Live, Beige, Live

<< Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

“… And on that day, the prophet Petteri said, ‘Let those who seek wisdom write this down! A time shall come when all palimpsests die, and each written word will to its original story be restored. As the child to the parent, and the sand to the stone, and the word to the story, what is sown will be recalled to its place of origin – be it good or ill. On that fantastic day, for each for the worth of its progeny an accounting will be due.’”

Hadith of Gwenba, Witnessed-by-Allah, Age of Insight translation, recompilation seventy two

‘Twas the second Zeroday of Zeromonth, the beginning of the hand whose closure marked the downhill slope toward tooth-and-nail fighting with Nor’ridge’s paladin of poorly disguised self-interest. The good news with Yrdky’s war games was that one needed no major practice with one’s weapons to be effective, having every conceivable manual and all the veterans of the estate making themselves available in easily digested sensory format. Of course, there was familiarity with oneself and one’s assets, and there was familiarity with one’s opponent. The tactics and advice of House-of-Werub proved inestimable for the latter.

Seroku Adz Tataki Ba’fus found that allied forces of Œlthlant, and even the temporary armistice with House-of-Werub, became ever so much more cohesive with the addition of just a little bit of good-natured competition. That delightful ageless game known as Grediwe (with which Adz had never grown enamored, on account of the element of chance) allowed competitive competition and enjoyable enjoyment. More to the point, it never forced even Yrdkish players to n-minus-one duels when one person had a spectacularly terrible game. However, Adz had also seen more than a couple of games not involving Yrdkish players put one or more participants in medical suspension – or even the local revivification clinic – when someone got caught cheating.

Perhaps it was something common to dice games.

In any case, Adz hoped to find several people in the Second Step platform gaming bar called the Lunar Glass. Not technically as a matter of state, but knowing their minds served to buttress the estate’s security. It wanted to check up on some individuals it considered friends, in that Venn diagram intersection of those who had lesser or ambiguous tracking of their goings-on and those who occupied a currently precarious position in the public eye. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those precarious positions might become far less precarious and far more openly volatile within the course of the next month.

The truth was that it and its husband had been discussing the recourse of Pennat Gate in light of the negative goodwill it had accrued in the sight of Nor’ridge and other such powers. Lord Artaxerxes had shared a disturbing but very real possibility of the estate’s potential future political status, a possibility that was both plan and fallback. None of the very few parties they’d tapped to gain prophetic insight had pronounced that possibility as “likely” and yet none of them were ready to discount it, either. Not the sporadic talent of Lord Tuoamas, not the confidential consultations with the College of Prophecy, not nobody not no how. In that spirit of grasping groping hopes and aspirations, checking up on those people who mattered to the estate’s character seemed well-advised.

Two of those people, as it happened, were on premises, and entrenched in the tumescent abject jocularity of Grediwe as the Lady slid through the yawning front entrance.

Reltenifor Seven-thousand-ninety-four-centimeters was the foremost of the Lady’s concerns, was a conjugated pohostinlat who had gone out to pasture in the years since his heyday of helping shape Pennat Gate’s war games, was the past recipient of a small portion of Adz’s previous work as a simulation designer, and was losing a match with almost pitiable speed. Despite several different kinds of pleading and some frankly undignified attempts to bribe him with various kinds of carrot, the conjugated strategist considered his futile defense against the forces of Caladhbolg to be the swan song of his career. After a short layover of grooming several candidates for his old position and landing on one Earl Stuttgart, the noble had come to Tuoamas with a very straightforward attitude about the whole ordeal. “Losing against Lord Artaxerxes’s one-man demolition of multiple platforms’ worth of combat materiel? Being on the front lines of arguably the most interesting challenge to warfare in the age? That is something worth a tale of its own. Asking me to stay beyond that milestone is either inconsiderate or wasteful. I now take my leave.” And Tuoamas had given his blessing, and that was that.

Reltenifor had also come into a sort of amanuensis role for the domestic martial nobility. His guidance was one of the primary factors in deciding what was necessary for ensuring the safety of the local and foreign rabble. Doubly so for the recent over-Beast-fueled immigration mishap. He’d been exonerated in the matter of the rolling disaster caused by the junior staff involved in interfacetary operations, and praised for how quickly he’d started taking mitigatory action from his strategic command post. He’d ungraciously accepted the forgiveness, and promised to keep extraordinary checks on who was permitted to do work on similar interfacetary operations in the future.

The rising star of Beast study that was Kallahassee Jones Esckel Marion Lille Bartimaeus the Thirty Fifth had one of his game’s opponents on the ropes, and was desperately trying to fend off the predations of another. Apparently the digital dice weren’t nearly as kind to him as the majority of his estate’s populace. Given how much credit he and his wife and their colleagues had received from the people of that populace, in recognition of the ongoing scientific effort of banishing the ghosts of uncertainty from modern civilized Beastkind, the dice would have needed to spontaneously generate more pips on his turn to approach the favor of the adoring public. If they had, Adz suspected the man would self-consciously insist that it was entirely unnecessary, and that he didn’t really need any special treatment, and please stop rolling natural hundreds. His hands were constantly shaking; either a nervous tic or a very fast beat to a song playing over his mesh. Every so often, one set of fingers rose to scratch at his tunic neck in an itchy twitch.

Both of them were getting their clocks cleaned by a pygmy wiçfr from Œlthlant, and a young human woman from either House-of-Werub or the Trisected Republic, based on her clothing. The wiçfr was quite civilized, both in the sense of relating very effectively to all three companions’ mindsets and showing the courtesy due a host by a guest. The woman had good tactics, which Adz appreciated; poor sportsmanship, which it did not; staggering Bequastish accent, about which it felt very little one way or the other.

“What kind of card is that?” asked Reltenifor of the woman when she triumphantly tossed a quadrangle onto the projected playing field’s main area.

“Power word,” she answered with a crystalline laugh. “Modifier for my Hiek machine. It means that all other machines which are not finished by the time this one is completed get scrapped.”

“Never heard of it,” said Kallahassee. Where Reltenifor obviously wanted to know more about it for future application, Kallahassee wanted to know more about it for objective study.

The woman’s face lightened and she giggled out a pun about hearing and cards in Mefonite, which astoundingly enough didn’t lead to her murder. Perhaps it was that the foremost fregnost tongue managed to take punnery out of the realm of miserable rusty-blade execution offenses, and elevate it to something that was almost tolerable to even civilized people.

“I do not intend to denigrate your skill, Ms. Genna. But that seems like an inefficient use of your current resources to hand.”

Kallahassee jabbed a digit at the wiçfr.

“The greatest threat to your current good health is setting itself up for non-thaumaturgic field strategy and a long-term victory.” His eyes squinted at the wiçfr’s fluttery limb-fins as they prepared the other competitor’s next move. “Unless I am mistaken, of course.”

Ms. Genna, with another of her laughs, indicated the passing of her turn. The wiçfr began taking action.

“See, Bartimaeus, that is why you are losing. I do not care about him-”

She nodded in the direction of Reltenifor.

“-or it-”

She did the same toward the pygmy wiçfr.

“-because one is already out of the running, and the other is going for a quite strong endgame that will not arrive.”

The wiçfr played a card and a die that made Reltenifor loose a pohostinlat laugh: arms diagonally oscillating toward and away from each other, like a series of almost-claps. “Oh, well done, especially for picking up with such a terrible strategy at the beginning,” he said.

“The point of this stage in the game if you have more than two players,” continued Ms. Genna, “is to winnow out viable threats in order of ease. You do not go for the kill with those who might still have the means to hold you down and let the rest tear chunks out of you. You do not pour away time plugging inconsequential holes in the game.”

Her eyes glinted, and Adz tried to pick out which of the three or four possible directions of that obvious double entendre best fit her character. It decided the answer was “all of them.”

The wiçfr announced that such a mentality was terrible, ruthless, and utterly effective – as it was hoping to currently demonstrate.

Ms. Genna found herself staring down the wrong end of a field that her wiçfr competitor had assembled and completed faster than everyone – including she – had expected. She underwent the delights of the field’s applied effects, and she nearly got flattened where she stood.

“Well,” she huffed. “Let us see about that.”

Yrdkish didn’t even HAVE contractions and that accent was nearly putting them in anyway.

Another rotation around the players, and Kallahassee and Reltenifor were both still technically in the running. Kallahassee had managed to abandon his attempted Hiek machine and start up a couple non-magical fields instead. Reltenifor had an abrupt interest in extremely abstract mathematical constructions, which kept him both out of the line of fire of the other players and ensured that he could do virtually nothing to any of them. The woman gained the main portion of the wiçfr’s attention, and Adz could only watch impressed as it cut her Achilles tendons and sent her grand scheme sprawling. She didn’t suddenly get all petulant and mopey, exactly, but even someone with no exposure at all to human behavior could tell she now had a bone to pick.

“Not bad,” said Kallahassee. He leaned back and considered the slithery form of the wiçfr across the playing field, one eyebrow cocked like a hip. “Were you planning that strategy from the beginning?”

The pygmy wiçfr stated that it had intended to wait a bit longer in the ideal scenario, but had accounted as best it could for the others’ early preferences in style. It admitted that it could have done better.

“Good day,” Adz ventured, moving up to the Toothskin refractor. It drew the attention of the other people patronizing the Lunar Glass, and its honor guard gave a series of don’t-try-anything body signals. The audience successfully managed to not try anything, and went back to their various occupations after a few looks – one from a forithka who wore a mock-Caladhbolg patch of opaque orange on his right arm and the right third of his face – and a happy child chattering away to its progenitor and pointing out the Lady.

“Lady,” said Reltenifor, rising to attention, followed closely by Kallahassee.

The udod aodod warded off the gesture.

“Please. The now is a small pleasant islet in the ocean of needs-doing.” True, if incomplete. “If you could deal me in, I would be quite happy.”

That got a look from Reltenifor, who was well up-to-date on the Lady’s less-Grediwe-more-maypoling tastes thanks to his connections. However, he said nothing on the subject.

“More is better,” said Kallahassee with a thin smile. “For most things, leastwise.”

The wiçfr agreed and set up a new match with the Lady introduced at the fifth spot, and Adz took a seat at the edge of the matte black table. Ms. Genna didn’t argue, but she obviously didn’t know how to behave when put into a competitive environment where one of the participants was the pinnacle of domestic nobility. The wiçfr had no such reservations, and immediately asked the Lady if it would like to start. The Lady replied that it would.

The Lady very soon regretted its step outside the bounds of its comfort zone, if only because it disliked doing poorly for reasons outside of its control.

A handful of unrefined jewels, without the right equipment to polish them, thought Adz as its eyespots fluttered and it pored over its hand. At the same time, it was performing rapid-fire mental somersaults as it shuttled its thoughts back and forth between the game and the framing of questions. Fortunately, it quickly garnered the best possible plans of action it could execute, and deduced the likelihood of each being neutralized by the opposition. It started off with a transitional strategy that could fork one of three ways, then ended its turn and waited for the pohostinlat to make his own (far better) play.

“I understand that your family have recently taken in a new member,” said Adz. It drew to replace the two dice it had expended, and recognized neither of the new additions it got in exchange.

“We did,” said Reltenifor. “Pretty as black glass, but a terribly silly creature. She still wakes up at night on occasion, looking for how to get to the latrine. She also still has no interest in obtaining a cerv-mesh. But that is the nature of free will: the ability to make as many poor decisions as you would like.”

Adz felt its budding comfort at Reltenifor’s words abruptly die off, when he added, “My sister has been taking more and more responsibility for the little scamp. She now spends half of her day at the bottom of the hive, helping to sort out the greenware, until Solrigenen gets home – then she follows her around. At this rate, I could probably leave Pennat Gate, and she would not particularly mind.”

The Lady shuffled its cards and dice, as though it didn’t have a decision tree model for the next four turns already coaxed into full bloom.

“Of course, you could do that,” it said with as strong a mantle of calm as it could fabricate, “but then Lord Tuoamas would miss you, Earl Stuttgart would miss you, and we would miss you.” More importantly, it didn’t suffix the observation with any of the legion of worried thoughts it also possessed.

After all, history had long showed that adding any sort of tension to the cookpot of humans, those legally treated with the same rights and regulations as humans, and those who simply bore a great deal of resemblance to humans could end badly. When that person was, as they said, on the edge…

Perhaps the worst part was the way Adz had to operate: treating the old warhorse like his personal fate hung the future of the estate. Unfortunately, if some exceptionally intemperate misfortune befell the man in the next several hands, a person of the prestigious service he’d rendered, that might be enough to turn the whole place into a pile of smoking pegs on its own.

The wiçfr composed and submitted to the group a literary battery upon the character of the human male player, in a strikingly unusual display of cultural congruence seen in its species about as frequently as one found hens’ teeth. Adz heard “Oh. Oh.” It looked over at Ms. Genna, then at the table.

Kallahassee had set up a rigorously defensible position with two proto-machines that weren’t getting disassembled anytime soon. Ms. Genna clearly considered it some kind of gaffe, judging by her tone of voice. She threw down a bilious little reply in the form of a die-card combination whose only purpose was to eventually grow into a poisonous flower in the seedbed of Kallahassee’s turn.

“Ah.” Kallahassee pulled a tetchy scowl at her. “You scoundrel. I need to pay you back for that sometime. Maybe…”

“Introduce her to Mrs. Bartimaeus, perhaps?” poked Reltenifor.

“No. She ought to feel ashamed, not disabled.”

The wiçfr played two dice, which naturally upset all of those pruned and groomed decision branches and required the full of Adz’s attention to counteract. It took thirteen seconds to begin effectively thinking about the problem, and two hundredths of a second to solve for the most flexible response.

“Indeed,” said the udod aodod. “This is a time when we ought to consider the examples we set. Lord Artaxerxes has been doing just that to the best of his ability for quite some time now.”

Just before someone might have begun to bristle, Adz added, “It heartens me to see how many grand exemplars we have in this little corner of existence we call home, especially in light of how many near-setbacks we have weathered of late – doubly so between the people seeking kidnap and murder, and those simply hoping to reach out and hurt our ambitions. We have perpetrated no atrocities in retaliation. We have not made impetuous or exploitative demands for justice.”

It waited, as though weighing up its words again.

“If they bother to remember this upheaving transfigurative period of Yrdkish history, when we were busy trying to turn an ageless fear of the Purple on its head, they will recall it as a time of rebirth. They will see us as people picking up the pieces.”

It played a card (superoperator cards were one of the few things the udod aodod enjoyed without qualification about the game) and a die. Only the fact of the d20’s rolling a natural twenty – when its effect was to increment all results by three except for twenty, which it zeroed – dampened its authentic if ephemeral enthusiasm.

“They will see us as a force for the improvement of our little country, and our little country as a force for the improvement of everything else.”

Reltenifor sniffed. Reltenifor threw down two cards. Reltenifor sniffed again. Reltenifor extended one of his wrist-spurs, rubbing it by the small indentation where it retracted into its toughened fleshy home.

“In the final calculus, for what more could a person reasonably ask than a reputation that succeeds them?” he muttered. “Besides, of course, a limitless supply of supremely attractive people all straining their every sinew to garner your attention.”

Adz couldn’t tell how it ought to interpret that sentiment. Acquiescent? Content? Despondent? Rather than distressing itself over the prospect, it gave a strong exhale.

“I did not take you for the kind of person who neglected such company,” it not-accused, eyespots fluttering as it adjusted its placement on its seat.

Reltenifor’s hands began oscillating again.

As naturally as it could, Adz rubbed the soft scales on its hands together, ears quirking, then considered Kallahassee. It waited until he obviously lay between action and thought, then attempted to discommode him with sudden questioning, in a way that – hopefully – implied its willingness to resort to underhanded distraction rather than its discomfort with continuing discussion involving Reltenifor.

“How is Magdod, by the by?”

Kallahassee’s mouth nearly flipped on his face. He was both pleased at the question and upset with its timing. Excellent.

“Oh, she is chattier than a scared dut on milk teeth. House-of-Werub, as it happens, is planning to begin their own Beast acceptance program, and they have requested her and me to give seminars on our findings. One of us needs to stay behind and keep the flocks organized, of course.”

He started to throw down a single card, tweezed it between his digits, stopped, and thought it over. He put it back. He pulled it out. He put it back. He grabbed a die from his hand and set it down almost before the tackle of his fingers began strangling it. His hands were evidence of all the ambiguation that his face was not. Eventually, Ms. Genna clutched at her eyes.

“For the love of Dlg, we are playing Grediwe, not gluefinger!” 

“I am aware, thank you very much!”

The man’s scowl graduated from pupa stage to a broad-winged frown.

“If one must resort to sarcasm,” he muttered, “they needs must recall that it has very particular times and places for being used.”

“Just take your turn, child, and let us get on with it.”

In response, Kallahassee threw a card down on the table with so much force it caused the other virtual contents of the Toothskin refractor to jostle.

Adz felt pleased, and hoped that Magdod felt just as happy with her husband’s prestigious accomplishments. It didn’t have the firmest idea of precisely why – and it certainly hadn’t any talent of prophecy – but it was struck with the pale conviction that Kallahassee and Magdod wouldn’t have too long to enjoy the limelight their investigations had earned. Their insights into the ontological, biological, sociological, theological, technological, epistemological, and virtually-any-other-ological realms, particularly where they intersected with studies of the Purple, were very, very big. They were the sorts of things that might lead future calendar authors to delimit the beginning of the Bartimaeus studies as the inception of a new epoch, if not a larger subdivision of macrotemporal designation. The Lady hoped they’d get their just desserts, and fretted that they would not receive any such gift.

Hopefully those worries lacked any real teeth, and hopefully it and its husband’s upsetting predictions would bypass the slim footprint that was realization.

On the subject of predictions, Adz was no Connisel Frena Frena Pjoßtet. Yet, even it managed to pick up that the game had probably no more than three rounds left before it found itself knocked from the running. Good; it did want to meet up with several other notables before the day was out. The excuse to extract itself from the errand of trying to reinforce Reltenifor’s psyche was not unattractive, either.

Before it could try to pass along pithy or overgeneralized wisdom to the man, though, it found its attention grabbed by a feed on the nearest holojector on display. As the wiçfr said something to which the udod aodod didn’t bother attending, the Lady made a surreptitious request to have the feed’s content passed to its cerv-mesh.

It was rewarded with the image of a familiar, disconsolate naufer with fur of white and the face of a fugitive from oneself almost as much as the sum total of people who might wish one ill. “BET LESREDAT FLIES FROM NEST, TO AN AGGRESSOR’S COOP!” read the headline. Adz flicked a glance up and down the bloated article, happy to see the way in which – outside of the raging inferno of the ticker-tape-strewn announcement – it eschewed any sort of opinion on the part of its creator. The only less-than-objective elements of its production were the fact of its existence, and that the author (someone named Phus) went about their research in an obsessive manner suggesting that they were also udod aodod. It made it perfectly clear that Heggad had explicitly declared his intent to pull up stakes, and find new a place to call home far from Pennat Gate, far from Œlthlant, and very far from Nor’ridge.

Well, that was simply unacceptable. The estate’s competitive maypoling quality would go very slightly down.

Adz was happy the poisonous little snot had removed himself from the rapidly-degrading linear program of posturing and power games unfolding around the length and breadth of Yrdky. Adz was upset at the deliberately contrived sabotage of the delicate equations its estate was trying to bring into alignment. Adz was uncertain about the fact that Lord Sebastio Artaxerxes’s schemata were involving more and more editing, and less and less pure creation, as time marched.

Adz had accrued more fatigue since its elevation to the nobility than it had over the prior entirety of its life.

The wiçfr produced an interesting combination of dice. The dice produced an interesting combination of inimical effects. The effects produced an interesting combination of (relatively mild) profanity. Adz drastically revised downward the size of its window of figurative survival.

It managed, as things transpired, to get out another pair of actionable turns before its actionable impetus went to zero.

“Again! Again!” A suddenly very eager or very bloody-minded Ms. Genna obviously intended to throw good money after bad. She possibly intended to go and earn more good money just to toss it into the pot as well.

Kallahassee snorted, then said, “Fine. I would like to proffer a wager, in that case.”

The Lady almost interjected. It hadn’t said all that it needed to say.

After several moments, though, it began to wonder if that was, in fact, true.

The udod aodod decided it ought to leave, and return to searching out those for whom it was concerned. Its leg-cables raised it smoothly to something equivalent to a light crouch, to better navigate the standard-sized doorways and other architecture. It looked down at the slightly disgruntled human man. Kallahassee looked up at it, one eyebrow raised.

“You will make sure to give an update if there are any breakthroughs with Jenner’s project, yes? There are a great many people who would like to know how far a Beast can go in making autonomous decisions before their prior instructions stop having an effect.”

Adz received an oblique gesture of acknowledgement from the morose-looking man.

“That will be the case, Lady.”

Adz turned, and started for the door, only to draw up short. Its ears flicked, its eyespots flashed, as Reltenifor stared up at it, his trapezoidal maroon eyes connecting the dots of its facial scaling.

“Why?” he asked, quiet and intense.

Why indeed? Adz felt its lips part ever so slightly, airway squirming.

In this moment, Adz felt itself acting once again as editor. It was taking the opinions of the Lord it had married and helping to reshape the world to fit his desire, even if it required deviating from the implementation he would have preferred. It could almost hear its husband’s voice. “Lady,” he said, “the man does not appear fully stable. Perhaps leaving without agitating him is the best course of action.”

<Is it not the greater danger that he might turn sour and cut his silver cord?> the Caladhbolg half of him would ask.

No. The greater danger is that we might leave those important words unsaid.

“Why? Why is King Question. When you ask ‘why,’ you pull on the end of a thread, and on that thread lies every other question you can imagine. To ask ‘why’ is to try and peel back the hull plating which keeps one universe in and all else out.”

The pohostinlat gave it a small, stillborn down-sign.

“Sometimes that hull plating needs peeled back,” he replied.

The udod aodod could have replied to that in a hundred ways. In its sadness, it chose, “‘That is the nature of free will: the ability to make as many poor decisions as you would like.’”

It waited, then let its eyefibers close its eyespots over completely for a moment. It felt its scales shiver.

“As the Followers-of-the-Way say, our hope is that you carve that free will into the right sculpture.”

Nothing at all came from the humans, or the wiçfr.

“Let us be away, Lucas, Lily,” Adz said to the armored figures who had been standing at its back, and then it abandoned its waiting in favor of the door.

“Come again!” said the greeter spirit just inside the establishment’s limits.

“Thank you,” replied Adz, emerging into slatted bars of daylight.

The Second Step platform was intentionally built to evoke the taste and feel of Rhaagm’s greatroads, its unfeasibly tall towers, its decks of vertical layers. It had no Tower, of course, nor did its many subdivisions fit into the nice single-square-kilometer district layout of the Parsed City-State, nor did its layers admit the sun despite the outwardly apparent opacity of it constituent materials, nor did it use redmetal for paving its ground road network. But it came close enough to Sebastio’s historic home – and that of any other Rhaagm-born – for them to forget about the Yrdkish nature of the place. Forget it, at least, until they encountered another person whose mother tongue was Yrdkish, and had the illusion popped.

As it trod the faux streets, looking for others with whom it wished discourse, the udod aodod found signs of contentment, signs of worry, signs of determination. Its estate was running out of time at a rate of sixty four seconds per minute, sixteen hours per day, and the finish line was Zeromonth thirty first. The people knew it. The people were waiting.

Most of them, anyway.

At the sight of one unfolding scene in particular, it had to pause and slowly flutter its eyefibers for several of its long breaths. Its mind, busily running a stitch up the garment of its ruminations at lightning speed, suddenly came to a screeching halt. It began unpicking the seam, re-sewing again at a slightly deviated angle. It repeated the attempt at plotting a new mental course, fell short, repeated, fell short. Eventually, it and its guards took a short detour toward the interesting debacle of a small boxy crowd.

At the center of the small boxy crowd was a person neither placid nor especially cogitative. It was a cexticak from House-of-Werub, less needle-thin than most of its kin. It tromped around a fairly open stretch of sidewalk in that rubbery way which reminded Adz of its own leg-cables when it was still sleepy. The long pale torso wrenched around the joint where it descended from the pelvis and legs with nimble muscle-beneath-skin tension, and its grasping limb passionately swung an ornate ivory walking stilt. Its antics had garnered a small crowd. The crowd obviously intended primarily to see the foreigner make a fool of itself, secondarily to listen to the message of an unintentionally entertaining preacher.

Adz was starting to sense a pattern of stumbling into scenes featuring subversives while having no intention so to do. It watched the marching House-of-Werub visitor as its walking stilt cut the air, pointing at the audience with the fermented thunder of condemnation.

“Pennat Gate exists in set of less-lovable union set of those loved implies Pennat Gate exists-not in set intending House-of-Werub unlove. Allied estates exist in set of grade-increasing nouns implies danger of allied estates’ relations. Fairweather friends exist in set of things which are infectious.”

Lord Gwonderfeld is happy to help out an ally who is not a threat. Doubly so when they both share the aim of sundering the fist of a vile man like Lord O’Casey. But those who succor Beasts may yet become House-of-Werub’s enemies in due time.

The Lady found itself less hostile to such doomsayers with the advance of time. All the same, Adz didn’t exactly have to pick up the shattered pieces of its heart when the long-legged foreigner found itself the brunt of some well-placed mockery.

“Well, well, Giggles! If you hate Beasts so much, then you will love the chance to see our information warfare center!” hollered a fregnost, who had paused as she passed by the scene.

The cexticak, as with all its kind, found no humor of any kind in the exchange, as it found in any exchange. Conversely, the cexticak did not recognize to what little or large degree the statement might be facetious. It was about to reply to the fregnost when a human (another of the House-of-Werub visitors) suggested (in a state of slightly wobbling inebriation) that all of the love going around deserved consummation.

Fortunately, the brewing philosophical complaints defused as the participants became engulfed by the promise of more concrete drama. The cexticak tried to resume its dissertation. The shouting back and forth on the subject of acceptable public behavior stole the foreigner’s thunder, ruined the fight for which it was obviously spoiling, and buried its masquerading-as-cerebral concerns under the far less intellectual dirt of knee-jerk chastisement.

Adz couldn’t have handled the situation better if it had written the script itself, but sadly the salacious scene was probably only one of several such events taking place in its home at that instant.

The Lady suspected that its keepers would be much happier if it left the salacious scene behind, reducing the likelihood of incurring salacious unnecessary sucking chest wounds and salacious revivifications. As it happened, they were. And so, they left behind the increasingly contentious tidings.

It was when the udod aodod came across the pillbox, entrenched at the end of the firing lane cleared to the edge of the platform, that it stopped dead.

Adz managed to get a glimpse through two open doorways, a small planter trellis, and the armpit of a statue it did not recognize. In the coincidence of those vantages was revealed a familiar figure. The familiar figure had a familiar color of aura around her, and she was obviously focused on interfacing with the pillbox’s informational equipment sprawled in front of her. The Lady assumed she had only begun her little project within the last dozen or so heartbeats.

The powers secular had kept a very close eye on the Etruphana problem, for years and years. In all the time since she’d been accosted, skinned, and rebuked by a younger Sebastio, she’d had but a very few outwardly discernable hiccups. As the greatest of those hiccups had been to come to Adz in person and seethe at the world’s incomplete justice, the people in charge of such decisions had elected to extend her the clemency of mildly reduced surveillance. They’d known where she was, pretty much any second of any day, and despite the danger signs woven into that recent incident they’d assumed they’d have warning. Adz had assumed they’d have warning. They’d spent more valuable sparks on tracking down that subversive Upswitch, and had so very much to show for it.

The udod aodod would confront her and make an end to vagaries.

One of the guards who was charged with Adz’s wellbeing tried to help. The udod aodod’s eyespots flickered. It made it clear that Lily’s dedication was admirable, but the executioner could potentially give the game away. Even as it remonstrated with the woman, Adz invoked a collection of extremely powerful and extremely restricted networking utilities. Through a mixture of scrying, minor prophetic talent, frame interception and mirroring, and several other more subtle techniques it deduced the woman’s purpose, level of progress in her aim, and specifics of the content she was manipulating. It determined that the immediate destination of said content was a proxy node, at the beginning of a massive chain of like proxy nodes. It managed to discern, thanks to a complex reflection algorithm, that the final recipient of the intelligence was a small shell organization, with a controlling interest held by none other than Gernasot mun Cecilia mun Alice munnin Erliseth the Grand of Nor’ridge.

The Ripper. The absolute RIPPER.

Adz didn’t repeat itself to its guards; the changes to its body language and the sounds it couldn’t restrain told them everything they needed to know about their charge’s level of ire. Namely, that it was considerable, and unlikely to be slaked short of bloodshed. They both made themselves useful by setting up a watch to ensure anyone approaching the Lady would be seen. The not-so-subtle implication of the observed being nicely boxed in for easy quelling required no articulation.

{I need a cuff,} it informed Lucas, silent so as to not inform its quarry. He provided one. The Lady hefted its weight, felt its ears tilt, and ground the lunes of its dental hardware together.

Had Leanshe Etruphana kept her various integrated facilities open to the world around her, she would have easily spotted Adz. By the same token, she would almost certainly have coated herself in daylight-bright garments for all the digital and extrasensory world to see. How precisely she hadn’t taken notice of Adz in the very short time before she got to her clandestine perusal was a mystery that would bother the udod aodod for the rest of the next four minutes.

The Lady contemplated the distance separating itself and the autumn elf, and the likelihood that she might see it if it were to sprint. Out of pique, it nearly tried anyway.

It put such childish things aside, and folded to directly behind the leaning woman. It had no concern that anyone would find it at fault for its actions, considering the magnitude of the faults it intended to confront.

For a single breath, the woman remained oblivious, and the udod aodod stared at her back and the aura of artificial calm she emitted. It knew that, for its husband, the urge to take his time and possibly reconsider the onrushing irrecoverable step would have probably proven taxing. Adz felt no such restraint.

In the moment of Leanshe’s far-too-slow turning, the Lady slapped the cuff onto her arm. It immediately snapped closed around her bicep, the click sounding like a decree of the tiny whispering tempter’s voice Hssi was supposed to possess. Just as immediately, the autumn elf’s aura almost disappeared, and when she faced the Lady of her estate it was with trembling and budding outrage.

Upon finding the dudgeon, the vast dudgeon, the great and terrible dudgeon which held Adz in its long cold hands, Leanshe Etruphana came to the realization that she would not live her present life much longer.

“Hello, Leanshe.”

The average udod aodod had maybe a tenth the average vocal range of a human. Even so, no one could possibly mistake its tone. Adz later replayed a sensory of the confrontation, and – if not for the fact that it had put a cuff on its subject, and the fact that it had lived the portrayed events – it might have assumed that the person it addressed would receive the treatment of its dæmon cluster, its machina ad deus. But it did not mean to destroy her; not yet.

Leanshe said nothing, high of color and low of breath.

“I am afraid that time wears most thin for our home’s preparations,” the Lady rasped. “For you, it is yet thinner.”

The woman still said nothing.

Adz bent down, eyefibers almost flat, and its nostrils swelled. Leanshe’s clothing ruffled ever so slightly in the negligible wind.

“We lie upon the brink of the informalities of war, we ask the best of those dear people who will contribute to our survival of the coming storm, and you trample upon our interests like so much filth.”

The woman flinched as Adz projected a document upon the Monolith’s naked-eye layer. The document’s contents were damning. Those damning contents had already gone to the Sledgecraft Guild. Apparently, the Sledgecraft Guild was casting lots to see who would get the honor of getting on-scene first. The martial nobility was right behind them.

“Leanshe Etruphana, you are hereby under arrest.”

A large scaled digit stabbed at the document. It displayed a moment-to-moment breakdown of the autumn elf’s recent network operations. She had communicated a very, very great deal in the short time she’d been transmitting. It wasn’t a fact in her favor.

“You have surrendered data, directly pertinent to the estate of Pennat Gate’s capacity to wage war, to the estate of Nor’ridge – data both confidential and classified as secret. You have committed perjury in attesting that this emplacement – and others of similar design – are provided in part or in whole by representatives of Bhushalt Fabricants and Design. You have committed perjury in attesting that representatives of Bushalt Fabricants and Design have assisted this estate in preparations intended for times of war. You have conspired with our enemies.”

The muscles of Leanshe’s thighs sharpened, as though she would throw herself upon the udod aodod. Then her every joint became so much loose warm wax, and she almost crumpled like once-rigid thulite snapping back to its original shape.

Either shut up and talk, or come quietly, thought the udod aodod.

“Do what you will with me, then,” the woman muttered. “I regret not my actions, only their necessity.” She looked up at the Lady, determined to say nothing that would give the lie to her final and most deplorable treachery. “I do not blame you for doing what you feel you must. I merely wish it was done for something other than the service of that creature perverting the opal throne with his presence.”

Adz paused without breath, staring at the woman in amazement. It thought about the autumn elf’s angry halfhearted extension of truce those years back – technically speaking, the motivation which had brought it and Sebastio together. It thought about forgiveness borne of malice. It thought about the need for confession it saw so often in human-congruent races. It thought about taking care of business. Then it nearly fell to the floor, so great was the need for its leg-cables to wind themselves, to the point of tearing cartilage and muscle. The humor held not a little darkness in it, but it could be called no less genuine for that fact.

“You,” it growled. “Do you think I care in the slightest about what you think of me?” The udod aodod knew that it should be getting itself gone, telling the Sledgecrafters to come and take this woman into custody with a minimum of gentleness.

Adz’s eyespots became pinholes. “Worrying about what you think, worrying about you as a person rather than a delivery system for tribulation, is like worrying about the status of the region’s redmetal because things have gotten a little bit chilly outside. Your little attempt to implicate Bhushalt in our dealings has successfully created the kind of problem that we must defuse through truly drastic measures.”

Now, there lay understatement. Lord Harrison O’Casey’s framing of some kind of dirty deal between Sebastio Artaxerxes (Lord of Pennat Gate and possessor of Caladhbolg) and Iggez Artaxerxes (a sitter-of-the-throne in Bhushalt’s executive echelon and one of the richer people a person was likely to meet) were initially considered another symptom of Nor’ridge’s spite and paranoia. Anyone willing to view Pennat Gate’s side of the argument would probably yet extend them the benefit of the doubt. Anyone whose camp fell in alignment with O’Casey’s ambitions would spit on the doubt, and back his version of the story. The less fully decided public would, in general, take information as seasoning and opinion as meat for the meal of their politics.

Now, Adz had the sense that its leg-cables had been amputated, and its fall to the ground would take forever. Its hands of spirit grasped at the time spooled out into the abyss, so far into the past that no sane person would have rolled back to a salvational temporal savepoint. If they had simply pulled the woman’s licenses and certificates, deprived the shipwright of the Engineering Compact’s credibility, that would have prevented her from starting any fires such as they now confronted. If they had… but they hadn’t.

Now, someone with real, local authority had gone and made pegs of them all. When it was O’Casey, that was to be expected and relatively easily discounted. The man’s bile toward those of opposing placements was well-documented. Leanshe would grow to nothing less than folk hero status among their ranks, a disillusioned foe tired of the games being played by her unstable countrymen and their unstable Beast-loving ways. She had invested so much in Pennat Gate’s mission against her better judgment (an actually true statement, funnily enough) and eventually decided to support the Nor’ridge spirit of justice. Minister Gernasot would produce a shockingly detailed manifest of reasons why Leanshe, like any rational being, simply could not tolerate the fractured throne’s vainglorious ambitions any longer.

Leanshe had no backup from which to revive herself, if the worst were to ever befall her. If Adz had just edited her out of the picture earlier…

Its flesh suddenly tensed beneath the insulation of its scales.

If it had done that, the Lady would have seen Sebastio’s face grow dark, lighten again, and forever retain a little of that shading beneath its surface. It would have always and ever known that he had irretrievably suffered, and suffered needlessly. If it had stuck her with a legion of Ktarebte machines to monitor her, that was one thing, but disappearing her was another. That ancient saying of its husband’s birthplace came to mind: “‘Good’ is that for which to die in vain be just.”

Just. Right. Moral. Upstanding… no. Moral. Immortal. Inevitable.


And then suddenly, Adz felt two separate parts of its mind quickly come together, two stars finding a short-lived barycenter and forming a binary system for the duration of a fairytale.

What did it really matter?

Yes, the repercussions of poisoning the opinion well with rumors of collaboration would set Pennat Gate back years. Yes, it would probably spill over into refreshing misgivings of the wisdom in admitting Beasts as thinking, privileged civilians. Yes, it would probably bring frustrations to a fantastic sublimation. But it changed nothing about the fact of the upcoming clash of personalities. Adz’s estate would probably do little of consequence differently from the original script, aside from spending a bit more time in debunking the credibility of certain critics.

It and its people would have to weave pictures of themselves not just for exterior consumption, but for their own good as well.

And because that delimited the art of creation, that delimited the soul not of bending models but breathing the breath of life into thoughts, Adz felt politician-mind join up with designer-mind… and for the first time in years, the touch of peace joined the joy of its work.

Keep your faith alive, Adz. Go. Do. Believe.

Its palms came together, its leg-cables straightened. An ear flicked. It did not look at the autumn elf.

“We are going to subject you to eleven kinds of dowsing,” rumbled the Lady without unkindness. “We will determine the truth of your story, one way or another. Then, we shall see.”

After a moment of removed frivolity, it added that Rhaagmini turn of phrase in Bequastish. “She is too stupid to be stupid, and that is worth preserving a little longer.”

As Adz began to divert its attention to something of greater import, it stopped. It triggered its overclocking. It reconsidered. It went back through its previous chains of thought.

Udod aodod did not often possess extraordinary talent in the realm of reading other races’ tells, and Sebastio Artaxerxes’s spouse was no exception. However, the time since its ascension had necessitated picking up some degree of proficiency in the skill. Adz was a long way from differentiating a mocking smile from a playfully insulting one without aid from its utilities. Even so, it began forming connections on the subject of Leanshe Etruphana where before there had been none.

The descent of unbearable grief upon the autumn elf’s shoulders, driving her to suicidally assault Sebastio with a causality sabotage.

The respectful disdain after Sebastio had skinned the shipwright, restored her to her body, and released her.

The uneventful years of slowly gaining back professional trust, if not necessarily worth of character.

The way she had approached the Lady in the early days of Beast integration, both dirty in spirit and clean in confession.

The few moments of curiosity Adz had harbored, hearing of how she assisted the Lawmasters’ community in inspecting the estate’s armament and logistics chain; having opportunity to neatly frame Pennat Gate or at least besmirch it, and forgoing the chance.

The present afternoon of shamelessly worrying away at the estate’s integrity.

Today was a break in a pattern.

The Lady toyed then with a memory of the look she’d had in her eyes, as she’d instructed it to do what it thought best. That look which wasn’t too far removed from what Adz had seen in its prey on many a tenshe past. It was a glimpse into a creature with a millstone hung around its neck, just before it was pushed into a quarry.

Adz considered in a new light how Leanshe’s motivation when assaulting Sebastio grew from the loss of her family. It reassessed the fact that her closest non-nuclear living family – an aunt and uncle (bonded to each other… ugh…) – resided in one of the rare communities not intimately tied to the Yrdkish estates. They lived not far afield of one of Nor’ridge’s annual circuits around the broad territory’s landscape.

Hostages to fortune were worth so very much to those already subject to bereavement.

“Do you think this kind of conduct befits those who have any remaining vestige of honor?” the Lady asked, low and intense and threatening. When the shipwright shivered, and looked it up and down, the Lady knew it had hit its mark. “Do you think your family would be proud of you?” the udod aodod hissed. It didn’t press, it waited.

“I think that those whom we love and by whom we are loved constitute one of the only truly telling metrics in life,” answered Leanshe, her aura going still and silent as a subterranean pool. “When you ask me whether they would be proud of me, I can only answer that I hope so.”

The whole time, her eyes never left the udod aodod’s eyespots, and its eyefibers quivered in mute comprehension as it noted the shapeful gaps around exactly what the woman said. How she very specifically never stated that Nor’ridge had gotten antsy and decided she needed to step up her timetable. Adz didn’t think it very likely that either she or her nears and dears would escape O’Casey’s scheming intact; the man’s bullying character might very well force him into jettisoning such plausibly inconvenient creatures, even if only out of the need to exert his influence.

Did that explain her behavior? Quite possibly. It was the best justification the udod aodod could figure, in any case.

Did that justify her behavior? A thousand times, no. A crime under duress, no matter what justifications one might offer, was still a crime.

It chopped the air in the autumn elf’s direction as the first Sledgecrafter folded into existence just outside the pillbox.

“Take her away. Gently. We have very much about which to talk.”

Later on, reliving sensories of that day, Adz wondered at the fact of its hand’s obverse edge lying exactly at the woman’s neck height. It wondered if that was an implied blessing, or a desire for visiting relief on her person.

It counted among its own blessings the fact that it faced ever more profound adversity in the forge-heat of contention.

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