Dance, Monkey

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“We are all of us questions, and the world fashions more of us every moment. I implore you to answer a question with another question whenever it’s within your power. Why? Because sapience is about progression, and while growth can occur without ambition or drive, it’s no comparison to the mind driven by obsession with truth. Followers-of-the-Way will tell you that truth can set you free, and – while true – that statement is lacking. Truth can also hang the moon, put life into the dead, and seal shut debilitating wounds. Truth is the only thing worth pursuing, according to not a few great minds. I don’t think that’s quite accurate… but it’s the only thing which we can reasonably hope to catch.”

-Excerpt from Toothskin’s acceptance speech at the Kinsmen College of Information-Integrity Preservation

An accountant’s stylus snapped.

Two very young children shared a look before one of them started crying, and the other pulled his playmate off to find his mother.

Patrolling guards debated among themselves if they were needed. They decided not.

A menagerie’s mimicry-inclined animals learned some interesting new sounds to repeat. They began to do so very frequently. Very, very frequently.

Seven sleeping people woke up. Three managed to get back to bed; the rest later performed their odd-hours tasks with imperfect focus that evening.

Down the arteries of the city, a pair of people were making an unholy racket. One was a woman recounting a story at inconsiderate volume. The other was a laughing Eihks Richard.

“And so when he pulled the bucket up expecting well water, he got a faceful of bloody steak, and the last of the wine jugs – completely empty!” Velcor explained, chewing a leaf as she grinned.

“I’m going to remember that for the next time I need to tell a story!” Eihks coughed. “You need to be putting these down!”

“Already am!” grinned the storyteller a bit wider.

“Oh? Well, I’ll need to check it out if I-”

He hung a quick right past a wheezing clanking miniature windmill when the street diverged, then waved over a shoulder.

“Sorry, this way’s my stop. Keep it up, I want to hear more!”

They parted ways, waving until they were each out of the other’s sight.

Eihks patted down his pockets as he tramped over the dust-dry earth. It was a very arid place when it didn’t rain for ten or twelve days, this world. Little clouds kicked up and got his bootpants all nasty and beige when he accidentally stepped a bit too hard on something that looked like a rock. It was a clod. The clod protested.

As he sneaked along, one hand pulled out a single one of the natives’ coins, flipping it into the air with a deft hand. It got snatched out a moment before it left the compass of his arm’s reach. Between two fingers, he held it up.

A curious innovation for monetary standard: put a tiny bead of living-water in the center of your token of exchange. Physical equivalence of value? Hah! Granted, a thousand coins might be enough to slap together a drink of water, but it was far more the fact of the effort in making the things than pragmatic use.

Or maybe not so innovative when you lived an entire life in this culture, and the application of minor Hiek machines was just part of your daily cycle.

“This magic is something very special,” he subvocalized, picking up on a topic where he’d been interrupted while theorizing on several occasions. “The ritual to make living-water is definitely similar to Nezu rituals, at least in composition. Yet if its metastructure-pressure schema does incorporate any of the Weeoogm proportions, or involve (with the possible exception of harnessing an unknown quantity of imperceptible exotic matter, investigate) any kind of material sacrifice, I haven’t found evidence.”

He turned the coin over, admiring the patterns of dimples around the edge.

“Not utterly unique, but unusual for something in the vein of a manipulation discipline to manifest in this kind of environment. It does have some gestalt-related applications, though, and maybe a metaphysical quirk like chakra alteration or aura generation. Obeys Earth Standard thermodynamics as a rule. Will need to see if this magic plays nice with basic Ast thaumaturgy.”

He tucked the coin back in his pocket. He kept walking and kept smiling.

More than a couple of onlookers stopped to ogle him, as he was an unusually tall, thin man. His garb, his light complexion, and his facial structure all marked him as just enough of a foreigner to warrant taking a closer look. The closer look just showed more of the whole “I’m not from around here” persona that he cultivated.

A glance sideways between the pillars of two stilt-standing buildings. Silos. He had been hearing some very favorable opinions on Goeyren’s reign, and he’d begun forming some of those on his own as well. A caretaker who looked after his people first, and did a decent job of anticipating life’s perverse twists.

No, he wasn’t a big fan of the sovereign’s apparent isolationist bent, or the way that he liked his censers of STIMULATING herbs just a little more than “idle pastime,” or a couple of other things. On the whole, though, the man was a ruler who eschewed jingoism, and didn’t rest on the laurels of being the lesser of two evils.

Eihks wasn’t given to many cotton-brained lapses, but even so the storage yard almost passed him by. The “alley” he sought threaded between a pair of residences. It was thin enough that it may have been an accident which resulted from two floor plans not actually meeting up as originally intended. Squeezing through sideways didn’t end up being necessary for him. For anyone not quite so skeletal of frame – most people – that would probably be the only comfortable way to make the transition.

The canal between two lovestruck houses spat him out in a tiny wood-littered desert in the middle of a city. Stacks of bamboo lay everywhere, but that stuff could be gotten more cheaply pretty much any other place. Lumberyard staff picked up logs and put them down, the better to satisfy the needs of efficiency and the unholy tyranny of the customer.

His target was very specific, and VERY expensive.

Small quick steps brought man right up next to man’s quarry, and he surveyed the prize with an assessing eye. The base of a solid decapitated tree, coming up his navel, shone with a weird and almost nacreous lacquer instead of flaky fibrous bark. Large bite marks from a massive clamp had torn the pretty skin down one side, a scar down a handsome man’s cheek.

Maybe it was something about the grain of the wood, but it was the meat of the massive shortened stump that truly intrigued him. If you looked at the outer edges, it was merely an incredibly dark brown beneath the exterior glister. If you looked at the pith, and closed your eyes, it might be slightly less black with them shut. The heart of the material warped, almost turning marbled, in a way that suggested an interesting story behind the tree’s life as much as an interesting specimen.

Hoping to avoid looking like some sort of thief out to carve a few chips off as trophies, he headed for the little cabin near the storage yard’s edge. Through the cruciform window on one side, a head bobbed up and down, clearly busied with something at a desk or in some sort of drawers.

“Excuse me,” said Eihks with a bit of hard vigor. The sort of vigor used as a weapon by those who meant to get their way, come Hell or high water.

Several of the site crew gave him their undivided focus. The nearest of these he waved off when the man made an effort to solicit some small payment for a chaw of something brown-black and clearly intoxicating.

“One moment!” came the answer from the cabin. It was, in all, a very fast response. Far too fast.

The sort of excessively fast reflexes a person could only exhibit when guiltily doing something clandestine behind closed doors.

An eyebrow raised, and a small smile formed. It inverted when a small side door opened and expelled a figure. The outbound man shot him a look of perfect studied blankness. Without a word, he pulled tight the drawstrings on his greatcoat and departed.

Walking away, the coat-wearer whipped looks over each shoulder, almost comically obvious about it. One of these disclosed a curb-heavy brow above a beak of a nose, a protuberance that put the pioneer in mind of the portraits of the Maker found throughout Rhaagm and several cults.


“Help you?” asked another individual vomited from the building. Eihks assumed this was the foreman. He was a curious specimen. Somewhat short, managing to be simultaneously fat and thin with a wealth of pudge and a dearth of musculature. He sounded like he would be equally happy if Eihks were dead or alive, so long as events twenty seconds from now resulted in more money for his business. 

Glancing at his face, it wasn’t hard to see both deep-set stress lines and the kind of soft happy crows’ feet that came from very few sources: fatherhood, or good friends, or a bottomless supply of drink.

“Yes,” Eihks answered. “I’m here about the stump you said was up for sale.”

A thumb helpfully pointed the gargantuan thing out, as though “the stump” could have referred to anything else.


The man slapped his belly, and it jiggled with gleeful obscenity. His other palm faced the direction of the stump in question.

“You’re in luck. Well… maybe in luck, at least. Have another offer, don’t mind saying, so you’ll need a lot of the asking price up-front .”

“I’ve got a question for you,” Eihks said after a second or two of very hard thinking. “The whole payment’s here.”

Slippity slap against several places on his jacket. Giving this man some sort of indicator where the money was would be detrimental, perhaps. If he went flat-out missing, then of course nobody could PROVE that the money had been acquired by some other person. It wasn’t hard to guess that maybe this foreman creature had been fingered as a bad actor once or twice in the past, simply based on his striking exterior.

If you get identified as “that skeevy feller” for long enough, it starts to settle on you like a comfortable mantle. Assuming that this is the case, it’s only wisdom to avoid tempting exhibitions of “that skeevy feller” as an appropriate label.

“Suppose that I give you three quarters of the full price right now,” Eihks idly floated, head leaning to one side, arms crossed, mind doing calculations without looking like he was plotting routes across a map of the city. “If I give you that now, would you be amenable to holding onto it, so that I could come back in…”

A quick conversion of estimates. If it took him longer than half a day to satisfy his intrigue, then losing the stump might be worth the obscene amount of labor Fonlat would justifiably exact.

“… four waters, six waters at most, and actually pick it up then? I’d give you half the cost again.”

The foreman blinked. An offer to make more money than originally expected at a minimum of effort? Too good to be true?

Sweat made a tight necklace draping across his thick-featured face, sunlight refracting miniscule rainbows through the droplets as he thought. Eihks didn’t show how anxious he was for the decision to be made. Most importantly, though, he hoped it would be made shortly. A small timer was incrementing in his head, and concurrently updating the map of Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur, so that an increasingly large region of the city became part of his zone of interest.

It was based off of the walking speed of the man who’d just left, but it might be either a larger or a smaller range that he’d have to canvas to find his prey as time went on.

Would be nice to get on with chasing vaguely suspicious people, thank you very much.

“Yeah. Can do that.”

The man squinted as he brushed his hands off against each other.

“But if you’re late and a better offer comes along, no promises,” he added, with a gruff pull on his tunic’s bottom hem.

“Agreed,” Eihks told him.

He dished out the payment, setting aside some of his own money for the promised compensation. Business dealings with a slant in his personal favor were acceptable in his book. Using the generosity of his employer to abuse his courier’s allowance was not.

Without a doubt, his flight from the worksite was a bit more than “idle walking speed” to the average walker, and he accrued a few odd looks as he left. It wasn’t something that he made into a big production, though. He exited through the same entryway he’d taken to get there – only now realizing it actually wasn’t an alley, it was literally a civil engineering oversight – and began walking away from his intended path. A few twists and turns. Two quick false-direction feints down back roads. One occasion where a very beautiful woman shouted some very ugly things when he leapt over the small retaining wall of her garden, sprinted just barely past her flowers, and dove headlong over the other side.

He was very paranoid when it came to throwing off potential pursuit.

Six blocks later, the explorer was well into the tracking stage of his self-assigned spur-of-the-moment errand. It would have gone much more smoothly and quickly if he’d tagged the Very Interesting Person as he left the lumberyard. He’d internally debated whether that should be permissible by his own code of conduct, and kept coming back to the question of whether it would help or harm Ktsn’s personal wellbeing.

No, it probably wouldn’t kill her if he failed to track this curious individual down. But that meant his intrigue would just have to be satisfied through good old fashioned cunning and experience.

His disability’s handicaps made themselves especially known at times such as these. For example, the initial assessment of the curious man as a person worth following didn’t come from a gut feeling or the je ne sais quoi that drove some investigators. Raw hard data, in the form of literally hundreds of conspiratorial happenings over his career, caused him to throw up a few flags in the back of his mind. His emotional side loaned a certain weight to some of the observations more than others, but it wasn’t because he had any sort of nameless hunches, or ancestral experience upon which to draw.

The very definitely named hunch he was following was the one labeled “there is either all coincidence or there is no coincidence.” Not a philosophy that he espoused as such, but the same line of reasoning he used to justify his whims on particularly contentious moments.

When some political shenanigans had gone down on the literal day, during the literal hour, of their arrival in the capital’s warm lumpy bosom, he felt it was a good and safe thing to assume potential connections between events and people. The foreman’s behavior had been a tad odd. The other man’s behavior had been somewhat more odd. Two odds make a slightly bigger odd.

If he started acting with wild erratic distrust, then that was a bad thing. If his behaviors became better inclined to making preparations, then that was a good one.

Two hundred thirty two centimeters of human, plus shoe sole height, did not make a helpful basis for stealth. It DID, however, give him the benefit of seeing over the heads of a great many purely human crowds.

Gradually working his way around his expanding search region, he was beginning to think his errand was a perfectly good waste of effort and money when he caught sight of a familiar pair of shoulders.

No, it wasn’t exactly the place where he’d hoped to find his quarry, but the fact that they were both headed toward the edge of the city made things a bit resentably inconvenient regardless. No sets of leap-traversable rooftops from which to unadvisedly survey the panorama. No places with neat adjunct entrances and public traffic for easy ducking in and out. Mostly residential areas, a few small places with densely seeded farming plots, some basic utilities like aqueduct junctions and larger windmills.

Eihks’s mouth shrank to the length of a fingernail when his target left the city proper entirely, heading out into the countryside.

No farming paraphernalia, no traveler’s supplies, no equipment of any kind suggesting he planned on either going very far or staying out of Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur for the evening. He just walked out, and – committed to this foolishness in full measure – Eihks crept after him.

The arts of following a person are as many and varied as the kinds of person, contexts of pursuit, and reasons for engaging in the act. If a person wishes to tail a middling-wealthy artisan, for example, it’s not as likely that the artisan will cotton to the tagalong as it would be for, say, a professional cutpurse, and certain liberties can be taken as a result. Following a target in the Parsed City-State – one of the most ubiquitously monitored and thoroughly self-meta-analyzed places to ever exist – will incur considerable notice before too long, obfuscation measures or no.

For Eihks, the technique of the hour boiled down to “go far afield, sprint around handily-placed rises in the ground, and get the living daylights scratched and cut and stabbed out of you by razor brambles.”

Being able to run with absolutely no fatigue was the only reason no magic was involved with the farcical pursuit.

The Very Interesting Person with the Maker’s nose disappeared into a little townhouse on the side of a small road eventually. The place lay estranged from a swath of farmland by a thick wall and a slightly less thick gate. The thick wall in question was there more for discouraging in a visual sense than actually preventing people from running through the vegetable stalks. The townhouse in question had a distinguished, quietly dignified look that declared its occupants either the owners or the tenders of the adjacent fields.

All of the field, and most of the land surrounding the house, sat at the middle of a gentle saddle curve in the local topography. At the top of a nearby hill, Eihks lay on his belly in the groundcover. Swift sniffs of wind squealed their way into his ears. A thin screen of grass separated him from the handsome building’s sight.

One voice in the back of his skull declared that his little experimental game was probably costing him the opportunity to investigate a fairly significant number of other suspicious happenings. Another replied that the current dire straits of lost opportunity would hardly be undone if he crawled backward, ran in reverse, and slunk once more into the lumberyard. He told both voices to shut up. Both voices started arguing with each other… or at least, he imagined them arguing. They started to tear into each other, jagged-glass teeth bared, snarling obscenities that didn’t actually have words outside of the mind’s floating inchoate currents of vagary.

Half of him smiled, half of him felt a splinter of annoyed worry.

About three hours after he’d begun speed-walked after the hooded stranger, the man that had been the recipient of his efforts as a privately-motivated investigator crept back out of the building. Without looking around, the Very Interesting Person started on the slow journey to the city’s limits.

Eihks waited for a long several minutes after the fellow vanished over the horizon, then sneaked down the hill’s face. Eventually, it put him in a position where he felt comfortable with simply traipsing back to the road, and down to the townhouse’s front as though he and his target had passed ways.

When he drew up near the residence, the building lay quiet. The wide windows sat low to the ground with ledges projecting beneath them. Through the apertures he saw a few unlit lamps and candles, some furniture, a few seated figures eating or doing other miscellany. One or two people bustled about, and from some distance away the sound of utensils getting organized rap-a-tapped like sleepy windchimes on a sunny warm day. Just above the door facing the road sat a single small living-water sconce.

Eihks slowed down after coming within twenty meters or so of the house, making as though he saw some odd happening or vision out to the opposite side of the road. Meanwhile, his ears picked out other minutiae. Open windows, open fields… open conversations.

“… so it’s a good thing that he took care of business when he did. It’s not going to be long before somebody gets their act together on the diplomatic side of things, and begins speaking from a better bargaining position, but…”

“You’re an idiot!”

“We’re all idiots, here.”

“Yes, but I’m not the one recommending we rush headlong over a cliff without even bothering to glance down at the bottom! What if our friends across the border get tripped up? It’ll be a fine old time if Sginer does what he’s supposed to, and he’s the ONLY one who’s ready when-”

The female voice cut off a few moments after Eihks began walking again. He kept craning his head as though he was interested in something to the side of the hills’ “saddle,” and that something was now moving away. The people inside the building sounded to have taken notice of him.

“Well, that’s not something we’re going to have to worry about, I promise you!” said another voice, too happy to be genuine in its comfort.

Also, too loud for the rest of the conversation.

“Oh, don’t give me that,” answered a more believably circumspect voice. “If your cousin gets all the money from the inheritance, that’s fine for him and all his friends, but we’re spending a lot of time and effort on those lawmasters from abroad.”

A cup slammed down on something.

“NO! You’re not listening!”

As the debate became a tarbaby of fun happy times, Eihks kept walking, hiding his smile behind a skin-deep frown.

Then, his frown took root and stuck when he noticed something caught and passed along from the stream of his monitoring utilities.

From within the dwelling, originating somewhere up high, he detected what equated to about ten millirems’ worth of gamma radiation exposure for the residents.

Thoughts of trying to assess conversations for verbal nuggets, and back-of-the-brain worries about pouring time down the drain, deflated and shredded and got turned into recycling mass.

He debated it for a moment, then kept walking. Maybe it was just a really big chunk of cesium encased in granite… which had spat out a giant mouthful of photons. Sure. Perfectly believable. Some sort of magical synchronicity had just occurred when someone used a bit of living-water to clean it, or dead-water to abrade its surface a li-

There. Again.

Eihks stopped dead in his tracks, head tracing the most likely locations of the source. The corner room, easternmost part of the house’s second floor. Carefully scoping out the property for anyone watching him watch the building, he picked up a much slower lethargic wander down the road.

Within the space of four minutes, he detected another nine pulsing emissions of giddy photon salutations, before they abruptly and totally ceased. Perfectly regular in timing, and as best as he could tell either identical in magnitude or the next best thing without some exceptionally calibrated equipment.

Well, there goes any chance of not performing a brief clandestine search.

Two minutes later, he was doing a bit of interesting acrobatics involving using some heavy knives as pitons for reverse spelunking. He perched with a foot braced against a windowsill roughly as wide as his tongue, gripping the edge of a short scalloped overhang. It was a gamble; people who’ve lived in the same building for a while can identify out-of-place sounds like the rasp of a blade against a less than perfect vertical seam.

When the residents saw the knife marks on the wood of that corner of the townhouse, they’d have a possibly (reasonably) suspicious looksie around the rest of the structure.

For now, peering in with just the barest portion of his face visible through the window, he didn’t much care. He was too fixated on the room’s innards, and recording absolutely everything.

A human woman, dark-skinned, athletic, and clearly not a stranger to combat or violence.

A digital device in her hand, projecting a faint algal-verdant light against what he could see of her face.

A pile of highly machined equipment in one corner of the room, just the right size for armor and heavy projectile weaponry, with a flat portion emitting a dark red pulse around a three-blade fan icon.

But what made him stick a giant flag on top of the house in his mental map of the region wasn’t the pictogram for potential radioactivity. It wasn’t the handheld storage device.

It was the fact that he recognized OUR STRENGTH, THE CONFEDERATION spelled out in English both on the biggest hunk of armor and along the side of the digital display reader.

Ghost Grid Caliber was going to love this.

When he later picked up the remaining tab at the lumberyard, he didn’t even notice that it was beginning to softly rain. He left an extra coin on top of the agreed-upon payment.

“I don’t like you,” he told the foreman, and the shorter fellow flinched. “But I respect when people are willing to take a chance.”

He knocked the dust from his shoes as he left.

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