Gerrymandering of Opinion

<< Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

“Do you want to know what I did the first time Pennat Gate came out behind in a game of war? I reunited with my Lady, returned home, nearly wept over the unfairness of it all, nearly shrieked over the unfairness of it all, nearly snapped a tree in half over the unfairness of it all, and then went and met with Lord Tuoamas Pennat… and we made plans.”

-Lord Sebastio Artaxerxes

The gemship Walker arrived on the big day.

Adz’s Lord remained standing, while he surveyed the starboard panorama.

“I have a few people I must meet shortly before the festivities; take care, Lord Artaxerxes,” said Tuoamas Pennat, just before he stepped out onto the grass tarmac and started for the massive conical shape of the goldspire.

The earless side of Sebastio’s head gleamed in the ship’s internal light as he up-signed, still looking out across the sprawling vista. Those pointed teeth on that side of his mouth thrust just a bit beyond his lips, not quite in a grin, not quite in a grimace.

“Very well. I will be along in a moment, Lord Tuoamas.”

He continued watching the utterly dead expanse in the extreme distance, asymmetrical ocular apparatus moving with glacial deliberation. There was a strange starved pattern in the movement of his eyes as he devoured the scenery.

The namesake of his estate took his leave, allowing the Cambrian a moment of contemplation.

“The Beaten Brow,” said Adz’s Lord after a lengthy quiet. He sounded like a wind passing through a hollow gourd, and the artifact of the Maker which had become his arm flexed, surrogate muscles and tendons pulling taut beneath his clothing.

A moment went by as it shifted context, then Adz also contemplated the land, knowing the tune of his thoughts without actually having the lyrics to hand.

Yrdky’s not-quite-tamed wilds – those parts which weren’t parcel of one estate or another – had a very long periodicity in their cycles of life. Every few billion years or so, the local authorities saw the need to refresh the ecology or push it in a new direction. Fossil records of any large sample of the territory would look like an abstract painting done by swatting dye-saturated insects on a canvas. The wealth of life usually made for very fierce long-term competition. When a shaft was sunk down the thousand plus kilometers to Yrdky’s so-called bedrock field until mathematics proclaimed there was no “deeper” to achieve, and eventually abandoned, within ten years that shaft would be the home of a riotous variety of biology. Virtually any time something moved out of one part of the territory and into another, a different something stood in the wings to take its place.

The Beaten Brow, dusty white and scarred like the boot of God had come down in anger, constituted an exception.

During the Western Sunrise, Lord Artaxerxes had snatched up the banner of defending the home for which he’d forsaken citizenship in his birthplace of Rhaagm, and shown profound destructive capabilities. That date had seen him destroy armies’ worth of those part-Beast abominations, through the employ of Caladhbolg. Some simulations of the day when he’d singlehandedly defeated Pennat Gate’s defenses still garnered speculative analysis from people curious as to how its physical-state weaponry had been turned to very expensive refuse – Adz had constructed one such simulation itself before it got hitched to its Lord. What he’d done on the Western Sunrise had been far more upsetting.

For example, whatever he’d done to shatter a region larger than an Earth Standard country and kill a few planets’ worth of monsters… it had left the land arid and brutalized and dead even years thereafter. Nothing from Geiger counters to the most skilled of thaumaturgist assayers had found any sign that the place posed a danger, but the treatment the Beaten Brow had received from Sebastio left it devoid of anything more chemically active than helium. Nobody had tried to reclaim the “greenfield” region despite the occasional perfectly flat plateaus and weird geometric beauty of its defilement, and not just because its size still qualified as less than negligible in the scope of the whole territory.

Sebastio reached up and plucked the Lordly circlet from his crown.

“Not that anyone could possibly forget, but I remember that day. So many people who died. So many people who were saved. That waste right there, though – that may well be our legacy in the minds of many. Not an ideal, not an example; sanitization. After the last four years, Pennat Gate might see me as more of a real person with real ambitions to improve the world, but is that also true for the rest of Yrdky?”

The hand holding the circlet, shaking and loose-fingered, thumped against Walker’s outwardly transparent hull. Adz felt a little sympathetic quaver when it saw a thin shining liquid expulsion creeping from the Lord’s gilded eye. The tear sizzled a bit, the atypical’s bioelectrical talent sending a few tiny sparks creeping along its path.

“Lady… have we done good? Or have we merely done our duty?”

Adz lowered itself to the floor of the gemship, leg-cables flopping and unstiffening until the bottom-most part of its torso rested on gravity’s rough pillow, so that head height for it and Sebastio came close to matching. Even after years of advice, offering deconstructive criticism came a bit awkwardly, and it wasn’t as good on the social side of the matter – but it knew how to build and reinforce structural support of many kinds.

“We have modeled and pruned and kept ourselves pointed in the direction of our goals. We have done our best, Lord. You may not have earned joy, but you have been shaping the world for the better.”

Its large fingers hesitated, then rested on his back, as it chinned the shoulder which was orange beneath his garb. Slowly, his unburdened hand reciprocated, polishing his Lady’s pliant scales.

“Thank you,” he said. Then: “Let us away, before we are late.”

Despite the fact that he stood more firmly on his two feet than it had ever risen on its leg-cables, the udod aodod held its husband up as a miser might hug gold to her vest.

Two minutes later, the pair and their guards merged into the zipper teeth of people and accompanying armsmen flowing up into the goldspire hosting the most recent Lordsmoot. Most of the attendees had some degree of nobility; those who did not invariably held either a role of alternative leadership – such as the scores of Lawmasters arriving in droves and the occasional Rhaagmini or Bequastish administrator – or a position of relationship (blood or otherwise) with one or more of the other members. They came in every color, shape, size, vehicle, style of dress, style of mind, and style of body one could imagine, many that one could barely comprehend, and more than a few that required skeins to simply exist under the rules binding together Yrdky’s mathematical identity. Very few allowed themselves any time to stick around and be seen; they were too busy not actually moving forward through the nucleus-dense crowd to pay attention to anything else.

Given that the goldspire stood less than two kilometers across at its base, and rose a bit over three kilometers into the sky, it couldn’t possibly have held such a crowd if it were a normal structure. That, of course, was why the building possessed a wealth of neat little eccentricities, including a nested hyperbolic-elliptic tuning field for active spatial compression without the doing-interesting-things-to-living-creatures wrinkle. They were the sort of things Adz would have loved to examine if it could have toured the goldspire, but estate-independent Lawmasters had a proclivity to complain when their guests ran around their homes taking liberties. In its special and directly limited role as a Lady of Yrdky, the udod aodod also held certain freedoms; that was not one of them.

Among the other people moving into the shelter of the goldspire, Adz recognized a fair number of characters. The ones who stood out the most had to include Lord Naomi Galt and Lady Albert Sessel. Œlthlant’s leader and her husband were both very flamboyant and obviously unconcerned about running with the pack on matters of “taking in strays,” as Pennat Gate’s opponents put it. The fact that the Lord decided to join her star to another person in matrimony had also put her in rarefied and upsetting company among the Lords’ clades.

As it saw the woman, Lord Galt’s head turned about and gently inclined in its direction, before she winked at the udod aodod. She didn’t have to establish a direct connection to make it clear that she wanted to say something to Sebastio, Adz, and Tuoamas later. That would be less difficult for Pennat Gate and Œlthlant to arrange than it might prove for other estates, given their proximity of seating.

When Lord Galt vanished into the gilded hallowed convening halls, it was in the same direction as taken by Adz and its companions. Sebastio followed Argyva closely enough that determining which of them was actually in the lead became a matter of supreme opinion. Adz, immediately behind, had a moment longer to appreciate the view of the segmented interior. Vast as Agartha, it didn’t take any kind of hard measurement to determine that the size of the stadium-cum-forum-cum-embassy-cum-capitol hugely exceeded the dimensions of its exterior shell. A perfect sphere chorded with decorative struts, lit by a suffusing glow of blue and gold; a bystander could be forgiven if they assumed it housed every person to ever live anywhere.

Advancing to one of the apparently wall-less redmetal-edged cells currently content to stay grounded, Sebastio and Adz found Tuoamas waiting with his own entourage. The former and somewhat present Lord of Pennat Gate sat straight-backed on a couch the size of a sperm whale. Behind him, his guards stood at parade rest, beside other guards also standing at parade rest behind their charges. Adding the people walking in protective lockstep around the other scions of his estate made the back of the couch more than simply crowded, considering the number of other seated forms.

A few more arrivals, and the cell would reach its one thousand twenty four person occupancy.

The Lady greeted those that were adjacent, as did the Lords in their turn. One of these adjacent souls, Lord Naomi Galt, wore a tremendous smock, a tremendous bicorn hat, and a tremendous smile. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Lords, she had a gluttonous appetite for fickleness of apparel, including frequent conjugations. Of the constants of her outward characteristics, the most ubiquitous was her iconic circlet, featuring a brooch that depicted an amethyst river flowing aside a ruby hammer and a gold naufer-headed squawk. Whatever she was today, it had lots of tentacles and smelled of spicy celery and totatoes.

Lord Galt also distinguished herself as one of the very few people who didn’t consider Adz’s home as either a blight on the face of the territory or a controversy which fell by a slim margin on the better side of the divide between conviction and appeasement. No, she thought it was something far more dangerous: eccentric and perfectly acceptable.

“It is a wonderful and fruitful happenstance that we meet again, is it not?” asked Lord Galt with a musical, almost fae, happiness in her voice.

And so the oblique games of Yrdkish not-talking began.

We are in for something special today!

Lord Artaxerxes tipped his head, giving an even smile in return.

“How wonderful indeed. May it be fruitful to our interests.”

I hope that it’s the good sort of special.

Lord Galt made an open-handed wave to Lady Sessel. They both looked off into the distance, at some common point that drew in their eyes like a gravitational singularity.

“Courtesy, nearly as wonderful as happenstance,” said Lady Sessel. He peered sideways at his wife, not quite happy, not quite unhappy.

Are we ready to entangle ourselves with them?

Lord Galt gave an up-sign of both agreement with sentiment, and affirmation to unstated probing. She looked over at both Sebastio and Tuoamas, a calm but faintly amused expression sunk into her very bones.

“I hope that your tidings, especially those involving Nor’ridge, are and will continue to be wonderful as well. If so, they would be… reassuringly similar to Larrei Gwondrfeld’s own tidings.”

Have you any news of Lord O’Casey’s recent movements? They incline in the same direction as the leader of House-of-Werub, the deviants.

Adz felt its eyefibers quiver as it considered another meaning layered onto the speech. The verbal extrudate was also a bait, trying to convince Pennat Gate’s representatives to take the initiative and ask her for or about something. She implied that she had a sale of some kind to make, and interest in selling as well, but of course she wanted the best deal possible – something far easier to get when the other party is the more desirous. The sort of approach that a merchant eidolon might adopt when peddling to a new buyer.

Just because it was garbage at actually participating in these kinds of diction-based fencing didn’t mean the designer couldn’t follow a line of intrigue.

Tuoamas crossed his legs, and he had a neat little frown which meant absolutely nothing by itself. He examined a single waxy gemstone on the cuff of his formal wear, a Hiek machine’s thaumaturgical engine doing something obscure in the stone’s depths. It was something pertaining to modulation of light wavelengths, judging by the way it made the glow around his face shift.

“Wonder of wonders, but I wonder myself if the Lord of Œlthlant is given to wondering herself, or mere gossip.”

Fascinating that you should have that information.

Lord Galt’s eyes twinkled beneath her tentacles.

“How is it that you suspect I fall short: engagement in terrible deception, or success as bland as unsalted longear qinp steak?

I have many sources of information. Those with friends and deep pockets tend to pick up the choicest tidbits.

Lord Artaxerxes sniffed, and rubbed the hand that was Caladhbolg under his nose.

“Do we have to take our suspicions on faith?” he asked, an utterly false whimsy in his voice.

If you want to talk about some kind of business arrangement, we have the time now.

Suddenly, Lord Tuoamas sat more firmly upright, prompting a couple of his keepers to tense.

“Momentarily,” said he, with a kind of toneless detachment.

No, we do not; observe the stage.

The organization of crowds had represented a well-known pinecone in the milkshake of logistics ever since there were people to form crowds in the first place. The purpose of any Lordsmoot was, depending on the party one asked, either quixotic or several-fold. One aim was the simple tallying of heads of state willing to leave their ivory towers. Another aim was the putting-into-order of a quantity of individuals best characterized as “too many.”

The most important, though, was the collection of the Republic Lords under one roof where their dealings had protection against counter-statecraft, prophecy, and simple distraction.

They weren’t exactly dictators in charge of yet more dictators. Even an infinity of Republic Lords couldn’t, technically and legally speaking, constrain the whims of a single Lonely Lord. But get them together in sufficient numbers, and the sheer weight of the souls for whom they held responsibility could body-check political opinion, pressure Lonely Lord mavericks into running with the pack, and even convince the Parsed City-State of Rhaagm to reach certain accommodations.

Thus, when the Republic Lords spoke at a Lordsmoot, you listened.

For these reasons and others, the structure of such meetings had to modularize communication in interesting ways. It was vanishingly unlikely to get stupendous numbers of individuals to listen and cooperate, when using a single central pulpit round-robin would fracture a day’s time into far less than a nanosecond per speaker. Instead, a short prelude came from the goldspire’s management, introducing usually three to eight important speakers (usually Republic Lords) and their respective subjects. These were the topics previously reviewed by the organizing Lawmasters and deemed relevant to the Yrdkish community as a whole.

Afterward, it more often than not devolved into every person elbowing, hoofing, osmosing, enchanting, biting, phasing, and occasionally reasoning their way into the limelight. In short: have your say, send it out to a local audience of the Lords in the hundred or so closest cells – if they find your stupid ideas or complaints worthwhile, they get bumped up to larger and larger crowds, keeping prioritization free-flowing and flexible. In practice, conversations just eventually wound back around to the originally delivered addresses. But it was the principle of the thing, thought Adz. It wasn’t the fault of the data structure that the processor misused it.

Just as the cell gently lifted off the ground to clear the way for other such cells shuffling into its place, images on a Toothskin refractor near the cell’s front coalesced into a lineup. Four people, introduced by the goldspire’s chief eidolon: Republic Lord TruTalDatGok of Deselnir, Lord Harrison O’Casey of Nor’ridge, Lord Beulah Fur Andinemn Solic W Gcel of the Nylon and Lead Platoon, and Lord Xe of Ooékn.

The assassin who led off events earned herself a dimmed glow in the eyes of nearly every Lord present by suggesting the next three Lordsmoots observe higher levels of security. Of course it’s necessary to increase safety measures; these gatherings only have the highest concentration of maximally-protected people in the territory, along with superlative preparations taken with the venue! In actuality, it wasn’t unreasonable in the minds of many. The destruction of a fair portion of all existing estates had occurred not twenty years past, and no one would be forgetting the day the very sun had died and been replaced anytime soon. Deselnir’s leader had a standing something-that-wasn’t-actually-an-ovation-but-could-have-been-interpreted-that-way.

Then the theater began.

Lord O’Casey’s stunningly handsome appearance on the Toothskin refractor raised a hand skyward, warding off fame, as he took the almost invisibly tiny stage at the goldspire’s epicenter. His heavily Southerner heritage gave him a strong and striking frame. Genetic drift put an asymmetrical pattern of waves and curls in his hair, and a few cosmetic alterations gave him spots of blond color periodically scattered around both locks and flesh. Broadcast to every cell, the way he graciously downplayed the interested audience’s encouragement was about as genuine as a hot pink addict’s promises to reform of their own volition.

Harrison O’Casey had carved out a name for himself at nearly every crossroads of life by picking the steepest and thorniest of the available routes laid before him. When people described the Yrdkish as crazy, they had any number of stereotypes upon which to draw. In the less frequent cases where the descriptor being used was instead “feudal,” his legacy had to be the primary example. Had he possessed a more measured ability to respond to perceived threats to himself and his holdings, Adz might have put him and its own Lord in the same bucket. They were champions of extraordinary aspirations, dedicated to the success of their visions, and who enjoyed unusual if completely genuine admiration by a majority of their people.

As it was, the man had commonalities with militant communists, cult founders, xenophobes, and any number of other less-reputable souls when it came to securing his estate’s sovereignty. Over his Lordship, Nor’ridge had more than tripled in size. A matching increase in population and economic power flowed from the dramatic pace of change – social lucre from which he and his upper nobility siphoned a substantial portion. However, much of his fortune stemmed from the speed with which he took offense at neighboring or nearby estates whose philosophies conflicted with his own. All too often, he demanded they either reshape themselves to something more palatable, move to greener pastures, or meet him on the field of battle. He had a marked trend toward victories in the disputes of Yrdky’s war games. It was difficult to formally criticize the desire to aggressively improve his people’s lot, and many respected his decisiveness, but one didn’t have to look hard to recognize him as a predator.

A real piece of work, was Harrison. Just the sort to organize an elimination of another Lord’s corporeal form, then capitalize on the affected estate’s weakness with accusations of limp spirit as it acclimated to their return to office. In executioner parlance, he was “back-horned” – no, he didn’t have any kind of protruding bone on his skull, but he showed the same constant mild inflammation of temper that came of irregularly hooking one’s ennobled bits on everything from doorways to shirts to forearms. In terms that a naufer might offer, he was a “wind-wall” – somewhere between a compulsive liar and a person whose morals simply gave him habitual cause to prevaricate.

Adz’s own long-ago ancestors would probably have found the Lord’s levels of scrupulousness worthy of either lifelong imprisonment or being sentenced to death by exposure.

It had been agreed beforehand that outright accusing the man of attempted murder was unlikely to gain traction. The udod aodod itself had raised the point that they couldn’t conclusively tie a single element of the attack to Nor’ridge, aside from the convenience of timing and well-known animosity between rulers. Premature mud-slinging would be just the thing to alienate some of those less-common people who yet harbored hope for Pennat Gate’s aspirations to sanctuaryhood. Now, if they had uncovered reasonable evidence connecting scoundrel to skulduggery, Adz might well have jumped up and dishonored every one of its long-ago ancestors with its poor decision making, at the spectacle of a Lady denouncing a Lord in open Lordsmoot.

“Can any name a criticism of our just-now Republic Lord?” O’Casey exclaimed, a glassy clear resonance in his every syllable.

Thank you, Lord TruTalDatGok! Your worries reflect my own in large part.

The man breathed in deeply, shoulders hunched.

“Can any argue that not long ago we had our Arcadia threshed by a feral whirlwind? How now, that among our august company we see seeds of that very whirlwind sown?”

Our past puts us in a state of deep concern over the issue of Beasts, and yet at least one of our number has among their eccentricities the desire to make an estate into a Beastcote. One of our number whose concerns have lately focused not on statecraft but on expansion.

He blinked once, hard; obviously, he wore irony blinkers to allow himself the luxury of accusing others of expansionism.

“Do we require permission to normal remit now? Normal remit, when feral or even extraordinarily feral woes may in future betide us?”

I would like some assurances of my people’s safety, with such threats being given their leash. What if the grander and more terrible denizens of the Purple should visit us? Will THEY be amenable to reason?

It wasn’t actually coming up and punching the leadership of Pennat Gate in the face, because that would have been more subtle. His utter lack of dignity in verbal combat was… not excused, but perhaps softened by several plancks when considering the Purple’s least-well-known and least-seen natives. The especially peculiar entities of the Purple, those creatures known variously as super-Beasts, over-Beasts, wretched ones, übertiere, and many other such melodramatic labels, were less of a breed and more of a caste of demons. To put it bluntly, they were bad. Intelligent specimens of their kind would probably be worse. It was by the grace of God that, if they currently existed, none had yet been seen since the Western Sunrise.

Down below Adz, Lord Sebastio Artaxerxes’s entire expression went steely.

He quickly composed a recording himself, and submitted it as a rebuttal to the accuser’s hard-thrown mud.

Moments later, it had garnered sufficient notoriety that it appeared next to the Lord of Nor’ridge’s image; a Lonely Lord with a certain amount of controversy in how he’d come to power and how he chose to exercise that power. The little Sebastio imitated the bigger Sebastio’s actions in perfectly defined fidelity: namely, he gave the person addressed no respect worth mentioning in his body language, and only slightly more in his verbiage.

“Normalcy is a legitimate desire; now look here for dispelling of fears.”

Let me show you why your worries are baseless, you PERFECTLY REASONABLE soul – check the included sensory.

Parceled with the recording (and of course vetted by attendant Lawmasters to ensure it contained no malicious payloads) came a brief history of the introduction of Beasts into the ecology of the estate; some already made public, some new. Seven’s unexpected adduction. More creatures of like acuity, being invited out from the Purple one at a time. The formation of Fountainist and later Sledgecrafter teams for the purpose of keeping the Beasts from injuring the peace, and later for keeping the peace from injuring the Beasts. One, and only one, showcasing of the creatures being compelled to comply with an order: Seven’s reaction to Adz on the day it had run into Leanshe. Minutes of the strange immigrants literally doing nothing but looking at flowers and following insects and asking questions. Adz actually began to get a headache at the disorderly onslaught of recorded queries, everything from “What is that?” while pointing at a warsash-draped simulation of a past war hero to “Why does friction not cause that person to combust?” while pointing at a sprinting pedestrian.

What made the biggest impact, of course, was a strung-together sequence of every night when Seven had stayed with Sebastio and Adz.

The gathered Lords and sundry slowly released the clamped muscles of their minds. They allowed egress to exhalations of pique, some distaste, some epithelial desire to both know more and know less. Naufers remarked that such conduct was commendable if ill-advised, pohostinlats called it stupid and complimented Sebastio and O’Casey both for their relative bluntness, humans came up with disparate responses every one. A couple of people in Pennat Gate’s cell quietly remarked that someone needed to gain a certain amount of maturity. One person demanded the obviously undisclosed and obviously hidden footage of over-Beasts being weaponized be produced for the public’s edification, and got himself flattened into verbal haggis. Farther down the couch, Lady Albert Sessel smiled.

Naomi Galt’s tendrils flexed with organic autonomy as she digested the data. Her head’s slight cant made her look like a statue.

“An education is worth much strain, and many mistakes,” she eventually said, so softly that without genetic tweaks over its ancestors’ lifetimes even Adz’s huge ears would have failed to register the sentiment.

Even if this should otherwise be a waste, at least improving our familiarity with a historic night terror will only aid our confidence in adequately dealing with them in future.

Beasts getting treated as target practice was probably the very last thing desired by the people who’d managed to carefully integrate Seven and many of its kinsfolk. However, Adz saw that the transference from fear to callous curiosity was a step in the right direction. Good, no – but seeing the way Sebastio talked with the schlrikt near midnight, occasionally picking up little toys and models and household appliances to slake the creature’s childlike curiosity, was a departure for that port.

After he slowly digested the way the display weaned public opinion onto more moderate ground, Lord O’Casey let his displeasure be known. His expression showed nothing but sadness and sternness. Of course, beneath that veneer was a freight disk’s worth of grasping ambition, but his response was the very image of contrite prudence.

“We care for our community, very dearly and very deeply!”

This show of irresponsibility is quite troubling.

There was grumbling, and a spate of responses ranging from the flagrantly reactionary to the uselessly reconciliatory. Eventually, Tuoamas made a far more dignified and courteous reply than his co-ruler, and it caught the tides of Lords like a topsail filled by a hurricane.

“Can one honor others or oneself by prematurely surrendering in the aim of hospitality?”

I have no intention of slapping our residents aside merely because they discomfit publicans like yourself.

Harrison O’Casey’s mouth pursed.

“Lord Pennat, many marvels at the… objection you offer.”

Do you even have the authority to dictate such things at this time, in your perverse establishment?

Adz itself still had moments where it felt out of its element, just trying to reconcile Pennat Gate’s hierarchical structure with reality. Not the usual kind of straight top-to-bottom dictatorial monarchy at all: Sebastio, nominally self-restricted to dictating when any given member of the estate’s government needed to get the boot and ousted from making direct policy of any kind, yet so often consulted for his opinion, so often the focus of attention-seekers. Tuoamas, retained by Sebastio as the de facto conductor of Lordly business, and thus chiseled into a kind of living statuesque death – superlative privilege, utterly within the bounds of another’s approval. Any system falling into the proper subset of the tolerably orthodox was supposed to be a traditionally authoritarian setup: there is but one Lord, and the Lord’s rule takes into account suggestions if they so desire, their citizens may emigrate if they wish for a change in governance, and their regime may only be forcibly changed under the provisions of the laws of war and the bidding of a Republic Lord to whom they owed fealty.

The right of Lord Artaxerxes to his estate was accepted, however grudgingly, by the community in light of his winning it from its previous owner. Recognition of Lord Tuoamas in a nominal role of the same echelon as he’d previously possessed had a grand appeal to the many with whom he’d dealt in the past, even if it fell under very curious restrictions. That did not make the half-mad edifice a happy state of affairs in the minds of all who beheld it. Initially, not a few critics had compared Tuoamas to a cur on a chain, and not a few had declared Sebastio a string-puller too timorous to face his own just desserts. Over the years, their countrymen had better learned that neither old Lord nor new had any lacking of spine. Yet, the blank check that was an Yrdkish nationlet’s self-rule had rarely seen anything quite like the writer-editor or administrator-chairman relationship in Pennat Gate’s opal throne. The unusual relationship had not earned unanimous hatred, and neither had it earned unconditional acceptance.

Those musings shattered when the outside world intruded. There was an unexpected alert, as Adz received a request for a direct connection. What made it examine, then reexamine, then re-reexamine the requestor was the fact that the requestor was none other than Hereld Upswitch.

Well. That’s… interesting.

The udod aodod eventually decided to humor the enigmatic and forward demand. It was rewarded with a bytevoice that somehow managed to communicate the greasiness of its owner’s mustache.

{Hello, Lady,} said a sticky-sweet voice Adz remembered quite well. The caustic experience of the last time it had made itself known precluded much chance of Adz treating the man any better than it had treated the first and only man who had ever tried to purloin its model-building work at eSsonnss. But while it hadn’t actually done anything to Leern Jenniene worse than fiercely ostracizing him, it would have needed good reason to not tear Hereld in half if he stood before it.

{If you wish to speak with me, you are well-advised to keep it short.}

{Very well, Lady.}

That accent was a real incontinent weelee in the pudding.

{I hope you are open to an unusual engagement with regards to the events unfolding at hand.}

{Such as what?}

{I have come into possession of what you might think of as a set of script trees, if you were to indulge me. A set of script trees describing Lord O’Casey’s vituperations and bilious hyperbole, as he intends to go on today. He and that Gernasot are primed to do you and yours enormous harm.}



{I am aware that your input in a Lordsmoot would be a travesty of social ineptitude. However, were you to pass on your advice to your husband, he could… I believe “cut his opponent down” is the best term for the process. Regrettably, he would treat any suggestion from myself like a pohostinlat being asked to live naked in a glass house.}

{And why do you think I have any more cordiality toward you and your offerings?}

{Lady, in perfect honesty, you are a creature more concerned with objective merit, and less with symbol, than your husband. There are benefits to this state of affairs, and there are detriments. Among the benefits, though, is that you are the more likely to accept wisdom or assistance irrespective of its package’s distasteful appearance. As a sign of good faith, let me demonstrate. Unless Lord Tuoamas gives him a very unusual prompt, Lord O’Casey is going to first wax loquacious about Pennat Gate’s storied history and its improvement since it was given its new name. It will be part of a misguided striving for symbolic parallels. Afterward – and before this happens, you had best have Lord Artaxerxes intercept him – Lord O’Casey will do his best to set up a straw man by criticizing the ineffectuality of your estate’s structure-of-power, and saying that its namesake was the only reason for its successes; obviously your husband is some kind of eloquent parasitic gibbon.}

Adz noted the cleverly efficient way in which Hereld had stuffed information and insult into a single sack. Parasitic gibbon indeed. At least the man was up-front. He was also a manipulator, and very, VERY few things rubbed it on the raw more than being manipulated.

It considered, and watched.

“It would be cause for greater marvel if I objected not at all,” replied Lord Tuoamas.

If you are so terribly troubled, then rest easy that I may still call upon an iron fist if need be.

“We have many objections and much non-objectivity!” criticized a fregnost Lord, her heavily-dyed face the target of so much approval that it nearly toppled all others from their pedestals of attention.


Harrison O’Casey might have shown a bit of a twitch as he dusted off his cuffs. He also might have done nothing of the sort.

“Who among us yet considers Gallowsnight the greater?”

When Pennat Gate was still called Gallowsnight, it had little to offer the world. When Tuoamas Pennat took its reins from Toiné Silkface, the world became better for it.

Well, that was believable enough. Either Upswitch had somehow managed to overturn an eternity of other people trying and failing circumvent the anti-prophetic shielding of the goldspire, or he was in possession of useful intelligence. It could perhaps benefit from his presence in some measure; as the aaned saying had it, even the ugliest tree might yet have edible fruit.

{So what then do you think my husband should say?} Adz demanded of the voice in its head.

{Steer the issue away into the realm of actions rather than identity. Do not dwell on the matter of the monarchy or the monarch, but rather the problem of what the nation has done to make it worth something.}

Adz carefully assembled an argument. It forwarded the skeleton of a suggestion in keeping with Hereld’s own advice to Sebastio, over a separate direct channel. He found it very fitting.

{Thank you, Adz. Give me a moment to pipe this carrion-eater’s words back through his own digestive tract.}

As the man with the improper facial hair had predicted, O’Casey suffered a minor hiccup in his schema’s planning. Lord Artaxerxes first thanked the leader of Nor’ridge for his generosity in observation, and then pointed out that since the time of the throne’s fracture the estate had become a byword for both oddity and generosity, the latter admitted even by his home-grown cynics. Should improvement continue in direct relation to time, hopefully a greater proportion of other Yrdkish powers would emulate the best practices it showed, and not so much its flaws. One or two instances of “hear, hear!” graced the gathering; a much larger portion gave voice to soft and pointed protest.

Lord O’Casey obviously had certain contingencies for that particular gambit’s failure. When Adz whispered in Lord Artaxerxes’s a second time, though, he proved less prepared. Sebastio cudgeled his following strategy of threatening to rally the Republic Lords against the intransigent estate in the crib. He made reassuring gestures, offering to put forward an in-depth itinerary covering how Pennat Gate planned to go about getting their new eldritch tenants integrated into society. A few people started asking stimulating questions, most directed at Lord Tuoamas, but a few deigning to consult with Adz’s husband. Both of the people of Œlthlant exchanged intrigued and contemplative expressions.

Finally, with Harrison O’Casey perceptibly beginning to sweat, Hereld told the Lady that the belligerent Lord would do his best to goad the people of Pennat Gate with a statement of intent: that all Beasts must be destroyed whenever and wherever they were found. That one required a dicier solution. With a bit of reticence, Sebastio and Lord Tuoamas hashed out the specifics. Eventually, the admission outed itself: this new brand of people were not merely obedient but, indeed, categorically biddable. For the moment, at least, the plan suggested they hold back the idea that at least one of the reasons for the Purple’s infusion of culture and direction was war criminal Esmrald Qlikiss, who had been given something between an execution and a life sentence. Instead, Lord Tuoamas provided a surfeit of examples of Beasts beholden to imperatives from his subjects. A stalker that played fetch like a hound at the request of a little girl. Panic when a woman, distraught and utterly distrustful of a schlrikt slightly taller than Seven, told it to get away from her when she encountered the creature crossing a bridge. Its attempt to throw itself off the side was only thwarted by the intervention of a Sledgecraft Guild keeper. Several interviews with Kallahassee and Magdod. It was strangely revelatory and impossible and three different faint shades of horrifying.

Forget jettisoning Nor’ridge’s plans. The repercussions of that confession created a chaos that seemed like it would take down the goldspire’s very walls. Violating seven kinds of good manners, the others in the Pennat Gate cell began leaving their places and approaching Tuoamas and Sebastio in person. They had many questions, very few of which seemed to be in the vein of “how are you?” Sudden omnidirectional convergence on their charges made the nearby armsmen a bit proactive in maintaining distance between them and the reasonably-washed masses of leadership.

{Thank you, my dear Lady,} said Sebastio as the Lordsmoot narrowly avoided falling apart altogether, with a measure of affection that went beyond the merely appreciative. Adz’s reply was less than coherent and moderately ashamed, though it kept signs of the latter from emerging into the light.

{Your efforts have aided our cause,} Adz informed Hereld. Both its tone of bytevoice and its attitude were those of a person who has just synthesized a recipe in their culinary unit, only to find the recipe’s latest silent update replaced food with live bait. Even so, its implicit gratitude was sincere if shallow.

{I hope your failure is deferred long enough to cause failure in an even more odious system’s workings, cow,} said Hereld Upswitch.

And with that, he was blissfully gone. He would be back sometime, Adz felt certain, but being rid of the man was a very good thing indeed. If he reappeared, perhaps someone could arrest him for indecency.

And now what, choleric simpleton? Adz silently challenged the head of Nor’ridge, as something like civility slowly returned.

Thoroughly if not catastrophically flustered, obviously ready to bring the fiasco of growing teetering heights to a useful conclusion, Lord O’Casey overstepped his bounds and prematurely went for the killing blow.

“Do you not find a certain attraction to the premiere creators of integrated firearm modifications? A familial attraction?”

There are concerns that you might be moving to the tune of external powers… like Bhushalt Fabricants and Design. There are concerns that you might be under pressure to meet particular performance quota. There are concerns that you might be acting in tacit concert with the desires of your father and his executive board allies.

One almost could have found it funny. The cells around the goldspire slowly went from restive to disbelievingly slackjawed. A Rhaagmini corporation pulling the strings of an Yrdkish estate? That was the stuff of fever dreams. Adz also noted that the man hadn’t even tried to justify his conspiracy theory. Yes, the idea of power being an eternally appealing draw had something to recommend it… but Bhushalt? The political massacre that would grow from the failure of any such supposed takeover attempt would automatically make that sort of ambition utterly unjustifiable.

Frankly, Pennat Gate’s twin Lords could have replied with breathing noises and it would have held every person rapt on the edges of their seats. Very few pretended to have any interest in either of the other two scheduled speakers; this was practically cinema!

Tuoamas offered his own opinion.

“Do you not consider both of those sitting the fractured throne as members in an eccentric family? A family whose eldest you call upright?”

Accuse my comrade of implicit bias toward bent deals with his father, and you certainly accuse me by proxy. Unless you want to try and uproot my own reputation as well – the reputation upon which you have just this hour heaped praise – do not try it.

At this, Lord Naomi Galt also composed a presentation, and sent it on its way as Adz turned to her, more than a little nonplussed. The same was variously true of most of the other Lords present. Sebastio obviously hadn’t expected the development, and couldn’t hide a curious half-worry as he contemplated the woman.

Lord Tuoamas, esteemed man that he was, let not the slightest surprise seep through his demeanor.

“May those after me break my legacy and mount my cadaver on a goldspire if I speak untrue. Make straight the crooked, for Œlthlant shall be war-friend in fact as well as name.”

If you people are all so monumentally insecure, then let me be the first to breach the barrier. If deemed a fitting course by Pennat Gate’s leadership, it and Œlthlant will enter a compact of mutual support. This I swear.

It was the kind of thing over which bitter feuds and character-assassination campaigns had been fought in the past: unilateral alliance of separate miniature nation-states. The right to pull on a string, and have at the other end a dependable party waiting and ready to answer, any time and any weather.

Adz glanced past at Lady Albert, who grinned back, then joined the masses of people contemplating Naomi Galt with open astonishment.

Well, that was obviously unacceptable to some prudish-minded folk.

A tidal flow of protests started in the old fogey club, running down the hill of traditionalism, and went afoul of those in the progressive crowd. Sure, she had the right to just up and make that kind of call! It was unconscionable. It was just common sense. Why fight about it, don’t we have two more speakers in the major constellations of the day’s events?

Harrison O’Casey frowned. In response he simply called up a single sensory, and flicked it on its way.

“Does a culinary unit produce refuse? Does statistical analysis indicate lesser magnetism in the hemokinetic than in the moral? Does anyone argue?”

If you think Pennat Gate is anything close to reliable or upright, then I beg to differ. Those who would cheat in support of their family in small things would also cheat in larger ones.

Adz was disappointed but not particularly surprised to see footage of a maypoling game, centered upon Heggad’s foul play.

The naufer’s flyby relived itself from the same angle as Adz and its husband had held, from a lower vantage – probably one of those in the immediately-below stands. From the perspective shown, the slat covering the one side of Heggad’s dispenser tipped up against eight grasping digits. A pattern of lights obviously played out within the barest bounds of visibility inside the slat. A change in perspective: Sebastio observing the Fifth Step maypoler, and the orange angular side of his face compacting in realization. His gilded eyeball stitched across the spectacle, wordless.

More than one additional perspective, playing out the minute or so of action centered around the outwardly obvious realization of something rotten writ across a regal face. The whole production ended with his carefully articulated announcement, “This was less happy, and more entertaining.”

“He cannot be serious,” Lord Tuoamas was heard to mutter, with something far closer to genuine shock and disgust than the average person would ever hope to witness him expressing. Yes, breaking the rules of warfare (pretend or otherwise) was a body blow to the honor of any Lord. However, to call Sebastio Artaxerxes hesitant about admitting hard truths of himself had all the accuracy of an archer after a shuffling of the major parts of their sensory cortex. There were still people who recycled his confessions on his past misadventures with companies desirous of his specialized security insights, and “pulling a Glencorps” had fallen into local parlance for unintentionally and hilariously violating another’s privacy. There were very few more willing to come clean about their faults than Adz’s husband. No reasonable people could possibly mark him as a degenerate. Could none of the other Lords recognize a frame when they saw it?

The Lady nearly wanted to scream at the casual dismissal of everything for which its home had campaigned.

As onlookers began jeering or praising the “fresh” “proof” of clandestine activity, Lord O’Casey kicked any pretense of objectivity out the window. His expression wasn’t baleful or satisfied. Instead, it was the flat mask of one whose ethical certitude has fatally exhausted their mental plasticity.

“We shall have to argue, then – freedom for one, privilege for the other… subject to minor renegotiation. A time and some hence.”

Make ready, because Pennat Gate and Nor’ridge will be doing battle in the very near future indeed. If the former should emerge victorious, they will be acceded a quantity of platforms and certificates for expansion of an estate to their leadership. If the latter, we will no longer have to worry about this ridiculous Beast problem – and that objective will not be changed short of forced repudiation.

And just like that, he left the stage, strewing upset and contention of every sort in his wake.

Adz felt the couch under its hand contort as Sebastio shifted, and it looked down at the tiny red glint on his temple as his eyes crept shut, dancing over the mechanics of bluffing and exchanging tokens of power. It mulled over the noisy protests of the gathered crowds. It leaned its attention on the now-silent Toothskin refractor in the incidental intermission before Lord Nobody Cares came onto the so-called stage.

And just like that, Adz came to grips with something truly novel.

It loathed Hereld Upswitch for his manipulative ways.

It despised the necessity for the sinuous battles of reputation fought every day in the name of ambition, nourishing the good and grinding up the needless.

But before now, it had never truly known that colorless blinding Hiek machine named hate.

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