The skirt was the reddish brown of cinnamon with white circles, as varied in diameter as the city Koti's coins, clustered in the bottom right-hand corner of its front. "It grew this morning in my garden," the old man said.
Bganti needed only a bird's cry of time to translate it.
"Thank you," he told the old man. When the man had gone, with the skirt neatly folded and thinking, no doubt, of how he would possibly sell such a plain garment, Bganti reached for his stack of thick notesheets.
'A brief fall of hail in the south-east of the city' he wrote, and had a boy take it to the Council-Head, who wanted every skirt-message that grew across the city -- even trivialities like the previous night's weather.
Bganti, Master Translator for the city Koti -- only translator of the city's skirt-sent communications -- reclined in his chair and schooled a carefully neutral expression as he flicked through his lie-filled records.
A week later the apple crop failed, as the city had known it would. A sudden chemical imbalance in the soil.
"This grew in the night. Looks like a complicated one."
"Bring it closer."
The woman with a crescent moon birthmark on her cheek did so, allowing him a thorough look: a discord of colours and patterns, triangles tessellating into stars and squares, smears of black like spilled ink across the spice hues of the rest.
Bganti's whole body stiffened, as if petrified.
"Bad news, Translator?" the woman asked.
"Ah… yes. Trouble at the market today. Perhaps another of those earth tremors."
"Not a bad one, is it?" Her voice went soft, worrying.
"I'll have the Council-Head put a warning out."
Sturdy travelling clothes, a few treasured books, a thumbnail painting of his mother -- Bganti packed them as fast as he could behind the concealment of pulled-down blinds. He'd expected more time than this, but natural forces did not follow a man's desired timetable.
The city bells rang the tenth hour of morning. He needed to leave.
But outside, in every street of the city, people hurried towards the southern gates carrying packs and loose possessions, and Bganti saw the woman with a crescent moon birthmark shouting through a megaphone. Pointing at the mountain to the city's north, warning of fire and super-hot smoke.
He had been promised so much money to conceal this.
"Working for the Abani, I take it," said a voice -- the Council-Head's -- as a pair of men seized Bganti, held him still. "Surely you didn't think my failures to train another Translator would continue forever. She's rather good."
As the men dragged Bganti back inside, the woman looked at him just once, with anger as visible on her body as her clothes.