BROADTAIL is nervous. He cannot pay attention to the speaker, and constantly checks the reel holding his text. He is to speak next, his first address to the Bitterwater Company of Scholars. It is an audition of sorts: Broadtail hopes the members find his work interesting enough to invite him to join them.
Smoothshell 24 Midden finishes her address on high-altitude creatures and takes a few questions from the audience. They aren't easy questions, either, and Broadtail worries about making a fool of himself before all these respected scholars. When she finishes, Longpincer 16 Bitterwater clacks his pincers for quiet.
"Welcome now to Broadtail 38 Sandyslope, who comes to us from a great distance to speak about ancient languages. Broadtail?"
Broadtail nearly drops his reel, but catches it in time and scuttles to the end of the room. It is a wonderful chamber for speaking, with a sloped floor so that everyone can hear directly, and walls of quiet pumice-stone. He finds the end of his reel and begins, running it carefully between his feeding-tendrils as he speaks aloud. His tendrils feel the knots in the string as it passes by them. The patterns of knots indicate numbers, and the numbers match words. He remembers being careful to space his knots and tie them tightly, as this copy is for Longpincer's library here at Bitterwater. The reel is a single unbroken cord, expensive to buy and horribly complicated to work with — very different from the original draft, a tangle of short notes tied together all anyhow.
Once he begins, Broadtail's fear dissipates. His own fascination with his topic asserts itself, and he feels himself speeding up as his excitement grows. When he pauses, he can hear his audience rustling and scrabbling, and he supposes that is a good sign. At least they aren't all going torpid.
The anchor of his speech is the description of the echo-carvings from the ruined city near his home vent of Continuous Abundance. By correlating the images of the echo-carvings with the number markings below them, Broadtail believes he can create a lexicon for the ancient city builders. He reads the Company some of his translations of other markings in the ruins.
Upon finishing, he faces a torrent of questions. Huge old Roundhead 19 Downcurrent has several tough ones — he is generally recognized as the expert on ancient cities and their builders, and he means to make sure some provincial upstart doesn't encroach on his territory.
Roundhead and some others quickly home in on some of the weak parts of Broadtail's argument. A couple of them make reference to the writings of the dead scholar Thickfeelers 19 Swiftcurrent, and Broadtail feels a pang of jealousy because he can't afford to buy copies of such rare works. As the questions continue, Broadtail feels himself getting angry in defense of his work, and struggles to retain his temper. The presentation may be a disaster, but he must remain polite.
At last it is over, and he rolls up his reel and heads for a seat at the rear of the room. He'd like to just keep going, slink outside and swim for home, but it would be rude.
A scholar Broadtail doesn't recognize scuttles to the lectern and begins struggling with a tangled reel. Longpincer sits next to Broadtail and speaks privately by means of shell-taps. "That was very well done. I think you describe some extremely important discoveries."
"You do? I was just thinking of using the reel to mend nets."
"Because of all the questions? Don't worry. That's a good sign. If the hearers ask questions it means they're thinking, and that's the whole purpose of this Company. I don't hear any reason not to make you a member. I'm sure the others agree."
All kinds of emotions flood through Broadtail — relief, excitement, and sheer happiness. He can barely keep from speaking aloud. His shell-taps are rapid. "I'm very grateful. I plan to revise the reel to address some of Roundhead's questions."
"Of course. I imagine some of the others want copies, too. Ah, he's starting."
The scholar at the lectern begins to read a reel about a new system for measuring the heat of springs, but Broadtail is too happy to really pay attention.