“Marry me to an Yrdkish Lady. / Marry me to an udod aodod. / Marry me to that one called Adz. / Because an editor is what I need.”-Shear Boot, When All Else Fails, An Album of Our Crying Simulations
The Ptilit chamber, named after the head of state who’d seen fit to erect it, was essentially a mezzanine with a tuning field barrier preventing tumbles and a woodglass aesthetic. Less a chamber in architecturally accurate terms, than a chamber of spirit. If the throne room of the Pennat Gate citadel was an apse, the forty-meter-square region was the half-dome at its roof. It had the bare minimum of necessary features for its occupants: a semicircular table twenty meters across, appropriate seating, and all the communication peripherals one could possibly desire. The four-kilometer separation between it and the opal throne below their transparent floor helped to proactively reshape the pressure of Very Important Meetings. When someone proved susceptible to the sensation of the walls (or railings) closing in, realizing that the distance from them to the nearest same-altitude barrier was less than half of one percent of the distance to the farthest surface visible downward of the altitudinous room encouraged people to get over and done with meetings.
The fact that the ploy had seen much use over the ages gave most visitors an inculcation against it.
Around the table’s perimeter ran a fine list of important names.
Countess Delied Abiniba, present head of the martial nobility of Œlthlant, a scarred and fearsome woman whose tactics had lost a hundred conflicts and won four hundred more, and whose hand lay heavy upon the tabletop. That hand nearly smoked; her eyes actually did thanks to her mastery of numerous thaumaturgical taxa, as she stared across the curving expanse at the speaker. She’d courteously interrupted only after he’d gotten to enfleshing his main points.
Baron Vocrrrekre Evrokcrrer, the entity who had long ago begun life as a ragathencider and since gone through so many conjugations it now was, in the words of a great man, “all things to all people.” Its thaumaturgic exoskeleton clicked and husked as spelled balsa sheaves slipped past each other in tiny increments. It had been readying a series of statements and factual observations. It obviously hadn’t really wanted anyone butting in.
Lord Naomi Galt, nominally representing a third of the reason of the present meeting’s timing. Three such meetings over the month since their respective clans had joined in a harmonious torpor. In actuality, the compact they had embraced was closer to two political entities becoming engaged than a simple diplomatic collaboration. Like the enterprise of human marriage, as it was known throughout much of Rhaagm (and Yrdky to a lesser extent), their bond would not be easily broken, and that would substantially better all involved parties. Also like marriage, the odds of it coming off without any hiccups were slim to none.
Gorar, elected to voice (or not) both the concerns of those misfit Fountainists who had essentially become unofficial residents of the meeting’s hosting party and the Beastly official residents who had been excluded from the proceedings at the request of… several people, as well as the Pastoral Division watching out for the same. Thus far, she wasn’t saying much, and she also clearly recognized the way her typical way of speaking might raise a lip or two, so her contributions would likely be both pungent and pointed. She had that streak of occasional ingenious gnoll cunning in evidence, as she waited to see when she ought to leap into the fray and start pulling out the intestines of good manners.
Alex Harding, a man with frighteningly massive ears and head of the Œlthlant Sledgecraft Guild, had promptly shut up at his countrywoman’s input. His long head tipped a bit at the Countess, his ears giving the impression that he would start rocking his neck back and forth and fly over the table to converse with her more quietly. His outstretched elbow no longer looked comfortably placed to maintain a brace against the table.
Tuoamas Pennat formed another third of the meeting’s justification.
Baron Bobbu Keppelering, an uplifted and oversized pterodactyl of lambent pedigree, envoy of Nor’ridge, managed to faintly smirk despite a beak with exactly one point of articulation. He was the third of the moving forces behind the gathering.
Sebastio Artaxerxes watched that scaly bird with a neutral expression from his place by the mezzanine’s corner. He didn’t let show just how much he’d enjoy forcibly introducing a fresh batch of hot pink to the man’s brain. It would be quite pleasant to stand over him and watch the least diplomatic diplomat he’d met in a while slowly degenerate into a sub-sentient mass of fungal tissue over the course of numerous hands, first erratically twitching as the drug took him into its loving arms, then staring into the imperceptible distance, then sagging into a slumped blanket of-
Sebastio blinked once hard to dispel the shivery fantasy, then followed suit with the others in the room as he transferred his gaze. Every thread of notice which could be tugged had woven around Countess Abiniba, and together formed a tangled jellyfish of upset potential energy.
“Is less now more desirable than more?” came from Harding. The man’s Yrdkish sounded like oxytocin-laced honey.
I beg your pardon?
“We will not postpone an exchange of our respective peoples’ talents just to avoid what might be,” said Countess Abiniba, solid in her opinion, blunt in her manner, fiery in her conviction – and her eyes. The thermal magic wasn’t a product of any of the common genres of magic. Indeed, it represented a blend of several disciplines. Whether the visual effect of the eye fires came from the desire to make a non-verbal statement or a less conscious tic or expression didn’t jump out at the beholder. What did jump out was the knowledge that, in another time and place, Sebastio might have fallen in love with the woman.
Alas, too late in every way. Speaking of which…
The Lord checked his chronometer. He and his Lady would be going out together for tenshe around the time the sun set that evening. A wonderful, rare break from life. Constant second-guessing and the mapping out of decision trees and trying to avoid directly contributing until specifically asked at meetings. Meetings. When Tuoamas invited him to attend, he’d known he needed to come – though without an invitation he’d have stayed well clear. The earlier-ruling half of the fractured throne did not need his hovering over a shoulder.
Maybe once, before both gentlemen had had discourse about motives, before Sebastio had more-or-less strong-armed his partner Lord in a confrontation with the man’s weakness for the Maker’s trinkets. Perhaps as penance for that weakness, the Lord had long since given up wearing the pendant which had girded his throat. For that matter, Sebastio didn’t know of any time in the last five years that the man had so much named the creature the Lord had once held close to an obsession. Tuoamas had not wept, and he would not weep.
With every fiber of his being, Lord Artaxerxes envied him for that fact.
When he’d shown up back in Rhaagm after chasing down and not quite murdering his ex-chum Niall Bennosuke, Sebastio had a technically-legal facetary refugee named Louis in tow and a legendary cliché in the shape of a sword-arm. The Cambrian had more or less tacitly consented to his permanent extradition in a face-to-face with the powers of Rhaagm, after they’d hashed out the essentials of a scheme within shouting distance of both entrapment and blackmail. Namely, through the dread power of that thing known as research, Tuoamas Pennat became the target of a simple offer which both Sebastio and the Jon of Rhaagm – executive of the largest nation in existence, master of terrifying levels of social aptitude, and possibly privy to secrets known to no other power besides Jons of bygone years – considered to be more than likely successful. After a legion of eidolons got back from the equivalent of twenty or thirty thousand man-years of research, the hunch about the nerve-wracking depth of the Yrdkish Lord’s fascination with the Maker bore out. A few promising rounds of prophecy-gathering also fell into the cookpot, and their results further encouraged Sebastio to seek an unconventional audience with his target.
Sebastio Artaxerxes, owner of Caladgbolg, wagered his new companion and (implicitly, as it would be surrendered if he were parted from Caladhbolg) his life against Tuoamas’s entire estate. Whichever of them remained capable of combat by end-of-engagement claimed both. To call the event farcical would be to dilute the meaning of the word “farce,” on numerous levels. In fact, to call the event legal would be to dilute the meaning of the word “legality” – it had been entirely up to the Lord to decide whether he’d humor a hubraic outlander’s ridiculous scheme. The man’s interest in the deal had peaked when the mysterious entity decided to make an address to a gaggle of nobles. He’d been interested enough to undertake the bent deal, had Tuoamas, and on that stone was built history. But only after a while, and a bit of clever guessing, did Sebastio hit upon the grimmer side of the truth behind his co-ruler’s ambitions’ depths.
He’d found the one chink in the man’s honor. His desire to strike Caladhbolg from Sebastio’s employ and acquire it for his own, even at the cost of his people’s lives. When the Cambrian confronted the Lord, not long after they’d joined forces in the management of a nation, he’d armed himself with guesses on the nature of Tuoamas’s motivation. Eventually, he rolled the dice, and accused the man – suitably vaguely, mind; he wasn’t keen on alienating the person he’d basically tapped to be his executor – of taking up the challenge for Caladhbolg just a bit too eagerly.
He hadn’t expected the extraordinary confessions he’d gotten from Tuoamas about that Being of Old who’d created Rhaagm. The minor embarrassment of interest that had later turned into major embarrassment. The prophetic dreams of his youth framing himself and the Maker side-by-side. The strange cognitive dissonance driving him to pursue knowledge of the Maker and his creations, and yet deny that it was an obsession. The way he’d even quietly tried to see if it would be possible to remove one of the sculptures of the Fountain Forest to his own estate. People had known Tuoamas had a taste for the Maker’s works forever; they, and Sebastio, had had no idea he would have been willing to trade his own people’s lives in bulk for the treasure in Artaxerxes’s arm.
It was astoundingly devious.
It was astoundingly flawed.
It was astoundingly mortal.
It was astoundingly comforting.
Sighs don’t always comfort.
“Is postponement equivalent to damage? What damage? Why damage? How damage?” Harding managed to maintain the air of being interested in discourse, rather than eager to earn points in the eyes of his sovereign. His input knocked the Cambrian out of his trance. Sebastio felt certain that Harding’s hope for productive output of the meeting was genuine, although the other man could probably have successfully falsified the results of a dowsing with nothing more than his voice.
We do not wish to harm our people. Is restraint guaranteed to harm? Is there no leeway in giving ourselves a measure of adjustment? Is the act of observing the most appropriate interfaces into which we might slot ourselves before entangling our peoples so dangerous?
Tuoamas glanced at Lord Galt, then Lord Artaxerxes. He obviously valued the skills of a man as dangerous in his reasoning and seductive persuasion as Alex Harding. Gorar’s body language, and the subliminal messages in how Baron Evrokcrrer resorted the prompts for its organizational bullet points suggested a general agreement with the Countess. Even so, Evrokcrrer at least outwardly sympathized with Harding’s worries.
Countess Abiniba obviously grew no less agitated at the idea of kicking the unification of their people any farther down the road. However, her tone moderated, and she regained sufficient poise to engage the Sledgecrafter as he engaged her.
“Mayhaps damage is time’s friend. Are our allegiances invincible from executive losses, and from thefts of the heart?”
Pennat Gate has suffered the near-death of one of its prime members. Another of its notable residents came close to kidnap. Have we the time to wait before commingling our waters, or will delay just increase the odds of grievous harm?
Nobody sent blatant signals of hostility toward the representative from Nor’ridge. For that matter, nobody so much as slipped in an acknowledgement of his existence until Sebastio flung a single barbed glance in Baron Keppelering’s direction. The pterodactyl’s beak pointed away. The eye he devoted to watching the verbal slap-fight kept its nictitating membrane closed; neither relaxed nor particularly tense, based on his appreciative posture. Sebastio wasn’t actually sure of how one should feel when one’s new allies – effectively kind-of-in-laws according to Yrdkish custom and tradition – had it out in front of a party known to be hostile but to an unknown degree. Should he be embarrassed for them? Embarrassed for his own people, acting as hosts?
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Baron Evrokcrrer gave a false start or two, then interjected. Hailing from the stock of a once-ragathencider, its thought patterns didn’t provide it much ammunition in the way of verbal acrobatics as characterized by the majority of speakers of its language.
“A different idea. We have people. You have people. Some are leaders. Some are not. Focus on latter. Exchange our commoners?”
The baron’s tone had no pretensions to anything besides irony on that last, a human mannerism well-replicated. Evrokcrrer’s living family fit into the shoe of “commoner” so firmly it almost tore off the foot. Undistinguished civilians from time out of mind, they had made themselves useful to society as assistants, as psychologists, as helpers of every kind. The baron had jumped the track when it accepted a patent of nobility those many years past, and it lent the creature the sort of perspective which had convinced Sebastio keeping it in the peerage was a more than worthwhile decision. The sort of perspective which suggested that two estates might join through intermingling their lower order members was the sort that Sebastio for one treasured like he treasured his Lady.
“Might any name outlandishness of the before-named?” came out of Tuoamas, with a distant but appreciative musing tone.
I like it! Would we not all find common ground in the celebration of our Yrdkishness?
Some of those present obviously didn’t fully agree, either with the sentiment or its champion. Baron Keppelering had the “stare with implied menace” routine down pat.
“The second Lord of two comes from intellectual stock of most ignoble cognomen. Langdone. Scule. Bedreda. Peskili.”
The venerable Lord Artaxerxes’s alma mater was none other than the Kinsmen College of Information-Integrity Preservation. Consider the inspirations of the institute’s most significant features of its campus, its greatest architectural identifiers. Constructions named after war criminals.
Keppelering took great pains to ensure no one thought he was condescending to Sebastio. However, he was most certainly making a quite sharp point with the Cambrian at that point. That was fine, so long as he didn’t stray too far from the insulting and into the flagrantly accusatory.
In all honesty, Sebastio almost hoped the pterodactyl would give him the excuse. In fact, the only thing he would have liked more was the idea that Nor’ridge’s representative might give them conclusive evidence of O’Casey orchestrating the behavior of the Sifters who’d assailed both himself and Louis.
But that was the problem, of course. The first batch of assassins had come out of Not-Fire, and so conceivably lay at the beck and call of those Yrdkish communities they venerated. Forensics and recordkeeping had shown eleven ways that yes, they were Not-Fire residents, not merely posed to resemble such. The wanted executioner that had ripped out Louis’s integrated systems interface – one Moonfly-Sips-Syrup, coming from Úda according to various records – had absolutely no such ties. Sebastio would have liked to believe it was just a case where they hadn’t found proof of the man’s past history in Not-Fire. Unfortunately, that was whistling in the dark, and seemed far too easy an answer.
Harding managed to sound nearly bored, poking back at the man they all knew had come to tacitly make clear that his people were soon to declare war.
“Have you a special attraction to Lord Artaxerxes?”
This relates to the issue at hand in what way?
Bobbu’s little wing knuckles turned him around, so he could see his conversant partner with one eye as he responded. His beak nipped at the air.
“Attraction to those professing their own quality. Attraction to those engineering a new Eden. Of course, you know of how they roused the academe of long since; for every failure, we may find two successes, and so why ought we not whet the greatest failures of our history? Perhaps… because of our future selves.”
What way? Why, these were people truly convinced that their actions served the GREATER GOOD. They were people who decided they needed to take it upon themselves, and make the world a better place through the founding of a safe haven. And why do the people of that institute use the names of such profoundly dishonored souls for so visible and impactful an inspiration? Because we learn better from GREATER ERRORS. Why, then, adopt any but true tyrants as un-role models? And yet… do we not wish to teach our antecedents even more thoroughly than we ourselves learn? Thus, perhaps a better question: how many people will suffer in the cause of expanding the grand family that is the territory of Yrdky?
Lord Tuoamas Pennat turned the power of his dread person upon Baron Keppelering. He found a small frown in the depths of his soul. It ascended like a flashing shark, or a jioj rushing to the Ojjij surface while brandishing stone knives.
The baron’s eye jittered ever so slightly when the frowning man’s hands clasped each other in front of him. Tuoamas gestured idly at Lord Galt. The female Lord carved a smile even sharper than Tuoamas’s frown into Baron Keppelering’s flesh.
“Does a bruised-shut eye see the future or the past? No? Then perhaps it is time to address eyes that are so harmed in a medically-expedient fashion. House-of-Werub has taken some harm of such type of late, and ought to be given balm.”
Yes, we did accept your presence today without the stipulation that you would be turned into a flapping wallet after our meeting finished, did we not? Let us get down to whatever business you wanted to discuss. The fractured throne have some other supplicants such as Lord Larrei Gwondrfeld who tarry in the wings; it would serve ill to further delay conversing with them.
The people of House-of-Werub, ironically enough, usually moved in something close to a herd mentality with Lord O’Casey: firm control of one’s people’s destiny, epitomized in an outward-facing pro-prosperity program meant to redistribute things from “them” and to “you.” Unfortunately, a certain someone had gotten their toes powderized just the hand before last, when Nor’ridge’s leader decided it would be in his best interests to strongarm a nearly vampiric set of duties and tariffs out of a largely inconsequential estate passing his way.
A largely inconsequential estate, which had good rapport with another estate called House-of-Werub.
Lord Gwondrfeld usually would have shunned the ground where Sebastio Artaxerxes trod, and treated Tuoamas Pennat with the minimum respect permissible for a man of his distinguishment. Usually, Lord Gwonderfeld would have been all too happy to seek the smoothest pragmatic greasing of bureaucracy’s gears. At present, Lord Gwonderfeld harbored the desire to urinate on a burning Harrison O’Casey only after the man’s complete oxidation. However, the strength of the slight was so potent, and its recipient so incandescent, that assisting others in reducing Baron Keppelering’s patron to a whimpering pile of pegs fell under the heading of quite acceptable action. Œlthlant and Pennat Gate could both expect aid, however grudging, from an effective and masterful practitioner of combat in arenas both ideological and literal.
The pterodactyl almost froze for an instant. After an instant passed, another instant went by where the man clearly wanted to go home and kindly ask his own Lord to please get any other assignment besides meeting with people against whom his home had not yet officially declared war, and discussing business. But discuss business he must, and moreover convince the aforementioned people to accept a particular set of terms of engagement for the inevitable battle.
It truly was an inevitable occurrence. Harrison O’Casey wasn’t the sort to forgive and forget any more than Larrei Gwonderfeld; he’d goaded the people of Pennat Gate to wrath, and they’d done him insult. If the man didn’t get his little circus performance, he’d eventually start a far less honorable campaign of whisper-fanning designed to do… something. Something festering and inimical to reputation, most certainly; something as cold as any of the most apathetic politicians of Rhaagm. So instead they’d fend off eventual disaster by courting immediate disaster.
Wallowing in that inevitability set Sebastio’s teeth on edge, and his little pointy fangs pricked at the orange stretch of his lips.
The days and hands since his unwaking dream of the Maker and Target had him slowly bursting apart on the inside, like a melon shot by a quadratic accelerator when viewed at a millionth the normal speed. He had no doubt about the right course of action, no second-guessing of motive. No, conflict had dramatically shaved down his priorities: “live to be a great figure of the past for the far future,” as the Being of Old had instructed. However, greatness lay in the accomplishments, and inspirations, and personalities of those embraced as worthy of the name. When men such as Lord O’Casey bent themselves to the task of bedeviling a prospective ascendant to greatness, men such as Sebastio slowly found themselves under megagrams more stress than they could withstand.
He didn’t want to disappoint those Beings of Old with his failure, though he felt sure they’d be less than fatally devastated if he fell short of his goals. Even more, though, he didn’t want to disappoint his own people… or himself. There was enough tenuous hope placed on his estate’s metaphorical shoulders to crack its very literal foundation.
Sebastio cast back to his time as a servant of the establishment’s more esoteric security needs. Long ago, when he’d acted as a simple informant of how yes, that gated wing of the facility was vulnerable to the handful of atypicals capable of nonmagical superlight transit unless a mantrap was installed at each of these three locations. Yes, those identity compares could be spoofed by a person with a doppelganger talent, so “adequate” measures meant extra Ktarebte machines to help verify the compares’ nature. He was then a pawn. He was now a pawn. He hoped to continue and be the best pawn of a leader he could manage; nothing more. If it served Caladhbolg’s implicit desire to bring the Maker greater acclaim, then that was also fine.
But obviously that was too much to ask, judging by the flapping wallet’s near-whinging.
“Scenario simplifies thus: unremarkable, as base premise. As further specification, a trifecta and license to Steps for the defense; all now and future banishment of Beastly nature from the defense for the prosecution. Scheduling is requested prior to zeroth moon terminus.” The nominal diplomat spoke carefully, as even and barren as any salt flat.
Nor’ridge desires to set the following terms of engagement: a standard brace of one hundred twenty eight platforms to each side. Standard weapons and information warfare limitations. Victory conditions will award the challenged a set of three platforms, license to use the same, and the license to produce and use an additional platform as desired. The challenger requires, on victory, that the challenged eject any Beasts from their sphere of influence, and disbar all natives of the Purple in future. We intend to get events underway before the end of Zeromonth.
On the table before the baron, a digital document manifested, laying out the details for examination by a Lawmaster. Beside the document he placed an interpolation paper for acquiring signatures.
The moment had arrived. After the blood and sweat and gradually successful backbreaking push toward acceptance of the Purple’s natives by their own people, the twin Lords of Pennat Gate would not simply bow before such demands. They’d come so far in the short interim, that ceaseless span since the first days, with trigger-happy panics and distrust among the everyman. The people no longer worried over clusters of Beast residents idly watching the scenery and contributing to daily life with their quirks of bland character.
Sebastio intended to misdirect any ultimatum meant to disrupt that progress in any way he could manage.
Countess Abiniba looked like she was about to protest, and only clung to propriety by her fingernails. Tuoamas’s fingers performed an eager little spider tap-dance, before his answer visibly lashed the pterodactyl like a great-knout.
The people there assembled made an ephemeral intricate susurrus at the short acidic squirt. To the one side, Gorar’s long face and ears remained expressionless, but she crossed eyes with Sebastio for a single flitting gnoll heartbeat.
Lord Tuoamas leaned forward in his seat, splayed his fingers, and drew up his own document: notes, rules, thoughts, all set up in first order logic and neat as could be. Depending on how one read the contents, one would call the terms profoundly unfair. In whose favor was a bit of an open question… but the advantage in choosing to accept or reject terms lay with the challenged party, when dealing with matters of Yrdkish war games.
“‘Egalitarianism.’ Do you know the word? You who show your eagerness to ensure we can sleep easier without the woeful threat of residents of this estate? Oh, that is an important and most saintly goal. As they say, saints make the best martyrs; both saints and the enemies of the same have plenty over which to worry these days. Ten martyrs, in this case, might earn the worth of a single living saint.”
If you wish to dictate terms, that is fine in certain arenas. Knowing the end goals of Nor’ridge’s leadership, they will not allow the removal of our “novelty-toy” populace to leave the negotiation table. But the privilege of liberating from our membership a swath of our citizens is a tall order… a tall order indeed, and tall orders have tall prices. We certainly have enough strife to occupy ourselves at present, so the price must be a bit steeper even so to compensate. Ten platforms, at a minimum, in exchange.
The pterodactyl reared up on his legs as though someone had put an arbalest bolt with a clown mask tied to the end through his sternum.
“Excuse me!?” he howled.
That was, of course, when Gorar braced her burly arms against the table and inhaled.
Okay. Time to go before patience abates and the baron ends up the way of his Earth Standard genetic kin.
Mr. Artaxerxes started up while ignoring the unfolding carnage, and began walking for the vaulted arch leading from the platform. His three faithful attendant armsmen were caught between keeping their charge from any mishaps involving flying politicians and watching out for his personal safety. They swarmed along behind him like Rhaagm mannequins, managing to simultaneously follow, precede, and stay completely out of his line of sight whilst making their presence distinctly known.
“I must be away,” he announced to the gathering in a brief moment of ebbing action as he departed, “and wish the best possible outcome from proceedings. However, for Baron Keppelering, a particular message.”
Sebastio pivoted a small amount on one heel, just before he exited the Ptilit chamber. The voice which came from his throat was not his own, and it spoke in the timeless, awkward, and artful tongue that was the English language.
<May you find your blessing and preserve it to keep
with deeds so distressing that blood will our eyes weep.
Your blessing’s repressing hopefully wounds less deep
and is your head pressing into that final sleep.>
The pterodactyl knuckled a step or two closer, squinting, head darting about in the flipbook fashion of many birds and reptiles. Hearing Caladhbolg’s voice bumped up his discomfort to the point where it overflowed its container and went back to being outwardly calm.
The Yrdkish really ARE crazy. I guess that has good future implications, considering my nationality for the last several years.
“What mean you by this?” inquired Bobbu.
“I wish you sufficient misfortune that your fortune does not become a curse,” replied Sebastio. “Learn of yourself, of where you and your home diverge, and bear in mind the point of separation.”
And then he left.
Lord Sebastio Artaxerxes meandered down the halls, down past people who refused to step away from their Lord’s partitioned fearsome visage. Those born outside the gem refused to fail in showing him a slightly distant but entirely voluntary deference. Those who had come from the gem’s many facets showed him something closer to respectful awe. They all marked his coterie. They all marked him. In return, he named them, blessed them, and did his best to impede their business as little as possible.
“Lady,” he said five minutes later, after returning to his Lordly quarters for a brief rendezvous with Adz.
“Lord,” it replied, looking up from its contemplation of Seven’s questionably successful attempt at tending a potted geranium.
Sebastio stepped across, lifting his hand to that of the udod aodod. He raised the palm to his throat and chinned it.
“Are you ready?”
“As I will ever be.”
Sebastio smiled slightly, and opened up contact with the assistant eidolon for the superintendent of the establishment they were going to be visiting. The eidolon confirmed their reservation, and informed them that they would have the run of the place.
“Then let us be away,” said the Cambrian, with a fattening of his smile.
“Why?” asked the udod aodod. “Do you have somewhere important to be?”
Sebastio’s head tilted as the udod aodod’s leg-cables began twisting together. It made a smile at him, an obvious attempt to mimic rather than intuitive reflex to express. Ironically, the faintly sheepish lilt to the mannerism was almost certainly true. It was the kind of playful, teasing affectation he might have expected from a human wife.
“Why?” repeated Sebastio, and his smile turned to an impish grin. “As it has been said before, ‘why’ is King Question, and you cannot ask his attendance without every one of his courtiers and relatives following in tow.”
The regurgitation of one of Eihks Richard’s most-favored turns of phrase had the desired effect. Adz’s body language became less indicative of sheepishness and more infused with it beyond the point of saturation. Sebastio didn’t give it the chance to acclimate to its emotional state-change, though. He and it bundled out the door, the Lady being more-or-less guided for the several seconds it took to get itself back under fully cognizant self-control.
Five minutes later, the molded-lozenge shape of Walker carried the executive couple to the outskirts of a meticulously tended and curated reserve. For a while, they sat, basking in the slowly accreting sense of higher-thought bloodlust. Anticipation not of brutal domination of an entity by strength of arms, but of dedicating one’s full self for some little time to the art of outwitting another. The placing of one collective of kinematic arcana against an adversary, with the victory condition being not satiating carnivorous hunger but catharsis of chasing and catching. Adz’s takeaway had profoundly different connotations, a state of being that Sebastio simply couldn’t fully appreciate without undergoing some level of conjugation, but it was the sort of thing that brought release, and relief.
“You hunted a nimrod in that canyon complex last year; does something a little less violently feisty this year whet your appetite?” he asked.
“That will serve adequately,” came his answer after some contemplation. “So long as we get a long enough chase, and it does not climb trees.”
For a while, they watched the scurrying of prey items over the arboreal cathedral of the prey items’ home. They elected one individual over the others; a healthy male spiny qinp just leaving the juvenile stage of development and showing intent of finding new territory to claim. Such behavior had a lick of symmetry when set alongside the social currents flowing around Pennat Gate itself, Adz observed. Eventually, they clambered out of the gemship, and then Walker took off, distributing the vigilant armsmen upon whom they often depended to posts both far and wide.
Neither of them saw their dutiful guards watching the whole region for intruders, as they played their little game. However, the fact of their presence tendered both participants the sort of peace of mind to which they might have toasted with full mugs and empty bellies.
It was the brink of daylight, and the color of ink spilled into an Earth Standard ocean soaked the whole biome. The smell made Sebastio’s shoulders relax from their eternally squared poise by the tiniest amount. In every direction scattered the chirp and saw of those things either rousting to nocturnal action or preparing for crepuscular rest. The qinp they’d identified for the occasion wasn’t walking, but neither was it running like the clappers as it steadily worked to put distance between itself and two fairly large creatures set on catching up to its fast-moving form.
Lord and Lady crossed the jungle’s massive blue vines with inordinate grace and a quick subtlety difficult to credit if unseen. Leg-cables slithered almost soundlessly through groundcover and over exposed roots, arms grasped branches and thrust their owners forward with pendulum precision. Both wore the minimum clothing required to observe the basics of decency. Both kept their focus on the prey trying to pull ahead, and failing by slow degrees.
Adz enjoyed the small chunk of Moedif the estate recreated on one of its Eighth Step platforms, but repetition erodes novelty. This time they had wanted to experience tenshe in their Fourth Step jungle territory, and finding the chance to do so was liberating.
Well, the qinp probably didn’t think so. The qinp was stupid and its opinions didn’t count.
Sebastio sprang from a short rise in the peaty ground, clung to the side of a sprawling Bokov tree, and spotted the fleeing purple shape. Off to his left, the outline of an udod aodod drew along very low to the ground, torso almost horizontal. It was amazing how stealthy something could be when it weighed as much as some freight containers, with the right distribution of mass. The Lady, and he, both relied on naught but the tools with which they had been born. For other species that restriction was relaxed, but humans were hunters already well-suited to extended pursuit long before their genetics became subject to alteration, and udod aodod possessed a single-mindedness of purpose which nearly obliged them to persist in their goals until completion or exhaustion.
A pounce, a tumble through several ferns, a rolling stand, and Sebastio began weaving along on a course asymptotically approaching that of the qinp. He made sure to expose his position to the fleeing creature at irregular intervals, as did his spouse. A branch snapped here, an unnaturally smooth line of profile exposed there. The qinp noticed. The qinp didn’t slow.
He felt a bit maudlin, did that Lord of Pennat Gate. He thought about the pursuit, and that was part of his conflict: the fact that he acted, the fact that he exceeded the confines of that passive unit of grammar, “to be.” It was good to become something, to chase with intent. It was an improvement over his standard living expectations of talking and debating and performing actions inasmuch as one acted through words. It was far, far better than the alternative of simply existing, of taking the role of a poppet.
Sadly, he knew that all agency had certain limitations imposed on it by its nature, and that realization had long since brewed a steep melancholy. Any chance to stretch one’s muscles and draw upon the face of the world and confirm one’s existence, that was a moment of strange and pure joy. He’d simply learned to accept the times when the best service renderable was lying back on the divan of life and becoming a statue to a bigger cause.
As he leapt from one side of a fallen steelteak to the other, his smile was fit to split his face.
Following the length of the woodmetal barrier, Adz swept around the other side of the felled tree with the unusual suddenness of an udod aodod sprint. Its many leg-cables swept along each other, a shuffling of Grediwe dice and cards in a chaotic heap. They exchanged relative places, Sebastio keeping to the left side of the qinp’s passage and Adz to the right.
A single signal – human chopping ahead with the flat of a hand, udod aodod setting its ears to twitching. They doubled their pace, mincing up the distance between hunters and hunted. It was time to bring the prey to bay.
The qinp’s prickly purple fleshy barbels all quivered as it detected their narrowing of the distance. It began making little exertion noises as it stopped merely running, and began trying to bound ahead in little leaps. It switched, it scuttled, it skidded. It slipped beneath a curtain of vines all thicker than Sebastio’s wrist.
The Lady pushed through the vines, the Lord ricocheted off a dark-barked tree and into a gauzy dew-laden spiderweb as he went around the obstruction. He didn’t have to breathe anymore, no, yet he found himself pushing air in and out at the same rate as his companion, the same rate as their quarry, the same rate as the world. It was wonderfully strange, being alive.
He and it slapped the big fan-shaped leaves, got slapped by the air, slapped the occasional stream, got slapped by flocks and herds and packs of midges of every kind. They darted through openings in bramble patches and stumbled over and around other sort-of-wildlife big and small. It was cute when the udod aodod ran into a family of koalas snuggled up for the evening; it was not cute when a lesser owl-of-the-mind appeared from nowhere, trying to get Sebastio to maintain eye contact so it could snack on his delicious thoughts.
He couldn’t help but consider the morality of the evening. Not the morality of tenshe, which was a longtime cultural heritage of his spouse, and at worst a case of energetic harassment of animal life routines. No, the morality of their spending the time off and enjoying themselves with diversion, while their nation prepared for far greater conflict than chasing proboscideans. The moderating influence of a godlike prosthetic artifact’s innermost thoughts generally streamlined the process of choosing the right thing over the wrong thing. It was less apt with the deduction of wrong from right.
This particularly held in respect to maintaining self-control, but also in mortification of petty desires. One part – the Rhaagmini part – of him always had found and always would find the reliance on an external psychic crutch repulsive. Another part recognized that he had some measure of sickness of the personality, and he that hath sickness dost need medicine. After more than an objective hexadecade – and subjectively considerably longer – of sharing his body and mind, that dichotomy still hadn’t resolved, and it might never see a full resolution. But that was life: a chain of stories whose beginnings and ends were so many and so widely scattered that following just one from concrete beginning to conclusive resolution demanded utmost dedication. For extrafacetary humans at least, dedication had to be one of the few limited resources more highly valued than that most tenuous of things called “home.”
The difference between self and other.
The dividing line marking the border of “you” and “not-you.”
And just like that, between the leap from one foothold to the next, Sebastio saw his own life shattered, scattered backward through the arbitrary quasi-observable dimension called time by those who professed faith in its existence.
His true childhood, that vanishingly small period before the introduction of cerv-mesh to physiology. An existence striped with the alternating infusions of Father’s intractable strength of character and vaguely clinical distancing from the world, and the sour-sweet nourishment of Nessro bin Simon bin Ittush binnin Loalph the Grand’s teachings. The discovery that two plus two was the same as two times two. Being awarded the understanding of that which all sentient beings share: the sometimes stiff flexibility that is knowledge-of-self and the power of choice. Being utterly unaware of the privilege common to his life, in a world where privileged and unprivileged oft appeared nigh identical to the casual watcher.
The crossing into the borders of that land called youth, the place in which he yet did and might ever reside. His youth in which he began to grow and mature along curious strata, learning that good was not necessarily pleasant – but not yet the corollary that the bad would sometimes prove an addictive carnival delight. His youth in which he discovered that he was, as Rhaagm and Bequast and Yrdky called him, atypical. A mutant, some would say; others would call him blessed, still others demon-touched. It just so happened that in Rhaagm it was a slightly more convenient and accessible method of what anyone else could achieve with electric thaumaturgy (or indeed a battery with coupled electrodes) – a talent that was less freak of nature and more curious and legislatively-significant birth anomaly.
His first epiphany of his bioelectric talents, when Nessro the kind manservant’s person received the unasked-for gift of enough current to murder him several times over, and yet the man managed to survive and teach young Sebastio a great deal more. The young Cambrian’s entry into the pages of literature as another case of human atypical manifestation.
Years of roaming the plains and savannahs of learning in Kinsmen, the debates held in Langdone. The rare moments of fellowship with those faces he recalled so fondly: Sagpporosaasrogap, Nels, Nyne Sjambani, and many others. His everlasting friendship with Francis “Bugbear” Pickering, the blue freight disk shaped like a man and possessed of Southsea’s refreshingly coarse manners. Getting into a bit of trouble here and there. The handful of romantic tangents of the day, balanced against Bugbear’s catalogue of forays into the same territory.
The time when the massive oaf had carried home an unconscious and abused executioner prostitute, after fighting off a posse of gangbangers half out of their minds on fidget. That fateful day when Bugbear had returned to their shared living quarters with the rescue that was his wife-to-be. That fateful day when Sebastio first deliberately killed a man while protecting those he held dear, as lightning played from his fingers and the thug’s body keeled over with smoke riming his mucous membranes. That fateful day when a confused man realized how easily he could become a bad one. That fateful day when the cracked ingot of a young stutter-infested Cambrian was drawn into the form of a far graver creature.
Running into the incomparable Target, becoming one of the very few who could truthfully claim to have met a Being of Old. Fumbling that thin stick of exotic matter the man claimed was called a “lodestaff” (“A present from a friend who’s gonna want you to hold onto it – so use it well!”) and wondering what strange collision of himself and the world might have resulted in such providence. Years of wondering after the fact, midnight musings spent zapping the thing to make it longer, shorter, longer again, worried as to why someone would give him such a piezoelectrically curious implement.
Perhaps the Maker had gleaned that the lodestaff’s unusual material would save its wielder by serving as an adulterant in a later mishap, allowing him to survive commingling with an object meant to kill and destroy.
One shining beacon of a date, on the joining of a certain blue loudmouthed New Mongol and a certain executioner in partnership and devotion. The rare warming of a turbulent onlooker’s heart.
Graduation from the hallowed halls of Kinsmen into the wider world, where he proved to the public that he was more than merely competent when it came to assessing dangers presented by other atypicals. His rise to moderate success, his interactions with curious and sometimes faintly alarming atypical personalities. Contributing his small part to the continued success of companies like Kraken-Whaite and Glencorps and Anh Tho Soc Beltsnaps: being compensated for being a deliberate lasting thorn in the side.
Moving into the cosmopolitan heights of Gursral Corner, opposite Kallahassee and Magdod Bartimaeus, and making himself at home. Six children running around the establishment at every hour, very occasional trips out to various watering holes around the city and even more occasional emergent scenarios demanding immediate attention at whichever corporation claimed his daily loyalty. Eventually being introduced to a new fellow atypical tenant named Niall, and hoping to help the man get over his obvious personal problems. Knowing that such an undertaking probably lay outside his capacity.
A few nerve-frying short stints involving the police and Rhaagm mannequins outside his place of work for various infractions. A few times he’d gone off and had some small adventures on his own in the name of staying out of trouble. One very unfortunate tale involving a long-planned big brother attack.
Coming to verbal blows with Kallahassee over several raw-flesh topics; the insult given his wife by the gregarious Niall; the man’s callous anger and casual hatred of almost everything except, on occasion, Sebastio himself. An attempt to defend a fellow atypical. Fraying of ties. A single denunciation of Bennosuke, a person so unsettled as to introduce himself as “the Nightmare Count,” as a creature more parasitic and destructive than any Tufcich undead. More than one person storming out of the neighborhood.
A numbing yawning horror upon returning home one ordinary occasion, finding the apartments of Gursral turned into a slaughterhouse, hearing broadcasts of Niall Bennosuke’s desire to find and claim that mythical relic which now served as a part of Sebastio’s body. The Nightmare’s declaration that the hateful world must burn. Sebastio’s knowledge that someone else would not only die but suffer the administering of homicide: himself, many more innocents, or Niall “the Nightmare Count” Bennosuke. Possibly all of them.
Target, waiting for him in an idyll of a park as he fled the scene of carnage. Embarking on a sojourn to bring his old pal to bloody justice, at Target’s request. The slewing sickness of hopping from one facet of the gem to another, in pursuit of his quarry and his quarry’s quarry both. Confronting the diseased man in combat on a near-Earth-Standard France, and impaling himself on Caladhbolg’s blade in the heat of the moment. His lodestaff and the terrible weapon alloying themselves with his flesh. Becoming something different as he stood rooted, suffering under the sensation of his body being invaded by something alive and not-alive, then reaching the equilibrium of being where he could share physical form with an entity that wasn’t quite semiartificial, wasn’t quite human-patterned digital personality. Many deaths. Too many deaths. He couldn’t bring to add another to the count, even the Nightmare Count.
Louis. The mad notion to generate an Elysium for a helpless French youth and other such unfortunates. Flight to Bequast. Negotiations for the young man’s citizenship. Many tears. Many scenes very precious and very painful.
Bringing his ludicrous challenge to bear against Lord Tuoamas Pennat, wagering a limb and a life for a Lordship. The course of several hours – subjectively, something closer to several years – where he fought to make a name for himself, with the terrible power the dread Caladhbolg could bring to bear. A hundred hundred miniature victories studded that day, as Sebastio cut down munitions in midair, ripped craft from the sky, denied guns the right to fire upon his person. From the outside, it was a casual and simple affair for the bearer of the Maker’s work to reduce the work of others to dust. On the inside, Sebastio had been shouting his little mental lungs out. He much agreed with that Earth Standard font of oft-quoted knowledge that to be shot at and missed was a uniquely exhilarating feeling; he also thought of it as a very acute trial of one’s endurance.
Then followed the aftermath of claiming an estate by storm. His declaration of keeping his hands free from traditional levers of political management.
The causality sabotage, thrown by a grief-stricken Leanshe Etruphana. A subjective age spent in his own head as his physical body aged rapidly with him trapped in it – some parts forward, some parts backward, some parts in directions orthogonal to either. He would have surely died if not for his new attachment. He almost certainly would have gone mad without company over that span. Maybe he had.
Leanshe suffering the punishment of public full-body debridement for three days.
A shaky blurring forward of time, pausing only on the first and last days of knowing Seroku Adz Tataki Ba’fus before he and it were joined in the controversy of a Lord’s matrimony.
That endless thing they called the Western Sunrise, a hallucinatory numbed excluded vision as Sebastio fought for every single person living on his estate. The stirring-to-movement of the Beings of Old for the first time in ages. Finding the ocean of part-Beast-part-Bennosuke creatures intent on the reduction of all existence to the empty set, an annulment of everything toward which he had worked. The overturning of the world, a realization of a great conspiracy and a terrible revolution meant to cripple the Monolith, and the reaping of countless lives at the hands of creatures bearing the partial visage of the man he’d once called friend. Pandæmonium, unfathomable. Death. Meted out by others, in serial packets from one source host to one destination host; by himself en masse. The sort of tragedy which might mark the end of an age, even if the calendar didn’t think so. The sort of tragedy which no number or complexity of temporal savepoints and their interlocking functions could possibly repair.
For some, survival.
Then, new life.
And just like that, his introspection left him, flying away to parts unknown, as he landed awkwardly, then darted after his Lady. Focus on the here and now, not on the sizzling tears crossing one orange cheek.
Another hour quickly went by, the hefty weight of the world departing from the shoulders. The man and the udod aodod brushed against each other with their souls, touched the world with their bodies, and realized anew that tomorrow would yet come.
Sebastio was the first to leap upon the creature, twining a forearm around its thick neck as the qinp bleated. All four legs machined the air when he swung heavily about, then pulled it down into the moss and inconveniently spaced pits of a small clearing, wrestling it so they both splayed out on their backs. Its trunk slapped his face, mildly prehensile snout trying to grasp something it could leverage or at least push and get him to let go.
For an instant he had a stark and frightening vision of Baron Keppelering’s head plastered across the creature, and of himself beating the thing to a mash. When his mind’s eye saw O’Casey’s image instead, the vision became exponentially more compelling.
There was a blink, where he saw Niall Bennosuke’s unsmiling image instead, and he restrained his fist only just in time to avoid doing something he didn’t even want to contemplate to his victim.
Then he breathed, and it passed, and he breathed again, and frowned in relief.
Less than a second later, Adz also fulfilled the rite as it pounced. It cleared a six meter log from one end to the other, batted aside a knot of vines as its husband was rolled away to give it room, and it heavily rested a hand upon the creature’s quivering back. The animal’s squeaky panicked breaths and bursts of worried thrashing obviously didn’t give the Lady the same instant of conflict as the Lord, and yet Sebastio saw it almost shrink as it stared down at the adolescent animal long and hard. Then, the massive palm released the creature.
One disbelieving moment later, the qinp fled as though pursued by all the forces of Hell, night casting a dimmed shade over red and purple leather. The qinp’s progress showed for a second or two as it crashed along, then it found its footing again and vanished into the tightly woven cloth of off-blue leaves. As it moved away with all possible speed, it released a single sustained sound that rhymed with the Bequastish word for “joy.”
“It is a beautiful evening,” said Sebastio with a shaky exhalation, staring up into the canopy as a small breeze slipped down through the trees and around his thin garments.
“It is a well-ordered forest,” answered Adz, an ethereal light playing over its eyespots.
The breeze died, and the smaller noisemakers of the night receded for a brief spell of uncertain apprehension. The only sounds were the infinitesimal click of the sort-of-biological golden chains replacing Sebastio’s right-side hair and beard, and the air softly flowing in and out of bodies.
“Love is… quite hard to get right,” lamented the boy.
“You are getting better at it,” answered his scaly partner. It looked down. “Shall we go?”
“Yes, we should-”
Sebastio scratched at his head, gazed up and past Adz at the local area’s moon, then bristled suddenly as his attention was drawn to something a bit farther away than the former but considerably closer than the latter.
“Hang on, there is… do not look behind you,” he said, before picking up a rock and hucking it underhanded.
The rock struck the base of a particularly ambitious vine’s branch and snapped it off. The lesser owl-of-the-mind perched on top stopped trying to coax out the living contents of his brain and fell to the forest floor without even trying to flap its short wings. It struck an angular lichenous boulder, and then rolled away before falling off into the shrubbery. A glassy jagged sound came from the aggrieved bird thing as the ferns stopped rustling, but it would probably take it a minute or two to recover. But in time, it would pick itself back up, and live to steal the memories of other passing wildlife.
“Hate those little pests so much,” said Sebastio. “Okay, yes, we should go.”
Nobody commented on the executioner armsman dangling from the nearby crystalwillow as he put his quadratic accelerator away, just before both of his charges began sauntering off to a place where Walker might pick them up.