Time’s Inconstancy

<< Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

“As we grow, we reproduce. As we reproduce, we extend ourselves to meet our needs. As we extend ourselves to meet our needs, we require larger fields of unused volume in which to plant seeds of self and domain. To keep ourselves from becoming carcinogenic, we must trim ourselves with humility, and curtail our manses… if we wish to avoid planting fields in our very houses and minds.”

-Not-Fire Empress Lillian Cuorilo, upon being transferred in her entirety from her digital Monolith persona to a physical body

Louis Artaxerxes felt his shoulders relax as his arms swung, tramping around the Third Step platform like he owned it. The athlete-and-relative-of-a-noble-but-not-actually-nobility-by-Yrdkish-measurements was dressed somewhere between what he’d seen people wearing for half of his young life, and very heavily ornamented plastic. His eyes were bright, his hair was dark, and his nose was full of the Step’s unmarred springtime.

“Well, I don’t remember it being quite this big last time around,” he said to Celnn P’mulkes, best friend and one of the several generations sprouting from new arrivals watered in old blood. Rhaagmini was the order of the day, the speech of nations and tribes aplenty from beyond the gleaming high tower that was extrafacetary life. When a people contacted the Big Three, it was a nearly unintentional affront to use something besides the tongue spoken by more sapient minds than any other language. As a result of Pennat Gate’s acquisition of industrial quantities of asylees, as many as one in ten conversations tossed around the estate were inherently offensive to many members of the nobility without even trying.

“Oh? So it was what, only the leaders of two million plus-size nations fourteen years ago?”

Celnn’s eyes peered down at the shorter human from an upraised russet-and-ultraviolet body. He was a mutt of several breeds of zselétael. His father’s heritage accounted for the size of his headflaps and his length. The less exotic line of his mother meant he had a wide field of headwool, not the completely smooth body of Python zselétaels. He had the heart of a lion when the bullets started flying and the heart of a cockroach at all other times. The man also happened to be the only extrafacetary-born in a group of four. The idea of such a ratio would be frankly absurd almost anywhere else, but in Louis’s foster home, it was a more and more common sight.

“I wish I knew the slightest bit about what you’re discussing,” grumbled Alarusx Iinitosl, winner of the don’t-know-and-only-nominally-care award. She hailed from a facet twenty hops from Cludcludalc, growing up in a highly diverse industrial community with far too many different kinds of smog. It meant the woman – often ended up being a tall dirty human poofball, and not minding it in the least. Her facet’s native culture was well-suited to the high-but-rapidly-decreasing level of emphasis on being properly dignified and obtuse, which fit most of the rest of Yrdky like a tailored glove.

“Come on, Al, haven’t you ever heard of a ‘meeting?’” chuckled Louis, hopping a hundred and eighty degrees, winked at the woman, and threw a witchlight out into the field because he could. It flared brightly as it sank into a very carefully cultivated mud hole, disturbing a splattering of mudpuppies and lungfish and fist-sized flies. They almost immediately began returning to their proper places as the witchlight dispelled.

“Come on, admit breeze: I don’t think you quite have as good a grasp on humor as you think you do,” replied Alarusx.

“I don’t think he has a good grasp on much besides his squeaky Earth Standard lingual background,” double-replied Celnn. His limbs folded up at his sides as he suddenly dipped to rub himself on the granite pathway, cleaning off some of the grit which came from both Alarusx and the fact of being outdoors. Like a fish, he propelled himself forward and ahead of the others with a single muscular spurt, dusting his headwool off with one of his hands. “No doubt it’s why he’s so good at art.

“No, that’s because there’s a thing called ‘passion.’ It’d be wonderful to teach you, if it could be taught.”

Louis plucked at the lapels of his vest, and turned to the fourth and final member of the bunch.

“What do you think, eGarra? Should we try to educate with words, or just whipping up another masterpiece for demonstration’s sake?”

eGarra went about in the skin and manner of a human, but his appearance concealed two curiosities. First, as his name implied, he was actually an oleethf conjugated to a hominid body. Second, he had been a happy semiartificial creature rolling about an unusually barren facet on a fat steady wheel for most of its life as a cog in a much greater machine.

Until, that was, everything eGarra had ever known met the Ripper.

Like with all else that met the Ripper, very little survived.

There had been no knowledge about anything like dæmon clusters or the Beings of Old in the oleethf’s mind, or the fact that shortly a great and terrible engine of unmoving and immovable revolution would soon enfold a thousand facets’ worth of others with similar stories. eGarra decided to change species, change his lifestyle, change everything that had made him who he had been for the equivalent of six hundred extrafacetary years, and somehow just wandered into becoming friends with the brother of one of the most topical people to draw breath.

Ironically, he made a better human than many humans Louis had met.

“I’m going to go with the obvious,” remarked the man who looked like a boy not even elevated to pubescence. He tossed his head, throwing back a river of hair that went down to his ankles, and bared his cheek where a tattoo of a face – also covered in tattoos – winked back at the rest of the crew, with a tattoo of a face upon its face, each layer of recursion peeling back to reveal a different portrait with the same outline. “We need to come up with something like that tree with the poet-fire last year.”

“That was one of the worst ideas to which I’ve ever been privy,” muttered Alarusx. She ruffled her feathered coat, giving off a cloud of rank and spicy dust that seemed to come from her very pores.

“Stop that,” said Celnn, rubbing himself clean again and slipping farther away from the others. He halted his brushing of his headwool for a moment to stare out to his left. The Third Step platform ended a single stone’s throw away in that direction, and past its border sprawled the vaguely cup-shaped form of a Fourth Step platform, a very decorative floating table with miniature models of virally spreading stone castles. Beyond, the indomitable mountains asserted their wordless defiance of the sky.

“There was a lot to recommend that project!” Louis asserted, walking backward briefly to pointedly watch Alarusx. “A thousand people saw it in the first four minutes, and by the first eight there must have been a thousand estates processing and reprocessing the derivatives and imitators.”

He laughed, with a faint monomolecular edge of bitterness. The low but ever-present anger in his soul roused itself for but an instant, then returned to quiescence once more.

“We’re friends and family of the chosen few; doesn’t everything work out for us in the end?”

He stopped, and his delightfully accented Rhaagmini lost its boyish edge. Back on topic, children, don’t dawdle. He didn’t have to have Celnn actually say “Stop hating FUN, Sebastio,” to hear the zselétael’s voice in his head.

“The Lordsmoot is going to be the first time so many leaders have rubbed shoulders for at least sixty four years,” he pointed out to the dirty woman. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Indeed!” came an ebullient chortle from opposite the pulse-slowing vista. The accent invoked that wonderfully odd place called Ilsabal Square of which Louis had heard a bit here and there, and which had been described as an overlay of numerous variations of aquatic life – possibly on account of the liquid quality of its rhotic sounds.

“Good day to you, young sir!” said a grinning man with a mustache that seemed like it was slowly colonizing the rest of his face. He favored a long tailed jacket, modestly unassuming bootpants, and a hat which cast a shallow shadow over his features. This last he doffed in a very obviously foreign flourish, tracing the figure of a seven-pointed star. “The boy whom I seek – that’s obviously you!”

Louis had many strengths in which he rested comfortably thanks to the first half of his life being spent in a brothel. Deprecation of his maturity, unfortunately, threaded the needle of his armored layers.

“Excuse me, but I’m thirty two by your years, twenty three by the years from where I grew up, and more than old enough to make my own decisions however you slice it!”

The man’s smile became a thin-lipped grimace.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure, and no offense or slight about judgment was meant.”

Louis felt his eyes roll, and he moved to one side, feeling an itch running the length of his spine.

“Ahhh… just let me take care of some business with this guy,” he assured them. “Shouldn’t be too long, I think.”

“You sure sound confident,” moped Alarusx.

“Oh, go sit on a hurt spike, Ms. Sunshine! Do you want to stick around and be bored or not?”

“I thought you said it wouldn’t be too long,” came the smugness that was a vindicated eGarra.

“He can’t tell time to save his life.”

Al turned to Celnn at that, a totally blank stare groping at him.

“This from the man who once took two hours to finish a ‘three minute debate’ on the utility of clothing?”

“You know,” said Celnn, eyeing the new fellow with less than total confidence, “we can make more plans about how to instill good sense in Al’s head later. If you need… well…”

Celnn made a forehead swipe to indicate resignation.

“Hmm,” contributed Alarusx. She obviously intended to pick up the subject again shortly.

“I insist that we make those plans immediately,” protested eGarra. “Either we take care of it now, or it never happens.”

Suddenly jerking, he looked as though he’d just remembered Louis’s existence.

“If you’re sure, we’ll be over at Celnn’s den,” he stated.

“Wait, I’d really rather you don’t just go” was what Louis abruptly wanted to say – but by the time he seriously considered actually saying it, the triad of acquaintances decided, looking a bit put-out in a couple cases, that an exit wouldn’t go horribly amiss.

The athlete and unwilling celebrity frowned as he turned back to this fellow. As time went on, though, his frown deepened. He liked making friends, meeting people who might eventually be friends, or just associating with people who could have a good time even if they had no interest in friendship except for the skinflint kind. That was another thing he and his much older brother had in common; a kind of socialization that wasn’t selfish so much as focused on practical distribution of oxytocin or analogous natural substance. One thing he wouldn’t do was strike up a meeting with someone of obviously questionable quality.

His eyes narrowed.

“Ah,” said the strange man. “Didn’t know if the compulsion there was quite strong enough, or too strong, or if you had some kind of skein which gave you immunity to compulsions.”

You forced me to scare off my friends with magic… exactly why?

The French-born fellow didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until the other man’s hat went a bit more sideways on his round head.

“I need to talk with you, Mr. Artaxerxes,” said the strange and very unwelcome man. “If you would do me the courtesy of getting through what I need to say, then please call up security forces. In the potential scenario of my being inadequate to describe good reasons to avoid that, you have my permission to ply some grueling punishment – but I don’t think that will become a legitimate concern. And yes, I’m aware of the gravity of unasked-for compulsions in the eyes of the law. Put that aside for now, please.”

Hat-man tugged the tall millinery on the top of his head from the one side to the other.

“I’m Hereld Upswitch, and a supplicant of yours, young sir. In answer to your unposed question, I’ve some interesting history with the Lord who is your brother.”

A smile almost as greasy as his mustache grew on Hereld’s face. That hair was a disconcerting departure from the apparent culture of most humans Louis had met in the years since he’d arrived in his new home, who largely – with a couple exceptions, one familial and slightly concerning – treated facial hair as a very lewd laxness of personal modesty if not a slightly eccentric type of nudity. A deliberate statement?

“Well, shut up and talk, then.” It was the kind of construct impossible to assemble in Yrdkish without extreme levels of verbal sidetracking or outright massacre of good grammar. It was one of the other reasons why Louis chose to use Rhaagmini whenever possible, besides a complete lack of ability to form contractions and a vocabulary that simply couldn’t be anything besides maximally formal.

“You’re quite as rude as your brother!” observed Hereld. The man’s teeth looked like they were all about to simultaneously exceed maximum survivable pressure with shotgun effect. “We didn’t precisely talk much, but that’s a neat thing I’ve liked about him. He says what he thinks needs saying, and keeps to diplomacy where it keeps the peace, but if he finds himself in distasteful enough waters then he stirs up the whole pond.”

“In case you’re the only person to visit this estate who didn’t already know,” replied Louis with a duck back behind his armor plate, “I spent a good portion of my formative years growing up in a brothel.”

“Almost enough to make me wish I had the good fortune to spend my pre-manhood with such delightful company.”

The smile mutated into a close-lipped raising of the cheeks.

“I jest. Furthermore, I go astray from my desired address.”

The hat went straight once more. Its owner’s head tilted, however, so that the hat experienced no net change in attitude. His eyes narrowed slightly, and he looked past Louis at the Fourth Step sprawl.

“Before going any farther, may the record show that I had the best intentions motivating my actions,” Hereld declared, as though such wasn’t a near tautology.

“Ah,” said Louis.

“In my unofficial capacity, a number of years ago I was working for an extremely interesting party. That party was in turn working for an extremely interesting party. If you followed that chain of arrangements up to its precipice, you would’ve found one of those creatures called Beings of Old, although of which I’m not sure.”

A pause three heartbeats long.

“The occupation that I served at that time was that of the sapper, the saboteur,” admitted Hereld. “I advised your brother that he would only reach true contentment if he married within a very particular set of bounds that others outlined, and I forwarded to him for his betterment.”

Hereld did that finger-sideways-across-forehead thing that meant “it is as it is.”

“Whether that was strictly true or not was immaterial. I had guidance to make the attempt at swaying his future. Failure to comply was never an option or even a contemplated decision.”

He sighed, stepped a single long stride off the granite pathway.

“That was but one member of a thousand-strong herd of machines. Look,” he added in a bit more of a humorous voice as he caught sight of Louis’s befuddlement, “I had better start farther back. I had a certain part to play in a much larger system. Plans have been laid by the Beings of Old long before you or I ever came into being, plans with forks more numerous than the facets of the gem. One of the greatest of those plans aimed at the retrieval of… something.” A laugh. “That’s almost all I know: ‘something.’ One of the ancillary plots toward that procurement was distracting some of the major players of life’s dramas with a different procurement.”

He looked pointedly at Louis, who looked confusedly back.

“Caladhbolg,” he added. Louis felt his eyebrows lifting toward his hairline.

“That was what I was told, at any rate, and of course that was when your brother got himself incontestably entangled, if not sooner than that. As an aside, I also happen to know that the talented atypical boob responsible for the attempted theft of the Maker’s tool – Niall Bennosuke by name – also had several other roles to fill in the designs of certain vested interests. He… evidently disappointed someone, and I suspect, but can’t prove, that the wonderful half-human half-Beast monstrosities that featured so heavily as the invasion forces of the Western Sunrise have something to do with his subpar performance. The fact that that invasion was coming had been explained to me before the fact – along with the fact that many of Rhaagm’s upper management would help bring about a temporary hobbling of the Monolith, at my employers’ behest – but several other points of the master plan made themselves notable by their absence in my itinerary.”

The smile soaked in a grim iron light.

“Let’s say the scope of the event was downplayed by my supplier-of-information. Let’s also say,” he added with that iron light hardening to something adamantine, “my understanding of how much or how little Lord Artaxerxes would be able to eke out of the circumstances was likewise flawed.”

He tapped one temple.

“The fact that our shared sun was actually an Old – and that whatever else happened, that Old died – was the filling of the caustic surprise cake for me, I assure you.”

Louis stared, lips flattened.

“Yes. I was aware of most of that. I do have a connection to the Monolith.”

Louis tapped the box of his cerv-mesh, pulling down his collar to display the slightly-lower-than-usual mount point. He was gratified to see, for the first time, something that wasn’t actually a twisted cousin to a smile on Hereld’s expression.

“Ah! I… didn’t know that you’d gotten the operation. I’d heard that you weren’t interested just yet.”

He actually looked dumbfounded, if only for an instant.“Regardless,” he resumed shortly, “the only other thing certain about the greater schemes of my distant benefactors is that, in some part, they succeeded.

He turned and pointed. Louis couldn’t tell what he signified at first, but then he distinguished the form of one of the estate’s pet Beasts walking along through a thick grove of straight-branched dogwoods. In bold contrast to slavering feral madness, the creature was following a cloud of butterflies and poking at them every few minutes with its needle-sharp nose. A squad of Fountainist keepers followed at a short distance, one of whom seemed unsure if she should keep the butterflies from being harassed.

“The Beasts?” asked Louis. He’d seen sensories of what the creatures could do. He’d seen the broadcasts of the streets of Rhaagm all those years ago, with writhing midnight masses working over the redmetal avenues and pathways. When Sebastio had told him about the scheme to adopt some of the most evil things of which he could possibly conceive into the estate’s home, well, Louis had argued. 

Actually, he’d raved; memories of monsters that had killed literally more people than Louis could count dancing in his head. The only thing Louis had actually done that long-deceased day, a mark which made him something of a child mascot, was survive. A single one of those Beasts (or at least part-Beasts) which had since begun to infrequently appear in uncontrolled type nine events – those things which incorporated the body of a tall pale-skinned human man – had managed somehow to make it all the way onto a Second Step platform. The Second Step platform, it happened, also contained a very young Louis Artaxerxes… who’d received a present of a decorative sword only two days prior, and thought his new gift was better than the thirty one chromosome gene treatment he was only just beginning, better than his arriving in a new place far from the pain and misery that was his home facet’s France, better than most nearly anything he could name. It was an icon, a talisman to help him feel that he was no longer powerless over his own destiny.

He wouldn’t really comprehend how miraculous the milestone was until much later, a boy who was about seventeen extrafacetary years old managing to slay something that turned strong warriors to mewling infants. He’d seen a creature that screamed throbbing teary imprecations of the world loping along, deleterious and frenzied and desperate to commit sins which had no name. Without possessing the knowledge that his shiny toy sword’s blunted blade couldn’t possibly do anything to a person of normal fleshy composition, let alone whatever the creature rapidly approaching with murder in its eye was, he’d struck.

And yet, as Louis slashed his blade across the ambiguous biology with morbid terror nearly choking him, he felt on the one hand a greater compulsion to be elsewhere than he’d ever felt before, and on the other a visceral need to kill. The thing he felt through his physical hands was the parting of something the consistency of pudding filled with iron shavings. A clawed hand swiped out at him, wearing spined knuckledusters of evil energy. Just as he’d later learn how lucky he was to defeat the entity at all, he later realized that he almost certainly couldn’t even have been revived, had the creature done him even apparently minor injury. But it missed, and he didn’t.

There was a terrible sound, and then a terrible quiet.

Two minutes later as the thing dissolved, consumed with wonder at what exactly he’d just done, Louis had raised the sword in the air, screamed as only an adolescent boy with rage-filled panicky catharsis truly can, and been seen doing so through word-of-mouth sensory sharing by a quarter of a billion people in less than half an hour.

That little incident made a boy into a man, and a man who hated Beasts almost as much as he didn’t know what to think about them.

So, yes – he’d argued. He’d argued profusely against the introduction of Beasts to his new homeland. He’d eventually stopped arguing, but Sebastio probably didn’t know whether it was a result of passive surrendering acceptance or true acceptance on behalf of a trusted figure – and neither did Louis.

He looked up again at Hereld Upswitch’s bared teeth, head vibrating slightly.

“But… why?” asked a Louis Artaxerxes with questions rapidly fork-bombing his brain.

“Why did I do it? Why am I telling you all of this? Why are any of these plots underway?”

Just give me answers!” roared Louis. Distantly, he saw one or two strollers in the distance turn to examine him from their examinations of the duck-footed Beast, and a maintenance eidolon’s attention had been directed his way from the outburst as well. He cared not in the least at that moment.

Hereld’s smile became more saturated with grease than ever.

“Well, let me ask you: are you the kind of person who enjoys being betrayed? Are you a ftalw, appreciative of sentient interaction because it gives you exposure to creatures with feelings? Are you the same kind of sad and unfulfilled person who feels satiation by simply being a podium on which others can build? Or are you one who burns on the inside?”

Once upon a time, Louis would have leaned back from the sudden bolus of vitriol rising in the other man’s throat, felt that he needed to squeeze out a few drops of emotion and apologize for bringing on such a display. But he’d hardened. He’d learned that he was but mortal, and that even his adoptive brother had taken too much responsibility on his shoulders at times. He’d felt the kind of strength grow into his bones through the years which needed laughter to cover it up, because on the inside he was made of lengths of metal, left after the house they supported incinerated around them.

And at times it made him a creature of erratic and potent passions.

“Yes,” replied he, and he didn’t smile.

“There you have it!” said Hereld. “I made one stipulation, had one condition, on my service to those Beings of Old who went and poked their little holes into the lives of every creature great and small. I won’t tell you what that was, and if you ask you’ll only get lies. But they listened, they considered, and in the final accounting they spat in my face.”

That smile had hooks in it now.

“Now, they want to smooth over the places where people like your brother inconvenienced their final designs, and made their grand machines falter. So regardless of what Lord Artaxerxes wants or needs, I’m going to do what I can to make sure that what they want doesn’t happen. I heard from a little birdie that the beginning of a plot to frame Pennat Gate for a political incident – something like the cheating going on in that maypoling match featuring the illustrious you not too long ago – is going to be the first wave of an aftershock. Certain people don’t think the field is level enough after the festivities, and so they want to reduce you to a once-interesting-but-now-quaint name, to bring your home down… by fire or sword or treaty.”


He didn’t get any closer, but he suddenly got very quiet and very intense. It struck the French immigrant that just maybe he was snakes-for-socks crazy.

“They got their Beastie friends. They may have gotten some other things out of their little power play that I don’t know – in fact, I’m sure of it. But they didn’t get that sword, or the opportunities it presented, or a clean sweep with their carnival attractions’ invasion of Rhaagm and Bequast. I will personally see their ambitions trampled in the mud. And you, young sir, can help me.”

“Really?” came a nonchalant voice from Louis’s throat.

“You can help me by firming the earthworks of your brother’s ambitions, your own past, and the future of your estate. That’s why plots are now underway to discredit the lot of you, and overturn the tables of transient enterprise. Watch Nor’ridge, and those among your own number who have reason to hate. And keep an eye open while you sleep; that’s when killers and kidnappers most prefer to strike.”

Louis quirked a brow. He couldn’t quite avoid a smidge of darkness in his own tone.

“Why tell me all this? Why not the Lord?”

Hereld Upswitch’s eyes flickered like magnesium torches.

“If you have to ask, then you still don’t understand. At this stage, I couldn’t talk with that man and not make my disdain of him clear. I couldn’t get him to listen. I hate him, I hate you, and hate everything that can possibly be hated to an extent which even the oldest and bitterest of dagachas can only envy. But I hate them the most by far.”

He abruptly stood, and it was like a switch engaged.

“Good day, young sir. Survive, poison your adversary’s wells, and tell your brother that enemies of enemies are, at least, relatable.”

Louis watched as the man spun on a heel, kicked his shoes together, manifested skids on his legs, and began powering off into the distance. He didn’t turn back, and his hat somehow remained on his skull despite the best efforts of a countervailing wind.

Did that make this the weirdest day of his life? Not even in the top twenty – maybe not even the top hundred, depending on how one categorized that extended bender in virtual space he’d enjoyed upon turning twenty five. But ominous… ominous, it had in spades.

“If Sebastio’s already met that freak, I hope he didn’t just neglect to mention the incident.”

Louis eventually got around to failing-to-neglect-to-mention the incident of that afternoon to his Lord, but only after he spent an evening sanding smooth the edges of his malaise with well-met company. “Hope you all have some fun, even if it’s just accidental!” was the only thing he remembered saying to them, and that was possibly because it was the last such thing.

A slightly numb meandering back to his abode later, he collapsed on his bed-pad. Edward, his pet stipp, made a… well, some sort of noise on seeing his master come home, about ten seconds after Lewis walked by. Edward eventually waddled over, and like usual began making alarmed hooting sounds as he got lifted off his little stipp legs by the furniture’s invisible kinesis.

The light of day was just beginning to drown in the shallows of the sky’s dark ocean. Louis idly patted Edward on the part of his face just between the little creature’s eyes and fat proboscis. He debated waiting, came to a consensus that he didn’t want to go through anything more that evening, and tossed out his own decision. He requested a direct connection with Lord Artaxerxes, and the delay in it being answered was nearly nonexistent.

{Hello, Louis,} came the voice of Sebastio, both strange and familiar. {How are you doing?}

For a moment, a realization that had orbited around Louis’s brain more frequently over the last several years revisited. His older brother very rarely made any kind of attempt to truly happily emote. He’d become a no-nonsense serious man since the third move to interrupt him – and thus show Pennat Gate’s political limp-wristed inefficacy – but one of the constant exceptions came in the form of Louis.

Sebastio was indeed a peg, as some of his detractors claimed. Not that he was used up, not that he was on the losing side of incredible struggle. No, it was because he’d survived much, and it showed. His voice didn’t exactly smile through the link, but compared to most of his public addresses it was less like stone and more like strong supple glass.

{Hey,} the French native replied with a small and unwilling grin. He didn’t bother appending “Lord” anymore – despite the fact that familial ties had no innate meaning as far as attaining, improving, or even just remaining at a stable position in the nobility. He’d had it made clear that it wasn’t a necessary observance for the youngest Artaxerxes more than enough times.

The grin vanished.

{Do you know a fellow by the name of Hereld Upswitch?} Louis asked, a tad more heavily than he’d intended.

The first rejoinder was a sniff. The second was {I assume by your question that you met the man in person, then?}

Louis felt himself suddenly swelling.

{I did. He was an absolutely lovely person, I feel extremely comfortable about our initial run-in, and the fact that I was warned about this delightful diamond of a human being reassures me greatly.}

There was a long and profound sigh. Sebastio sounded disappointed, at least as much in himself as in his sibling’s outburst.

{Allow me to give you some background, then. Hereld first met me within the first half of a year of being on the throne, and told me in no uncertain terms that I had better put my lifelong trust in someone besides Adz.}

{Incidentally, he mentioned that,} Louis quipped, very slightly cooled down.

{Then perhaps he also mentioned that he has been a most wanted man ever since, and that he and I have only been reacquainted again in the last month. If there had been an infinitesimal chance that he might have come around yet again after mucking about with marital commitments, you would have heard very quickly indeed.}

A short pause, like the intake of breath, before Sebastio resumed.

{Since you have met, then it sounds like you have already put it together that that man is very dangerously unstable. If you can possibly avoid it, Louis, keep far, far away from Hereld Upswitch and everything he represents. He absolutely had the support of some Old backers. Does he still? I cannot say.}

After another pause, the Lord continued.

{Gods alive, but this must have been how Nessro felt when trying to get me to settle down, while Father was off making the world a better place. At the time Hereld and I crossed paths, you were too young to understand how the social mechanisms of the world truly work. I could hardly have pointed out the danger and then expected good results even several years after; the opportunity had already passed, and we couldn’t court more things going wrong than already being confronted. Even so, it was indeed irresponsible to not mention the man at an earlier time.}

{If I find out anything more about him,} Louis answered after a short delay, {I will pass on word.}

{As shall I,} answered Sebastio. He sounded less contrite than solidly set on doing better; like he always eventually got around to sounding. Then: {Goodnight, little brother.}

Louis continued rubbing Edward with a knuckle, the stipp making little surprise noises every time he was touched, just like every time since he’d first become associated with the bird-fruit-thing.

He wondered if there would ever be a point that being called “brother” by a man older than his own blood grandfather stopped feeling weird. He wondered if there would ever be a point where having an udod-aodod-in-law like Adz that was a score times older still, forthright and occasionally nice as it was, stopped feeling weird. He wondered if there would ever be a point at which knowing that he could now summon magic to his fingertips stopped feeling weird.

Perhaps more important, did it really matter?

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