Maybe the reason he could relate to the Kerasajat so well was because she was Different. Like Taaheri, Kerasajat Teranyina looked completely different from the Nayabaru. The first time he'd seen her, he'd been frightened. It had taken him a while to understand how her face was arranged - and even then, it has never conveyed any emotion. It seemed like such an unlikely source of genuine respect, and yet he had never caught her out like any of the others. Granted, the same was true for his adoptive mother, Tesaka, but he knew better than to trust the other staff. And he knew better than to misbehave.
The Nayabaru's mistrust was understandable, of course. He'd learnt enough of Nekenalosian history to understand the great rift between the cultures - and what a danger the kavkema represented. He intellectually grasped how they rationalised their flimsy excuse of an ethical system, but it was foreign to him emotionally.
Still, they were creatures like him, and as much as he felt a pang of fear at meeting even a captive predator, the prospect spurned his curiosity. It was the Karesajat that accompanied him today, led him to where he would meet his biological mother. They deemed him old enough to face her, to accept that they were related, against all societal odds.
His arachnid companion paused beside the cell. Even though her posture didn't change, he knew her attention had shifted to the eyes that were on him. “Do you think you can handle her?” Teranyina's alien voice was clearly audible, without the touch of the obviously artificial, and yet unmistakably foreign. He had tried to sound like her once before, in private, but his vocal chords refused him the necessary distortions.
To be honest, Taaheri wasn't sure he was ready for this. He'd never met another kavkem in person before; he'd only heard stories about them – terrifying, violent savages who revered death. He didn't want to be like that. The other Nayabaru were afraid of him – and they had every right to be, if the stories about kavkema were true. But he didn't want them to be afraid of him; he wanted to show them that he wasn't like the others of his kind. Which meant coming here, and seeing for himself, firsthand, what the Nayabaru feared.
Of course, a part of him was curious as well, to see for himself if all the stories about kavkema were true. Though not quite curious enough to go in undefended; Karesajat Teranyina had gotten him a tool the guards here use, a narrow rod that delivers an electric shock to whatever it strikes. And if all else fails, he still has his teeth and claws – but he'd rather avoid using either of them if he can help it.
Taaheri breathes deeply, shutting his eyes for a moment to calm his nerves, before twisting his head up to look at the Karesajat. “I think so.” Having said so, he turns his attention back to the cell, takes another deep breath, and enters. Time to be brave.
Teranyina's foremost limbs ease the door open for him. It's larger than he is - he's a bit on the petit side, after all, compared to the Nayabaru and Teranyina. It slides to the side smoothly, dumb and obedient in its recognition of the Karesajat.
The first impression is manageable. The room is the smooth white of a temporary holding - featureless, polished, free of grime. He'd been in to help clean a cell before. They weren't much worse at all - the Nayabaru did not want to have to nurse any run-away infections if it could at all be avoided and took care in keeping them clean - but this sterile brightness was something only a temp possessed.
The creature inside was a crumpled heap of feathers and scales. There was nothing immediately intimidating about her, other than her otherness. The outlines were ones he had seen in a mirror before and in textbooks, but never in another's flesh. The dark eyes had fixed on him the moment he entered, with that predatory precision. The Nayabaru possessed stereoscopic vision which they used for certain tasks, but they felt more comfortable regarding a thing with one eye.
A metal collar glinted from beneath the unkempt mane, a mixture of white and brown that could not decide which colour had been spattered with the other. A chain ran from the back of it to a nub in the wall, minimalist insurance that she could not escape even if the door foolishly remained ajar. There was a weariness inherent to her body but no signs of damage but for the flesh of her wrists. The scales had been worn down enough for the skin to look tender, but it was unbroken.
And yet, her gaze had a tinge of defiance - a fatalistic but stubborn expression, devoid of an expression of soul. Automation. An automation that had only barely paused at the sight of him. Much as it was unmistakable to Taaheri that this was a creature different from him, no matter how alike they were in shape, it was obvious from her perspective that he was similarly disconnected.
Taaheri wasn't entirely sure what he was expecting when he first walked into the cell. On some level, he knew what he'd see – he knew what kavkema looked like, after all, but seeing one looking directly at him, following him with that predatory gaze, was unsettling. Her expression was difficult to parse, especially given his lack of familiarity with reading kavkem faces. Angry? Hungry? (Did kavkema ever eat their young? He thinks he remembers hearing something like that.) It's a good thing the chain is there; she looks like she'd try to attack him if it weren't.
A shiver briefly runs down Taaheri's spine, but he does his best to avoid letting the prisoner see. Hopefully she can't smell his fear. He can do this; he can be brave. “Do you speak Naya?” He suspects the answer is 'yes', even wild kavkema generally learn to speak a proper language.
The muzzle twitches, eyes narrowing in contempt. “Lucia-na Kendaneivash?” a guttural voice demands in a transparent sneer. “I do speak the language of my captors, though,” she adds, the sheer familiarity of the tongue softening the barb. “But I don't have anything to say to you.” The tip of her muzzle gestures to the weapon in wordless explanation.
Even without knowing a word of the kavkemic language, Taaheri's still pretty sure he can guess what she said from context. The barb stings, unexpectedly; he tenses up, grip on the weapon tightening. He's known this kavkem for less than a minute; why should he care what she thinks of him? “I'm not here to hurt you,” he replies, voice flat. “This is purely for self-defence,” he adds, holding up the rod. “I won't use it unless I'm forced to, I promise. I just want to talk.”
The captive's reaction to that is a moment's stunned silence - which rapidly devolves into a dark chuckle, muzzle lightly ajar in twisted amusement. In an abrupt motion - faster than he's seen anyone but the Karesajat move - she lurches forward enough to pull the chain taut, collar grasping at her neck and folding her outlines forward slightly. She holds herself that way deliberately for a moment. With the way the collar's attached, it isn't taking away her breath. “Defence?” she throws the word back in his face. Her forepaws reach forward, blunted scratching uselessly at the air infront of her, the motion almost frantic. Her jaws open, tongue curling back, revealing a maw that is threatening even with the dulled teeth. It clacks shut demonstratively a moment later. Then: “I must admit I'm curious what power I possess that would force your hand.” Said, she lets herself sag back a few inches, ending up bundled on the smooth floor not far from where she began, her gaze still fixed on her unlikely visitor.
The sudden motion spurs an instinctual terror – he's being attacked; she's going to lunge at him and rip out his intestines or something and… And she's stuck. Taaheri's a few steps further away from her now, and he's holding up the weapon instinctively to protect himself. There's a chain stopping her, he tells himself. He's safe, she can't hurt him, he can stop being terrified now. His heartbeat can stop throbbing in his ears whenever it wants. He closes his eyes, lowering the raised weapon and trying to force his breathing back to its regular, calm rhythm. 'Just try to explain the situation to her; maybe then she'll cooperate.'
“Look, I'm just…” he starts, then pauses awkwardly, unsure how to continue that line of thought. His eyes peel open, looking around the room, avoiding eye contact. “This is the first time I've done this,” he finally says, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Talking to a k– to another kavkem, I mean.” His gaze turns back to the closed door; he knows the Karesajat is still waiting on the other side, ready to help or support him if he needs it. “That's all this is; they just told me to talk to you.” His posture is nervous, uncertain; some amount of it perhaps caused by her sudden motion, but certainly not all. 'What am I even doing here?' a part of him asks.
The kavkem's stare lingers on him for a moment almost long enough to stand uncomfortably on its own as a response. A single saccade sets her gaze somewhere else on his face, proving that she was still looking at him rather than through him. Her maw opens slightly, then closes again, conveying a discarded thought. Then: “I see.” Something about her tone of voice has changed drastically - it's sunk into a withered, sad little thing, though still impossibly resolute. Slowly: “You've been raised by the Nayabaru,” she observes, then lets that statement linger - letting it morph, in afterthought, into a question. The solemn tone suggests she's already made all the necessary connections and is just fishing for confirmation. Raised by the Nayabaru - a test-tube baby, so to speak. Here, to speak to her, likely in particular. That narrowed the options down. More harrowingly for Taaheri, it shows that he's in a room with something very intelligent indeed. That doesn't quite suit the narrative.
Something about the kavkem's response gives him pause. The words themselves aren't unexpected – it's hard to imagine anyone else could have raised him given what he's said, after all. And in spite of all he's been told of kavkema, he knew they weren't stupid. They had a culture – even if it was horribly backwards by Nayabaru standards – and stupid predators weren't a threat to the Nayabaru. Still, they were obviously intellectually inferior… or so the Nayabaru claimed. (After all, any science and technology they had was raided from the Nayabaru.) And yet… This one seemed to have grasped the implications of his situation rather quickly. Whatever she thought they were. That doesn't quite sit well with him.
“That's correct,” he replies matter-of-factly after a long silence. He briefly considers asking why that bothers her, but then dismisses it as a stupid question; he can already guess at the reasons. “My mo– my adoptive mother's one of the scientists here.” Almost as soon as he says it, he regrets doing so; that… probably wasn't going to help matters at all, was it? She probably had enough reasons to hate the Nayabaru scientists; telling her that one of them was his mother-figure wasn't going to make whatever this relationship was any better. After a long, awkward pause, he hesitantly asks, “You… really don't recognize me at all, do you?”
The barest hint of a shiver ripples through the captive kavkem, some of her feathers bristling and her eyes narrowing slightly, though the conveyed emotion is ambiguous - it could be scepticism just as much as a deep loathing. Her teeth clack together once more, this time with a little more force. The moment drags on. Inwardly, she wrestles with her disgust. Did he honestly think she had some sort of emotional bond to children taken from her against all consent? Did he even know? Surely he did - that wasn't something you kept secret from someone who was overwhelmingly likely to hear it from the kavkem you took him from. …or did they? Was that just their malevolent sense of humour? “Why would I?” she asks, prompting for elaboration. Her lips draw back from her teeth in a bitter smile.
She doesn't know. That in itself should be cause for alarm – evidence, perhaps, that his assumptions about his birth and his parentage don't line up with reality. Surely, even if she hadn't seen him since he was a newborn, she'd still recognize him, or at least have the capacity to imagine. Why else would he come to her cell in particular? If the alarm bells are ringing in his head, though, he's ignoring them.
“Because…” He trails off, eyes turning away, back to the door. He can't really imagine how hard it's going to be to hear, but he has to say it. There's a long pause, as he tries to build up the nerve. “Because I'm your son,” he finally says. “Taaheri.”
The shiver from before returns, at first mirroring its earlier cousin almost precisely, then morphing into a surreal medley of a dark chuckle and a gagging noise. Her eyes squeeze shut and her forepaws clutch themselves into futile fists, absorbing much of her tense tremble. “You think I'm your parent?” she asks, peeling her eyes back open to fix her gaze on him with aimless contempt. “Me?” she half sneers, half quivers in some indecipherable emotion. “I'm a chromosome donor whenever your precious friends feel like it.” Her maw opens, feathers bristling more prominently now. For a moment, she keeps the aggressive posture - then it falters and she folds in on herself slightly, following an instinctive urge to retch, going through at least the most visible motions without effect.
That… was not the reaction Taaheri had expected. Disgust. His sympathy for the creature in front of him is suspended, as is his fear of her, both replaced with disbelief and confusion. She's disgusted by you. He stares at her, dumbfounded, maw hanging open, a million questions hanging on his tongue. How could his own biological mother feel disgusted at his presence? What did she mean by being a 'chromosome donor'? She hates you.
Eventually, he breaks the silence: “What.” He's still staring at her, not sure what to make of this whole outburst.
Her eyes widen at his stunned statement, glancing up at him. There's an edge to her voice that might be a hint of desperation - or just regular insanity. “How do you think you were made, exactly?!” she snarls at him. “Do I look like I have a loving relationship to you? Does your imagination not go that far? Do you want me to spoonfeed this to you? I don't get to keep any of the eggs they take from me. I don't get a say in whether or not I make them in the first place!” Her forearms are pressed against her chest by now, angle awkward, tension blatant. Something in her expression changes - the vibrant glare from before dims to something altogether alien, and a soft, pleading tone utters: “…are the others-? Your siblings? Any-?” Her muzzle clacks shut as she realises that this is not a train of thought she wants to go along. But there is one thing she absolutely has to know, and she asks it with a firmer tone, engaging Taaheri with another stare: “Which clutch are you from?”
At first, her shouting accusations don't quite connect with him; the context isn't there yet. The more she says, though, the more things start to fit into place, and the more horrifying it starts to look. A sharp chill runs down his spine when she mentions siblings, eyes going wide with terror. He takes a few steps back from her, towards the door, gaze locked on her. Which clutch? Siblings?! “I… I don't-” he starts, voice quiet, trembling. Images flash through his mind's eye, rows upon rows of kavkem eggs, each stamped with a serial number. His siblings. How many of them had adoptive mothers like his? What were they like? Were they brought up like him at all, or…? “I…” His blood goes cold. “I didn't know… there were others,” he finally manages to stammer, quietly. Then, “How many?”
Q`urudaara regards him with a mute horror of her own. He didn't know. They hadn't told him. Of course not. What had seemed unthinkable earlier now seems so obvious in hindsight. It wasn't like them to talk about their little atrocities. They weren't out for bragging rights. This wasn't a display of dominance - this was a systematic cultural eradication. For the large part, the Nayabaru dealt with them like they would with insectine pests, except that they had some preferable traits which made them useful to keep around. Worthy adversaries? A culture that can't even build a projectile weapon except out of animal guts? Is that even a culture at all?
“I don't count them,” Q'urudaara says, softly. There's no deep weariness in her voice and no accusation, just a hint of hollowness in the matter-of-fact delivery. “Maybe your mother can tell you. I'm sure they keep notes.” Despite the words, this, too, is said without venom.
She doesn't know. That fact slowly settles into place with the others, still trying to find their way into him. He has some unknown number of siblings that he's never met, and probably never will unless his mother decides to let him. He's not even sure if he wants to; he has no idea what they're like, after all, and all he knows they share with him is his chromosomes. I'm probably the first of them she's ever met.
Taaheri is silent for a long time, avoiding looking directly at Q'urudaara, trying to come to terms with this new information. It wasn't like the Nayabaru to do this for no reason; she was safely in captivity, not a threat to anyone. Kavkema were maligned, but for good reasons; the precautions they took in handling them were sometimes harsh, but always justified. “Why would they do this to you?” he wonders aloud, still avoiding eye contact, voice still quiet.
Q'urudaara gives a snort, though it's weak and mangled by competing emotions. She reflects for a moment on her situation, regarding Taaheri in silence, expression one of disappointed sadness insomuch as there is one to discern at all. Perhaps it's good that this young man might as well be a complete stranger, that she has no emotional ties to this probably-a-son of hers to make that question hurt any more than it already does. In what universe was hers an acceptable fate for any crime?
But then, she's not talking to a kavkem. Not really. This is a Nayabaru that just happens to look like a kavkem. He might have some vague, instinctual empathy for kavkema, simply based on semblance, on sharing a body plan, but it was no doubt flimsy at best. Looking at him, how old was he now? In his late teens? Early adult life? Plenty of years to be subject to brainwashing. What was a jaded kavkem that had been trapped for longer than that going to do to change his mind? She'd lost the will to be rational with Nayabaru years ago. He'd briefly overridden the worst of her indifference with his surreal appearance, but the benefit feels like it's evaporated.
The realisation twists as a sharp, stabbing pain in her heart. Something in her cries out, begging her not to make the same category error he must be doing, begging her to give him a chance. It knots in her throat.
“I want to reprimand you for the sheer arrogance of that question,” she finally says, wearily. “But if it's important to you… ask them.” The pitch of her voice changes to a bemused but fractured sneer: “Because from here it looks like it's because I'm a kavkem.” Her mind runs over the unspoken sentence that a part of her feels should have followed: 'Not that you'd know what that's like.'
Her response prompts a sharp pang of discomfort in his gut. His gaze rises to meet hers, a hint of incredulousness in it. She can't honestly expect him to believe that, can she? …does she believe that herself, or is she lying? It's hard to tell given his lack of experience reading kavkema. He closes his eyes, exhaling slowly in an attempt to calm himself; even if she is a criminal he still has some sympathy for her. For all he knows, she doesn't even know what she did wrong. Still, he can't quite bring himself to let her statement stand. “I'm… sure there's more to it than just that,” he replies, tone still shaken from her earlier statements.
With a flat tone and a hollow stare, Q'urudaara remarks: “I also have an oviduct.” The snark was out past her muzzle before she had much of a chance to stop it. Instead, her shoulders tense and her eyes squeeze shut in discomfort an instant later. Her teeth lightly trap her tongue. She was assuming he was already a lost case and just estranging him further. But what did it matter? It wasn't her responsibility to educate this kavkem. She'd been patronised for years in the most humiliating ways - any responsibility she might once have possessed had been cleanly scraped out of her by now, clinically, methodically, impersonally. Her life alternated between existence as a machine that had to function and life as a caged animal. Neither left any room for responsibility. There was no reason for her to accept that burden now, even if it was self-imposed. She struggled to reject it - and found it sticking to her psyche, held fast by threads of a vague, unsubstantial hope. Please listen to me. Please help me. Please. I don't want to live like this.