“Sure, go ahead – try to keep information from getting free. See how that turns out.”-Unsigned journal entry at a tenth age laboratory dedicated to reverse-engineering Ktarebte-Blackbottom subreal matrices, recovered from the remains of the facility’s annihilation
“I can’t decide if I’m going to give you the highest of accolades or murder you.”
The woman dropped the leather sleeve of tools, glaring around the – in the most non-metaphorical sense possible – palatial room. It held a conglomerate of fan-sprayed functional utilities grouped by no order readily apparent to the observer, contents less slathered together by purpose than thrown into a room box and then shaken until not pulverized.
Funnily enough, in that way it vaguely resembled the striped and storied character of the city-located shop she’d less recently acquired, and more recently vacated.
She eyed the bed’s incapacitatingly thick sheets.
She eyed the long bench with its array of vises and saws and brushes.
She eyed the combination stove-oven and its thin skin of sooty residue.
She eyed the chair-sized basket full of eclectic volumetric glass prisms.
She eyed the interior windows looking down on a courtyard paved with leaf-shaped bricks.
She eyed the man who’d taken it upon himself to guide her to the lodgings he’d negotiated for her.
“So… you expect me to believe that this too-good-to-be-true opportunity will not cause me heartache or headache? No upsetting conditions apply?”
Ktsn followed after Eihks and Fonlat and other various things. She carried part of their ex-landlady’s possessions distributed between back and sides and arms. The size of load and ease of balance suggested she could have an exceptional career as a beast of burden on this facet, if she felt like pursuing it. For that reason alone Eihks made absolutely no reference to his observations.
“You have conditions, yes,” Ktsn said, neatly setting down her bundles in an orderly and calm manner. “First, the king has first claim on your labor. Second, there is some magical work for which you might be asked to provide some recollections or other information, if you should have it. It is related to summoning rituals, or something similarly beyond my understanding.”
Fonlat was very quiet for some fifteen to twenty seconds, pulling out a scroll of papyrus and making an atrociously scrawling addition to its contents. He’d gotten used to her handwriting, but he could think of only one close acquaintance with less readable manual penmanship. He was pretty sure that one of the reasons said acquaintance became an interfacer was to rely entirely on the Monolith’s digital assistance for storing ideas on a non-brain medium.
“Isn’t it curious that I never tried to capitalize on my relationship to any celebrated heroes?” she remarked to the empty air. Her smile had the brittle lithic characteristics of something akin to shale, or a damp chunk of halite.
Eihks blinked, calm and collected.
“Not precisely. However, it’s something that has – on the most limited and vague of occasions, you understand – crossed my mind while I’ve skittered down the smooth slippery hill of life.”
The woodworker, breathing deeply enough to give herself a barrel chest, threw the papyrus into the air after she messed up her scribework repeatedly. The material showed the sort of scrawl a person exhibited when they got stuck stepping on the same words and thoughts over and over, until they stopped being writing and started being a barometer for stress.
“I will forgive certain shortcomings in the people who’ve assisted me these many days past. But I am extraordinarily angry. Don’t doubt it.”
Eihks glanced at Ktsn over Fonlat’s head. He wished he could actually feel the sensation of crushing air out of his lungs, as though a sigh would gain some unquantifiable efficacy in strangling inner turmoil if its producer could experience rather than just simply remember the way it drew together that concert of flesh that was the living body.
“It will not be doubted,” Ktsn told her, then quieted, getting that interesting something-something about her that said she was focusing on what she saw out of the farther side of her head, or had dug into the garden bed of her personal musings for fruits and roots.
“I’ll just say that you never explicitly told us to lie, particularly if persons of power started asking around the subject of otherworldly summonings,” Eihks said, before thrusting a hand out when Fonlat rounded on him. “Perhaps it wasn’t something that we had the right to give away for our own entertainment or for the sake of academic curiosity. You’re an individual who likes to be in control of herself. Understandable, respectable, perfectly within the realm of my sympathies.”
His hand turned over, and he met the woman’s heat with a cool, respectful bearing. It was a composure which kept empathy held forward on a plate, fully recognized her troubles, and looked at the situation from a cogent, levelheaded, open-perspective vantage. He’d devised it especially for helping to defuse tense situations with many human or human-like personalities. The burn in her eyes told her that yes, she was angry to the point of only narrowly categorizing violent action as “unacceptable.” It showed a hurt which she said she’d forgive, and probably meant it at the highest remove of purely objective thought… but it would be exceptionally difficult to keep hold of that sentiment’s value. Best to have it out here and now.
“Let me ask you this, though. You talked a bit about Liliansmith’s arrival in Dōdielnan with a pretty well-informed-sounding attitude. She told you about her arrival and probably discussed her experiences in arriving and acclimating to this place, yes?”
“Yes,” came the answer through clutched-shut teeth. It was ironic that her self-direction wavered on the edge both despite and because of his attempt to keep objective. It was not funny.
“If that’s the case, you’ve got a unique and possibly crucial swath of information in your skull. Sandany, at this point in time, is trying desperately to get home. You might be the tipping point in the research and experimentation they’ll be doing. Maybe it was a breach of trust, but it was a breach of trust made in part to help someone else get their entire life back – as compared to yourself, keeping a position of less social stress and a life far less difficult than it might have been. Neither is good, but which is better?”
His arms wobbled and tilted like he was a uselessly tall scale.
“For that matter, you’ve been – and I say this as one of your assistants – scrupulously, nearly detrimentally safe in your lifestyle.”
He froze, then closed his eyes.
“That sounded skewed. I should have said: avoiding any sort of unnecessary risk. Again, commendable and understandable. But think about how much your business is worth – you can afford to take a couple of gambles, or even something like aiming to land a position in the king’s favor.”
“You deserve recognition by your people for your skill – and for successfully drafting two more people to your country’s cause. We told His Highness just as much, along with some speculation about what you may know relevant to certain rituals used for summoning certain heroes of old.”
“What I know is a lifetime in the past and utterly without the recollection-aid of practice. It’s also a matter that my mother usually only discussed in vagaries and euphemisms.”
There was a sniff.
“Though if someone put a diagrammed process on the table before me, it’s at least plausible my jogged memories would let me point out flaws or oversights. I could say helpful things like ‘I don’t recall Mother ever mentioning an entire mine’s worth of sulfur being involved,’ or ‘I believe she had to be alive when she arrived because I wasn’t yet born.’”
Eihks wisely did not reply.
Fonlat growled a bit as she turned, her toughened skin going taut at the sides of her neck. She twisted around to give the indoor cottage-industrial factory another scathing assessment.
“Am I correct in understanding that you want this room put back the way it was, so you can go back to the homey shop with the…” he began.
“If for any reason I lose my lodgings here, I swear I’ll see you join the blessed dead as fast as humanly possible.”
The lanky creature who had faithfully followed her every step made a happy-excited noise, slithering around her and making straight for the bed. She clambered up, and proceeded to pare back the sheets to reveal the delicious, delicious bed fruit inside, then rearranged the material to make herself a better nest. The outside edges of two feet poked out of the high-piled insect hive she eventually produced. While circling over and over with mouthparts champed on fabric, she relaxed farther and farther into the mattress, practically sinking down to the floor.
“Hih,” Fonlat grunted, before getting back to organizing her new kingdom.
A few minutes later she leaned against a wall. Something vaguely like a nightshirt dangled from her grasp.
“What have you earned among this scramble for laud and glory?” she asked.
“We stay between Goeyren and Sandany, and he gives us his attention and indulges our wants and needs.”
Ktsn scratched behind an ear.
“To be blunt, I could not speak when he first showed me his gardens. So many strange blossoms and herbs. There is a plant that is fertilized by curling and uncurling its leaves, and dropping pollen very far from its root system in large bundles, and it accepts pollen from other plants in these catchment leaves at ground level when it rains, so-”
Eihks chuckled while watching her waxing enthusiasm.
“You’ve never struck me as a plant person,” Fonlat told him, when Ktsn’s attempt to treatise her to within a hair of her life reached an intermission.
“You’re correct, at least in the sense that I find plants merely curious rather than fascinating. She has an actual investment in the subject, whereas my interests cover virtually everything, and plants happen to be part of the bucket we call ‘everything.’”
He draped himself against a wall, and decided to frame the life story he’d previously given to the woodworker a bit differently. She deserved a bit more of the full picture, given the circumstances.
He shied back from that shade of himself which whispered that a certain someone was even more deserving of learning about certain threats of not-precisely-blackmail.
Oh come on, you’re going to talk with her about this, and not your co-journalist about something that could ruin her reputation – or even life – by association?
No, I’ll tell her-
You’ll tell her “eventually?”
Eihks didn’t let his internal dialoguing out beyond a frustration-toasted nasal exhalation. Instead, he reforged his will with concrete skin and a redmetal spine, and told himself that he’d bare the ugly truth to Ktsn.
I’ll tell her in three days, or whenever we settle into whatever our tenure under Goeyren is supposed to be.
With difficulty, he kept his face calm. The voice that giggled, “Oh, scion of verity…” in the back of his head was pushed to a corner where he could address it later.
“You’ll remember a claim to the effect of being a sort of trader, from way back,” he said.
Fonlat grunted an affirmative.
“That’s by no means a lie – I’ve done a healthy amount of entrepreneur work in my time – but it’s a piece of the whole. My interests are generally broader, sometimes more arcane. Honestly, though, I’m happily satisfied by being allowed to pester the king’s tribe of scholars and knowledgemasters. Everything is at least a little interesting, but I guess my primary regions of focus are education, communication, and magic.”
He gave a nasal hum.
“I’m not the smartest of creatures but I do like the thought of being smarter tomorrow.”
A slippery glint flew by on Fonlat’s features, the satisfaction of a breed of hunch realized.
“Even more honestly, I’m hoping to learn something from the research on getting Sandany home.”
He didn’t add that he felt confident that the experience would teach him more novel things about the researchers themselves (and their scientific method) than about the rules of local magic mechanics.
His stance shifted to a violence-ready demicrouch when a presence made itself known at the border of the room’s threshold.
“Excuse me,” said the armored figure whose head popped into the room, long-shafted halberd at the ready. His was a slightly familiar face from the time spent getting to know the palace’s staff, a fellow named Hallatta. He sported a mustache which the sort of modern-day morals to which Eihks’s parents adhered would call scandalous.
Hallatta’s companion kept her eyes strictly ahead in either a show of highest professionalism or a show of minor foolishness, but his greeting died a rude death as he saw Eihks standing there with a sharp shape in his grip, thumb almost caressing its spine. His jaw slipped and slid across the words he’d prepared without any breath of life.
Eihks smiled inwardly. The king’s human protective force was taking its job seriously, knew that he himself was dangerous, and was making an effort to put that information to practical use. Yes, he was one of those protecting Goeyren (nominally from another of his protectors), but who watched the watchdogs watching the watchdogs? People like these.
“We have come to bring you to the workshop that His Highness has set aside for your use, madam,” the man said at Fonlat. He had a bit more of a straight back and formal polish about him than the average guard, from the glint of the metal edge of the knife at his belt and the cage that controlled his halberd’s living-water blade to the creaseless smoothness of his garments. Eihks approved of the appearance, with the hesitant exception of that mustache.
Then the words finished traveling across the strata of his ear and into the magically-functional lobes of his brain, and he started to frown.
“This isn’t the workshop?” Fonlat huffed at Eihks.
“This isn’t the workshop?” Eihks asked of the guard, one eye almost closed and the other one close to circular.
“No, it is not, sir, madam,” Hallatta replied, giving each of them little packets of sincerity-energy through the medium of visual contact.
He looked at Ktsn, opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and said nothing. Clearly he had little certainty of whether to talk to her directly, let alone what form of address he ought to use. It was a little amusing that she actually seemed to find that fact funnier than Eihks.
The karkshesh did nothing to ease the man’s discomfort. Instead, she rolled over onto fastlegs, knee-analogue joints splaying out and lowering her to a more aerodynamic height. She kept her gaze on the guard except when her head flipped and she switched eyes to maintain the same directional inclination of her mouth. Her hands twitched, claws not actually rattling but clearly wanting to. Hallatta blinked hard twice, and refocused on the woodworker.
“If you’ll follow us, please. His Highness cleared a larger unused chamber for your use, madam. It possesses a wider spread of facilities, and more room. If you’ve any projects that might need an enormous amount of space, or intend to teach or utilize other hands, it should accommodate.”
Eihks eyed the place. The bed from which Tassy’s head now poked with predatory curiosity was the only thing that immediately jumped out as technically less than totally relevant to Fonlat’s profession. The place had enough room for probably four to six decently-sized luxury disks if you cleared the whole area of furnishings, and maybe more than that if you took the time to squeeze the disks in without gaps.
“More room sounds quite useful,” Fonlat said, in the tone she’d employed that time he’d come back after arguing up a somewhat better price for one of her commissions – and getting paid in kind with salted meat. She’d calmly observed she could “make do” with the results.
“Come along, let’s see,” she added.
She, then Eihks, then Ktsn followed the guards out into the hall, Tassy scrambling out of her hiding spot and giving chase when she realized her human was leaving. Eihks cast a look past the door they’d left, down to the opposite end of the hall where another tall door led outside. The shadows of numerous bags and crates waited in the open door’s compass.
Well, if they had to relocate stuff, at least the things carried to Fonlat’s room constituted the minority of her belongings. Double-moving a few things was better than double-moving a lot, and double-moving things when they had already been placed on the route to where they were supposed to eventually go was better than throwing them down somewhere headed in the opposite direction.
He slowed a bit when passing a distinctive ivory-colored archway, leading down past weighty stone doors. Approaching its maw, he beheld a massive murk-filled room of some kind equally carved into rock and built with stone and wood. Its depths spoke of omen and purpose. Lights flickered, and a handful of other archways leading into the place were secured with equally heavy doors.
“… huh. What is this?”
Hallatta looked over a shoulder, blinking.
“That’s the water chamber,” he said. “It’s… the soul of the palace, if you will.”
Eihks sniffed, staring into the dim. He would have expected the throne room to be the soul of the palace, if anyplace had that distinction.
“I don’t recall seeing it before.”
“It’s not frequently visited, since it primarily serves as a nexus for much of the city’s water needs. Some ritual uses as well, I’m sure, but that isn’t something I’d know about. You can ask one of the palace’s scribes or learned souls for more information on the matter if you like.”
Looking ahead, the three ladies had continued more or less unabated. The two of them made an effort to catch up.
“Yes, there’s a meeting later this evening. I’ll definitely be inquiring about it.”
Three turns and a broken-toe staircase later, the group stood at the doorway of a different room.
“I didn’t know that you needed an entire tenement house in order to do quality woodworking,” Eihks muttered when he made sure that they actually still met the dictionary definition of “inside.”
It wasn’t so much a room as a mansion some kind soul had donated to the palace, then gutted, skinned, and taxidermied into a monstrous auditorium. Running, it would probably take him about ten seconds to get from one side to the other. Tassy, after slipping past the standing obstacles and her human, evidently wanted to put that measurement to the test as she galloped across the distance. He’d had plenty of exposure to foreign cultures, of course, but even so the relatively careless treatment of so much dedicated space struck his extrafacetary sensibilities as especially wasteful.
He’d almost felt the same way about the water chamber, but that oddment of architecture had possessed an air of ritual significance, as well as unseen functional purpose.
Across the length of the room’s edges, a series of nearly identical workstations stood in neat military-attention order. The composition of each arranged area almost matched the tools and concessions scattered around… what he supposed was Fonlat’s bedroom, probably. Two easels held large boards of stone in the neighborhood of the room’s middle, tiny flecks of chalk sprinkling their bases. The one facing the doorway depicted most of a diagram for a variation on the Egyptian screw. Part of it had been erased for the jagged chalk phrase, “Do not listen to Geletānaro, the man is a liar and a cheat and a-” which itself was partially erased, and appeared to be as recent as a couple of days.
Judging from the huge series of propped-open windows on the far side, and the way they had enough height to admit the absolute maximum of usable daylight, the place had been intended as some sort of around-the-clock shop. If he considered the stations, the chalkboards, a few odds and ends like a larger central table with a ton of little bits of wood and framing – presumably for measuring and constructing models – the place took on the air of a vacant assembly line.
“We’ll give you as much time as you need to set things to your satisfaction, madam.”
The indulgent mustache attached to a human being had moved to a position chosen for maximum visibility, both of the owner and the people to whom the owner was giving a tour.
“Whenever you feel ready, please request assistance of whatever kind you desire,” he added. “His Highness will see your needs met as best as he can.”
The man hesitated, then turned to Eihks. The way his teeth appeared ever so slightly was the way he’d look if asked by his liege to pick up animal dung in the street, the pioneer suspected.
“If you might, there is a room set aside for your comfort and ease of carrying out your role, sir,” the man declared. It contained the slightest of wheedling, not willingly so.
“I’m aware,” Eihks told him. “We’ve been there. We were simply helping with some logistics; no intention of helping carve an entire salon’s worth of furniture.”
The man stood a bit straighter, a bit more irked, and a bit less respectful as he traded a look with his female companion.
“Your concern is noted and appreciated,” Eihks added. “Unless there’s something else that we need to take care of for the good of His Highness, I’ll be back in the vicinity of my quarters in the time it takes to walk there, if not less.”
If you want to help move those bags and sacks and crates, or find the helpers that will be so kind as to take care of moving them, then please do, he didn’t add.
Hallatta’s face scrunched, like he was waiting for something else.
Eihks also waited for a second until he realized the man associated with the mustache wanted to hear something more. Inwardly, he swiped his forehead sideways. He didn’t really have anything more to say.
“If you want to find us and talk, or rant, or what have you, then you should be able to locate our rooms. Failing that, just ask.”
The pioneer directed that at Fonlat, directed a respectful posture-gesture at the guards, and swept out of the chamber with confidence that his now-ex-employer would do fine with her new arrangements. Ktsn followed.
In the back of his head, he’d had a timer counting down from a hundred thousand – though the duration of the count sped up or slowed down at times to accommodate certain events. It was his way of monitoring the Sergeant – or rather, determining when the two journalists had an obligation to return to their collective post of royal bodyguard service extraordinaire.
That obligation stirred mixed feelings.
Obviously, having taken the king’s offer, it would be a bit troublesome if their patron suddenly got foreshortened by the dimensions of a head or so. That took second place in the order of his worries, though.
The two of them had a mission to slot themselves into the warren of evolving joyous drama that was sentient existence on this facet. Those reporters and interviewers who’d inevitably ask Mr. Richard about why he didn’t emulate Ms. Telluride and Ms. Telluride – with their propensity for orbital observation stations – always got the same answers. Specifically, he’d long valued the importance of qualia and the experience of feet-on-the-ground interaction.
Yet, he often worried about getting too heavily involved. It was less that he had concern about “contaminating” his environment, and more that – for a person who came to a land planning on leaving within a relatively short period of time – making a smooth exit quickly became harder. Their evacuation would disrupt more of life as the environment’s components started deforming to accommodate the foreigners’ presence. Case in point, the current dependence on his and Ktsn’s services.
As he cleared an especially long corridor, he had to step aside while some servants navigated a pylon around the corner. Ktsn hunched against the wall, but didn’t have the slightest chance of getting brained by the pole. The servants might not have even seen her.
True, the king would have been dead if they hadn’t been visiting in the first place. Now that they HAD interfered by preventing his expiration, though, stepping out would remove what the locals considered (probably correctly) to be the only people who could prevent Sandany from turning and biting the hand which had decided to not execute her. The Rube Goldberg machine that was real life cause-and-effect meant that, if the aliens decided to leave, the locals had precisely two realistically tolerable scenarios: the sergeant proved an ally to the king, or the sergeant died.
No, he didn’t expect Sandany to turn her coat again. However, he also hadn’t expected to team up with a four-legged Old-touched prophetess.
Imagining what Shelilafior might say about the situation, Eihks could hear a not-quite-annoyed spiel about picking and choosing places to influence local events. If the king were offed, it’d probably be far closer to the course of events that would have come about without the explorers’ arrival. Additionally, it would be tragic if Sandany got killed, but far from the end of civilization or even Dōdielnan.
That was the callous wanting survival mentality of many Rhaagmini. When you had an infinity of less fortunate people in dire need of help, what good was aiding one or two or a thousand, against the stress and tear you accrued in both heart and body by assisting them? You had to draw the line somewhere, unless possibly becoming a walking talking dependency for an entire people was attractive. You, eventually, had to declare that you couldn’t do any more and leave the rest of existence to itself. The competition between generosity and self-interest – an embodiment of what silkal adages called the doublemindedness of the slumbering unsleeper – had to end sometime. Even if you tried to ride that edge, lifting people from the poverty of less-capable livelihoods would sooner or later lead someone to the concept of nuclear fission, and deciding it could be best employed in the construction of neutron bombs.
The prospect of charity became derailed so easily, so why bother?
Eihks had always tried to do better than the average, had successfully managed to do better than the average since time out of mind. Yet, his karkshesh companion’s presence was an urging straight from the Way to do still more.
“His Highness is in, correct?” he asked the closer of the guards when they came around close to the on-duty room protectors. “I’m here to check on him and Sergeant Sandany in turn.”
His tone betrayed none of his often-trod internal conflict.
“Yes,” the guard replied.
“Thank you, and I wish you a peaceful day.”
He turned and strutted toward the marine’s stationed section.
“Do we need to walk this distance every time?” Ktsn prodded.
“It seems like a waste of energy, then. We know where to find Sandany, and it will not help us learn anything new by pacing the same ground yet again.”
“Maybe not, but it’s a show of our doing our jobs, it helps us build familiarity with both people and place… and it builds character, of course.”