includes mental communication with sentient individuals," said Pyzot proudly.
"I beg your pardon?" asked Utsuse.
Saet continued for her, wagging his tails in parallel. "In short words: We feed our enemies some maraleni berries. Then the maraleni can look and listen on our enemies from afar."
"Ah! That is clearer. Though how do we persuade Potoni or Ttika to eat these alien berries?"
Pyzot added, "Or we feed them to mice, and send them creeping inside the bamboo walls to listen. There are many variations."
"I see the traditional Pyzot cleverness at work here! Or perhaps the traditional Pyzot insidiousness. How do we get reports, though? Can the trees talk?"
"Again, there are many variations. A bird can be compelled to peck at a board of letters and words to spell out a message. Or I shall eat a berry myself, and endure direct mental contact with the maraleni."
"No! You shall not do that. You enjoy taking too many personal risks with your natural philosophy -- anyone would think you hope to die in some great experiment, like Dean Osono herself. In any case, I do not like the idea of some alien tree exerting mental control over you! We shall find someone else."
Saet said, "Ffip."
Utsuse clicked her teeth in assent. "Ffip would do marvellously. If he takes after his parents somewhat, he should be clever enough to be an excellent spymaster. And if he's learned anything in his slavery as an olpi, he'll be sure to obey us very carefully."
"I think you protect me too much. I know the risks, they are slight! But, very well, we shall use Ffip," said Pyzot. "Do I have your consent to proceed with the experiment?"
"Not yet, though I am greatly intrigued by the possibilities. I wish to see demonstrations of their power and your control."
"Nothing could be easier, Utsuse!" She smoothed a patch of ground in front of my brother with her hands, then wrote two words on it. "This word is yes, this word is no. Send one of your birds to land on the word yes."
My brother had, evidently, regained control of his terrified bird. He compelled it to land on "no".
Pyzot bared her teeth. "On 'yes', tree. I know you can understand me. I will not tolerate mockery or disobedience."
The bird hopped up and down on "no", emphatically.
Pyzot put on the heavy gardening gloves from her basket, and stripped the thorns and leaves from one of my brother's twigs. "Tree, you are in no good position to object or disobey. 'yes', now, or you will die."
The bird copied the word "no", scratching the three lines in the ground with its beak.
Pyzot shrugged. "Very well, then." She took the ivory and shell device from the basket, pointed the niobium coil at my brother, and ground the crank two or three times. The nails that she had hammered into him exploded in spiralling bolts of flame. My brother fell apart in a pile of burning boughs.
"Well, I believe that you can destroy them, Pyzot," said Utsuse. "What was that?"
"A hyperbolic Ehekinet spike, showing off very nicely why it is hyperbolic rather than elliptical. The Ehekinet lever can set the other one off from, oh, the other side of Naoth. I tuned it quite well."
"Still, you are now down to one tree. I hope this one is a bit more cooperative, or there won't be much question about whether or not I approve of your plans," said Utsuse.
"I hope so too, or I'll have to pester my offworld correspondent a bit more," said Pyzot.
She turned to me. I was acutely aware of four hyperbolic Ehekinet spikes aching in my trunk, presumably quite happy to destroy me as the others had my still-burning brother. "Tree ... you don't have any immara yet, do you?" She turned to her husband. "That's what they call creatures who have eaten their berries. Saet, could you pick one of the riper berries and force-feed one of those birds?"
Saet looked over my fruit carefully. "Odd, how the berries grow right on the thorns... I suppose there's no accounting for alien trees. This one looks nearly golden." He picked it. "Just like a currant." He scooped one of the birds from the cage and handed it to Pyzot. She pried its beak open, and popped the fruit inside.
I gather that lakku or other intelligent animals might hold their first copulations in fairly high regard. They prefer that they be done kindly, say, with a desired partner, at a propitious time, and without an audience. That is how maraleni regard getting their first immara. Having one of my underripe berries force-fed to an unwilling bird that had just been immara to my burning, dying brother is the closest thing to raping a virgin that an animal can perpetrate on a plant. Or so I hoped.
But there was no time to think about that then. Maraleni berries work as well underripe as fully ripe, and I had all the instincts necessary to control the bird. And Pyzot was talking to me. "Now, tree, this word is 'yes', that word is 'no', and that burning thing is a maraleni who didn't do what I said. Land your bird on 'yes'."
I did. I tangled an immara tendril, an insubstantial strand that connects me to each immara, around the songbird's psyche, and let my racial memories explain how I could control her. When I understood enough, I hopped my immara bird onto the "yes" that I had scratched in the dirt, though. There was no real choice.
She gave me more orders, watching Utsuse all the while. "Send it to 'no', then back to 'yes'. Good. Now have it copy the glyph for 'yes' with its beak, as your brother did 'no' ... very good. Tree, continue to obey me this well, and you shall live long and happily."
"You can't just call it 'tree', Pyzot. Give it a name," said Utsuse.
"By which I understand that you consider my first experiment a success, and give your consent to proceed on to further experiments?" asked Pyzot, wagging her tails in parallel.
"I will pay close attention to it, to be sure, but you may proceed."
"Let's call it Vwothamaan, after the Old Pantheon god of vengeance," said Pyzot.
"That's almost sacrilegious, and far too grand for a slave that's not an olpi, or a lakku or even an animal," said Saet. "How about something a little meeker... Melylunnu, say? Dirt girl?"
Pyzot shrugged. "Old Pantheon, hah. If the Old Pantheon gods ever existed, they didn't follow us to Kono ... Melylunnu will do fine. It makes no great difference to me."
Utsuse fluffed her crests in amusement. "What's the proper ceremony for naming a tree? For a riding-beast, you feed her on porridge and braid her tail as you tell her the name, but we can't reasonably adapt that to a tree."
"Urinate on her trunk, maybe." said Pyzot. "She needs to understand that she lives at our sufferance and we will casually and quickly destroy her if she gives us the least bit of trouble. She must not get the impression that she is as valued or respected a member of Rorojro as even our lowest olpi, nor that she is deserving of even the least bit of protection." I had not, in fact, gotten that impression.
"Fair enough," said Utsuse. She lifted her skirt above her cloaca, and did so. The gesture probably would have displeased an animal more than me, but I was angry enough at it, and despairing. She rapped on my main trunk, where there are no thorns. "You're Melylunnu now. Melyl for short. Do what Pyzot says -- what any of us say -- or you die." She looked back to Pyzot. "I'm glad you're not raising Etefi that way."
"Etefi is my daughter, and Saet's. She is not a tree," said Pyzot, her crests bristling a bit.
"Really?" said Saet, wiggling his fingers in amusement. "She's as thin as a tree, and almost as prickly." Pyzot scowled at him.
"Oh, she's almost of age, and I'm sure she'll be as plump and appealing as any girl. You were a boyish stick yourself at that age, as I recall!" said Utsuse. I was glad enough that they weren't threatening me anymore.
Pyzot pouted. "I risk the dangers of the most terrible natural philosophy for you, I put the greatest spy on Kono in your hands -- or at least plant her in a garden-boat you own -- and what do you do? You tease me about how I looked as an immature girl. Not that you looked any better yourself."
"I am, let us say, two parts grateful, three parts terrified, and four parts perplexed about the matter. I will save the thanks until the scheme has borne fruit. Well, more than some exceedingly dangerous berries that we don't really know how to use properly yet. If your spy can get Rorojro back our Great Faction status, I shall celebrate you with feasting and fireworks."
"Don't do that! Melyl must remain a secret. For one thing, if everyone knows we have such a good spy, we no longer have such a good spy. For another thing, if we are known to have imported offworld plants, I doubt that we will be a Great Faction. I imagine we will be lynched," said Pyzot.
"True, true. I must learn to be more terrified and skulky," said Utsuse. Neither one seemed to come naturally to her.
Pyzot turned to me. "And you should pay attention to that too. Everybody in Kkulan -- everybody on all Kono, though there aren't many lakku anywhere else anymore -- hates and fears offworld plants, and has pledged to destroy them. For a very good reason: offworld plants are why there aren't many people anywhere but Kkulan anymore. If you ever have any thought of betraying us, remember that whoever you betray us to will be more your enemy than they ever will be ours."
And with that, Saet got out the other picnic basket, the one with actual foods in it, and they had a lunch on cold grilled fish and assorted pickles under my branches, and under the branches of the old tree next to me. Pyzot warmed her fish on the smouldering remains of my brother, and licked her lips and nose after she ate.
As they ate, Pyzot had me display my command over my immara. I sent the poor bird flying around. It was my first glimpse beyond the taller but unintelligent trees and bushes which grew around me, and the high bamboo walls beyond them. I was planted in a garden on a wide flat bamboo raft -- named Letse, as I later learned. Letse was tied loosely to half a dozen other rafts. Four of them were broad fecund farm-barges, like Letse but growing grain and tomatoes and squashes and kohlrabi, and lakku farmers tended those crops most diligently.
The other two were smaller, and more urban. One of them bore three dozen houses, loving confections of bamboo and wood lashed together with thongs of leather and tough purple seaweed. The other bore a single building, a mountain of bamboo and timber that rose to four and sometimes even five stories. Pyzot commanded me to learn about it as best I could. I darted my bird through the main door, and sent her on a terrified tour of the airy halls of the ground floor. One room was a vast dining hall, with tables and chairs for six hundred and eighty lakku -- I know, for Pyzot insisted that I count them. Three hundred and eleven of them were occupied -- or maybe a handful more or fewer, for they kept moving as I counted. Two lakku children fed scraps of barley and kohlrabi to my bird, and giggled when she ate them. "We don't often get such important guests in Rorolle Hall!" said their father, from which I learned the name of the building.
I reported my findings to my masters. "That sounds about right for a lunchtime," said Saet. "We cook for three hundred and eighty, usually, and have less than a quarter left over most days."
"So much waste!" said Utsuse. "We must economize at the moment. Cook less!"
"It's usually gone by dinnertime. The kitchen staff need to eat too, and they don't get to during lunchtime," said Saet.
"And Vwothamaan avenge you if you run out of food!" said Pyzot. "Utsuse would cut your tails off if a single faction-member went hungry."
"I'm not that fearsome," said Utsuse.
"Get some practice," Pyzot told her. "You may need to order that tree's execution, unless she's an excellent slave."
Utsuse fluffed her crests. "I'd be delighted to order its execution. You have my permission to continue the experiment, Pyzot, but only the greatest trepidation."
I hoped that I could find some way to betray Pyzot and her allies, some way to get revenge, even without allies. But I was silent and still, or as much as the sea breeze would let me be. I wanted Pyzot to think that she had entirely intimidated me into obedience.
She had done, more or less.