"You know nothing of ryogulai? Of xaven pidroso?" Lin began.
Botia coughed and replied that no, she had not.
Lin tapped her mandibles together twice before launching into her explanation. "I am ryogulai. We keep the south desert, and we minister to the Fangolians when they require it of us. The wizards call us xaven pidroso. It means "wisest worm". But we are merely ryogulai."
The caterpillar continued. "I was married three days ago. My husband has returned to his enclave to be received by his kin. He will return when--what is it?"
"Wait, you're a girl?" Botia asked.
Lin made a grinding sound with her mouth. "I suppose it will be more apparent after my metamorphosis, but yes, I am female. I am also immature. I won't be an adult until I emerge from my cocoon."
"And you're married?"
"I won't build my cocoon for several months yet. There are so many things that I need to do before my husband joins me to build our cocoon together. I will be in there for another several months. When I emerge I will be smaller and have wings. I will look like a wasp or a bee, although I have never seen a wasp or a bee. When that happens I will become hathanoi, and I cannot say that I want to ever be hathanoi."
The coyote yodeled again. It sounded very close.
"Why don't you want to be hathanoi?" asked Botia. This question was relevant to her interests. Getting eaten by a wasp wasn't much better than getting eaten by a worm.
Botia's mount made a scraping noise with her mouth again. It sounded like rocks grinding together, and it was loud enough that the coyote stopped howling.
Lin began speaking, still with that viscous inflection. "Once I become hathanoi, I am at the end of my life. I will have less than a year to live. And many of us forget things after we find our wings. Things look different in the twilight, they say. The obscure becomes clear, and the familiar becomes clouded. Rashaun tells me that my mother forgot the faces of all her friends when she became hathanoi." She tapped her mandibles together again, thoughfully. "Although not his face," she added.
A flock of tiny white moths, each no bigger than her thumbnail, flitted into Botia's field of view and decisively settled on Botia and Lin, like sticky confetti. Were these moths harmless? Maybe they were going to suck her blood. Or try to enslave her. Ha! Either way, the caterpillar didn't pay any attention to the tiny moths.
"I haven't thought about my mother in years," Lin said, still speaking in that murky accent. "It makes me feel far away and very old."
What a strange thing for a caterpillar to say.
"How old are you?" Botia asked.
"Huh," said Botia. The tiny moths were clinging to her hair and her dress, immobile except for a slight flapping in the cool night air. Botia slapped a few of them off and asked, "You never knew your mum?"
Lin lumped onwards a ways before she replied. "She died before I was one year old. I only have one memory of her. She was sickly as a ryogulai. Drinking the sky did not improve her health, I'm afraid. Rashaun raised my three brothers and I by himself. When I grew larger I told him that he was free to go his way, but he chose to stay with me. I owe him a great deal."
"Where's Rashaun's mother? Did you free her too?" Botia tried not to sound too hopeful, and failed.
Lin paused. "No. Rashaun's mother--my nurse--died before I was born."
As if in response to some invisible signal, the tiny moths lifted themselves in unison. They whirled themselves around, like a dancer flourishing her dress. And then they spun off, vanishing into the tall grass as if it had been choreographed.
There was tall grass all around them, she noticed. Fat clumps of the stuff, stiff and rattling in the breeze. The long blades arched overhead, and Botia could see the pale-faced moon peeking through them like a suitor through the windowslats. It was getting cold. And it was doing it faster than Botia had thought possible. She could almost hear the tempurature dropping.
"Do you have another blanket?" she asked Lin. "Or a jacket?"
"No," said Lin. "But we are still very far from my farm. Would you like to stop? You could warm yourself by a fire for a few minutes, but we must keep moving."
"It's alright, Lin." Botia shifted around, putting her cold toes beneath her thighs to warm them. "What was the memory?"
"You said you had only one memory of your mother. What was it?"
"I remember her giving rides to Rashaun. She bought a basket of ashiki reeds, and had a broad handle put on it. She used this to give rides to him. He was only nine then, and small for a boy. But every day, she would invite Rashaun to climb into the basket, and she would carry it as she flew through the sky. I am sure these exertions hastened her death, although Rashaun loved them. He still speaks of touching the clouds, and how the rivers turned into flat, blue ribbons.. I must admit that I am looking forward to it. Flying."
Botia could only grunt. Flying sounded awful.
"Tell me of your childhood, Botia. What was Truaga like? Have you ever seen . . . a forest?" Lin asked.
Botia barked a laugh. "I've been to Kerwood. I've even been to the Londeen Swamp."
Lin chimed in and said, "I've heard that swamps are very wet."
"I've been to those places because my father took me with him everywhere. That was when I was young, though. Now he's settled down to be the toll collector at the Mohas Bridge, right outside of Tenzen, where I live. I have a garden and two pet turtledoves and a very nice man who is waiting for me, so I'll be going back there soon."
Botia swallowed hard. Her was still raw from the collar earlier. Swallowing hurt.
Lin didn't respond. A few minutes later Lin asked a couple more questions about Truaga. After Botia gave a few monosyllabic answers, Lin stopped asking, and the pair rode in silence.
Several more miles disappeared under the big caterpillar's dinner-plate feet.
And then several more.
She hadn't been lying when she said that they still had a long ride ahead of them. But then Lin announced that they were had arrived.
It took Botia a minute to pick the buildings out from the clumps of grass that still decorated the landscape. There were three buildings that Botia could see, each circular and with a low domed roof.
When Lin finally crawled in between the buildings, it was too dark to see any details. Botia could just pick out some wooden lattices and a firepit, nothing more.
"Why don't you sleep in my tent tonight, Botia?" Lin asked.
"Sound's good." Botia asked, sliding off Lin's back. "Say, how far did we travel?" she asked, as innocently as she could, while memorizing the position of the moon.
"Less than fifteen miles," said the caterpillar. "Come." Rusty hinges squeaked as Lin opened the door to the biggest of the buildings. The doorway was only about five feet tall. Both Lin and Botia had to duck to get inside. It was just a single room. Not even big enough to be called a house. It was a few degrees warmer, though.
Botia didn't wait to be invited twice. Beside the door, there was a pile of grass with another blanket on top. Botia flopped down on top of that. Scratchy, but warm. She stayed awake long enough to hear Lin making that grinding sound again. At the other side of the room, the big caterpillar was rustling around, attending to whatever sundry mysteries giant worms enjoyed before bed.
The room was hot, dark, and over-fragranced with a citrus smell. It was almost exactly like the room where she had woken up this morning, but Botia fell asleep feeling more comfortable than she had in a long time.