Hearts of Warm Tin

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“Statement: pray for past. Statement: expected is praying for future to bear fruit. Statement: fair is accounting for things on other side of ‘present.’”


She was a studious thinker who appreciated beauty, not an artful arranger-of-words. At least, that was her past life. In her present, given the staunchly unprecedented experiences piling up on every side, she found herself inspired like never before. Maybe the inspiration came from her newly acquired foretelling capabilities. Maybe it came from the people around her. Maybe it came from the esoterica that constantly jostled her idea of understanding-the-world.

Regardless, she had the picture of herself writing and scanning and plotting through the evening and morning and on and on stuck in her mind’s eye: a poet in the making.

And it was all because of a stupid ROOM.

She’d learned in an academic sense that bigger buildings existed. Even so, she had a chest-girdling awe wrapping her as she looked up.

Walking through its vaulted approach, Ktsn suspected that the throne room could hold three or four well-constructed barns. Some of the hypothetical barns could be stacked on each other without reaching the ceiling. What amazed her most, though, was the echo of footsteps swirling around the chamber with wild abandon. It rattled the rope-thick strings of bunting – still spreading the colors of the White Fields – not yet removed from the higher reaches of the room. It slid across itself in a way that made her ears flap. It sank to the ground where it soaked into the stones, and invited… nay, demanded… the room’s occupants must make themselves low and humble as befitting visitors of a ruler.

And now we walk in hallowed halls, bones yet buried in flesh, satiated in our strictures, pulled in flattened liminal directions, she tried.

Her self-derogatory sneeze was quiet and pointed.

Its cadence had the tinge of Tdsd-Who-Writes, but it was too direct. It lacked the subtext that she’d often seen and felt in the greater compositions through history.

Take of your eldest’s mind and your youngest’s power; marry them, twist them, slot them into a single soul, and give veneration.

Uck. Bad, bad. Enough for now – the inclination toward wordsmithing could be indulged at a later time.

The smooth-talking man preceding them made his announcement, every intonation multiplied and rushed with childish enthusiasm. The words linked a bit strangely, sometimes sustaining on a middle syllable longer than expected. Maybe it was an effect of how her translation tools helped her understand the language.

“The royal guests, Eihks and Ktsn.”

A flourishing salute accompanied the herald’s sidestep, its executor keeping distance from the royal defenders-of-the-body. Ktsn recognized the foremost of the bunch. He was among the group who’d assisted with preserving the king’s life, though it wasn’t the captain himself. Then she remembered the captain had been wounded.

Broadening her focus, she realized the setting made for an ideal performance environment. Tassels of wrinkled cloth, staining the view with sprays of dull yellow and bright red. Dramatic wooden embellishments peered slyly at her from every wall, most resembling hunks of scrap planking except for when viewed in precisely the right direction… when the chaos settled into skillfully carved limited-perspective images of human faces. These in particular reminded her of the Tower of Rhaagm, and its tricks of perspective. Dark red and ocher stands with cold candles danced around the room with ritual regularity. One or two stray ornaments leapt out as other holdovers from the holiday festivities.

As with all delights of arrangement and aesthetic, the aggregate served to uplift a specific purpose.

“Ooohhh!” said the slow, focused voice of that purpose.

Goeyren the Lean reclined on a thing that existed in some horrible hybrid limbo between nest, duvet, and chair. The skylights of the throne room framed him in a perfect circle of radiance, his seat in a fat bright beam at the circle’s center. Above him curled a vine of smoke. Beside him rested a pipe connected to a simple storage apparatus. Below him stretched his bare feet. On either side of his seat, two thin streams of water flowed up from a tube, down across the floor in little divots, then disappeared into little bowls with grated holes in their centers – all without the slightest trickle or splash.

The king’s jowls had a bit of a quiver to them, which Ktsn faintly thought she recognized. It was the kind of action someone started exhibiting after imbibing several days’ worth of narcotic without pause for rest, just as they were coming out of the haze. As a matter of fact, she’d had some indirect experience on that front. A couple of offers had floated her way over the long seasons… desperate or entrepreneuring souls ready to compensate handsomely if she provided “special growing space” on her isolated farm’s plots.

She’d refused. She’d seen the king’s behavior before, even way back then. It had to be the best, and the worst, of both sobriety and revelry. When it more often than not became a regular habit, it was a twisted-backed rugfos, crawling into the house at night to steal fragments of body and mind.

She hoped this man wasn’t losing bits of himself, however small.

“Welcome, welcome!”

The king rose from his throne, standing at the edge of the dais upon which it was raised. His attendants immediately straightened the cushions he’d abandoned, and one of them refilled the hookah, or whatever it was, with some sort of transparent liquid that definitely wasn’t water. The guards bunched a bit closer together.

They seemed rightfully concerned about his safety following the attempt on his life a mere few days behind them. Maybe sensitive to their worries, he got no closer to his guests than the rim of his flat-topped perch.

“You may approach us,” he informed the two of them.

They crossed the four meters from the yawning vertical entrance of the chamber to the outskirts of the bodyguards’ territory, Ktsn watching Eihks the whole time for cues on when and where to move. Still and silent, they waited near the bottom of the dais’s steps.

“You two are strangers to this nation, are you not?” Goeyren asked.

“We are, Your Highness,” Eihks said.

He brushed his hands together, keeping them below the waist. It was still a bit entertaining to see how he towered above the other humans, a tree among ambitious shrubs.

“We understand that you aren’t from any place nearly so close as Nognāt, or the lands across the Cold Sea.”

Eihks’s mouth smiled at the corners. The miniscule tilt to his neck and shoulders prompted her. “Would you like to answer?” they asked, leaving her the torment and blessing of decision.

Well, she’d had enough silence and subterfuge.

“We hail from far away, so far that it is hard to describe,” she said. “We ourselves have… difficult methods of precisely measuring such separation.”

Half of the guards, all of the attendants, the herald, and one additional person languishing back by the entrance gave signs of surprise, both great and small. The king’s tiny measure of shock pooled in his eyes, then poured out in less than two heartbeats. Ktsn didn’t think it was his medicated state that caused his resilience.

“We confess that we’d never heard of you until very recently. A strange creature was mentioned on rare occasions, in certain anecdotes of the city’s people. Once or twice there were stories about an exceptionally tall man, going about on errands and talking with the citizenry. Even so…”

The king looked up, head tilting from side to side in a way that said “you must measure fact and fiction together, then take an educated guess as to how much content is reliable, and you usually can’t get past the barrier of corruption-through-hearsay to begin with, so until continuous trusted surveillance is implemented or you find yourself accidentally the spectator, reports on current events are simply a formalized method of passing you gossip” without too much movement.

It was a very eloquent gesture.

“In the spirit of just compensation, and our own interests, we invited you here with a specific purpose. Your actions have helped preserve this nation’s stability. You have earned commensurate rewards.”

Goeyren gave a signal, and the foremost of his guards stepped forth with a papyrus swatch. The document extended toward them at the length of an arm, the owner of said arm clearly harboring some suspicions about the guests’ trustworthiness. On its front, a set of symbols sat above an ovular and perfectly justified script. Ktsn had to inspect it for quite some time before the symbols resolved themselves as the words “From the King’s Mouth to the World’s Hand,” with a seal or stamp on either side.

“‘We the recipients are granted tenancy and privilege in the royal palace,’” Eihks read, his eyebrows launching in explosions of revelatory confusion. “‘Furthermore, we are granted the favor of the ruler of Dōdielnan on this day, and any afterward until strongly felt whimsy or responsibility declines. At such time this document’s privileges are voided by word of…’ What precisely does this mean?” he asked, looking up with a frown.

“It means that you are very worthy persons indeed,” the herald said from behind them, Ktsn’s eye angling his way. “Regrettably, His Highness has another indignity yet to visit upon you – though it is a matter that may give some comfort – as part of the favor which is given to you.”

At his words there came a clanking series of uneven steps. The steps belonged to the half-hobbled shape of Carline Sandany, walking slowly in an aquatic straitjacket. Her left knee joint was also secured by a knot of the material, all of it maintained by a guard at the end of a lengthy strand of connective living-water tissue. Her helmet was put away, and the nearly-hairless shape of her head discharged no emotive content that a certain karkshesh could collect.

Ktsn and her companion were urged aside as the warrior marched her broken march. Her equipment almost swallowed the skylights’ offerings. Parts of her skin fluoresced with sour swollen internal color.

“It is requested that you should bear witness,” the king told the pair of extrafacetary visitors. “This individual’s current fate is founded in great part upon your actions. We do not wish to subject the people to such a sight, or alter perception of her still further, by making this matter more public. However, we hope that you may take solace in the potency of your deeds.”

At some invisible signal a guard approached her and swept a metal-adorned rope around her neck.

“It shouldn’t be necessary to say, but don’t cause a fuss,” the guard said. His hands begged for license to violence.

With the voice of a long-experienced assistant used to cutting through crowd furor, the herald directed his vocal tools at the small assemblage.

“In this council of few souls, let it be known that this woman attempted that most heinous of crimes which is regicide. For such an act there is but one sentence prescribed by the law.”

He looked back at his ruler. His ruler gave silent approval.

“Sandany, called Sergeant, what have you to say for yourself?” the herald asked with straight shoulders and surgically precise enunciation.

The soldier’s jaw seemed to deform her whole skull.

“I’m duty bound to serve and protect. I lately seemed to be at the mercy of activists if I wanted to return home, and continue serving and protecting. I might have been unhappy about it, but happiness isn’t a luxury I can often afford.”

Guards almost inflated with indignation. Goeyren betrayed all the frenzy of a mossy statue. The herald looked at his sovereign.

Goeyren’s gaze slipped past the woman and let itself alight on the pair of visitors. His voice carried only the slightest hint of intoxicated overcaution.

“Thus, your first boon and burden. Offer us insight on what you think should be done with this fighter.”

The room was filled with the sound of sunlight.

Eihks eventually made a deep guttural hum like the pain-call of a rugfos.

“Your Highness, as an outsider, I humbly request that you consider a certain measure of clemency in this extraordinary circumstance.”

The sound of sunlight resumed for a number of heartbeats. In this instance though, it had a dancing rapid quality, as though the two blazing giants from whom it proceeded were falling toward the planet, twisting around each other.

The same non-music from that first day, but far warmer. Almost what a person like Ktsn – now successfully if unhappily acclimated to local weather – would call hot.

“Clemency of what kind?” the king asked. His august form descended toward the members of the decreasingly-at-ease audience. The shadow of his beard hair was a strong crooked-back tree against the steps below him, with his head the leafy pinnacle. Saving his guards the worry of a shifting threat surface that the soldier could exploit, he stopped far enough away from her that she couldn’t simply jump him. His hand caressed his braid.

“Given the other recent shocks in this city, it’s somewhat distressing to hear you suggest such a thing. We are VERY curious to hear your reasons, though, and the shape of what benefit you’d expect from such an arrangement.”

Human feet stepped forward, back, and forward again, making an awkward yet clearly intentional braided pillar to support Eihks as his ruminations continued.

“Your Highness… as she’s stated, I and my associate here hail from somewhere very different. Lands where life bears little day-to-day resemblance to what you consider to be the norm in your kingdom. We regularly see problems on par with the threats that this woman’s talents present. Warriors of her caliber and capability aren’t unfamiliar.”

The pioneer spoke carefully, making very few motions of any kind besides what his mouth required to form monoglottal phonemes and a short didactic quirk of a wrist aimed at Sandany. He stared at the king’s eyes as though maintaining the connection between them was the only thing keeping him from dropping forever motionless to the floor.

“With the proper understanding, I think you’ll find there can be significant overlap in pursuing your respective interests.”

He fell silent, digits steepling before him for a second. Then, one of them moved just a bit. Ktsn had to adjust the angle of her neck a bit to bring the arm into full view, but when she did she had an odd hunch while looking at the subtle motions and posture of that errant hand. It took a few long vexing moments to put together the reason for the familiarity she felt looking at the shape and the dynamism of the body, but eventually she recognized it as the sort of nervous tic or idle animation he’d exhibited a number of nights past, when he’d been demonstrating witchlights for her benefit.

Glance rising, she noticed that his eye was just slightly inclined toward her.

Well, thank you, but that’s not very helpful. I don’t exactly have much to say on the subj-

Then she stopped that line of thought in its tracks, pensive. Reconsidering.

She had, on revisiting the experience at her disposal and context in present events, more to say on the subject than probably even her co-journalist of a thousand thousand stories.

She breathed deeply.

“It is an unusual situation, it should seem, but one that can be turned to your benefit,” she said, working her logic out to tie together the direction of her thoughts with what she suspected she wanted to conclude, and what had already been said, done, and decided.

Well, what she thought she suspected she wanted to conclude. Did she really believe herself, though? Should she endorse the arrangement that Eihks seemed to be favoring? The woman had attacked her along with several members of the king’s retinue, fully intended to murder him, and maybe still did.

However, after some post-fighting discussion with Eihks (and later tangentially with Fonlat, right before the king had officially extended his offer of hospitality through armed and insistent guards), she’d come to understand a bit of the soldier’s perspective. There were still many things she didn’t understand.

It was a handicap she’d gotten used to having.

Goeyren’s stare – along with that of most other witnesses – divided itself between uncertainty at her words and uncertainty at the fact that they were her words. The herald in particular couldn’t take his eyes off of her teeth, in a way that might have significantly embarrassed her if she wasn’t already fending off six kinds of unease.

It was funny, now that she thought about it. Days and days and days of a hundred other worries – death, existential introspection, appeals to magnificent powers strange and familiar, the stuff and nonsense of a reality where she could possibly get used to living the life she lived. During all that time, she hadn’t felt the familiar skin-crawling body awkwardness endemic to romantic crushes and equally frustrating social pressures for so very long.

She objectively had little worry that she was going to be amorously proposed based on her dental quality. Subjectively, she was going to be very upset until she managed to stop thinking about other people thinking about her teeth.

Stop thinking about it.

“I and my… associate… discussed the issue, after Sandany disrupted the White Fields festivities,” she blurted. “He gathered that she was summoned from someplace far away – taken out of her motherland like us. She became displaced in the same way as the absent hero Liliansmith. He also gathered that this warrior evidently wishes to return home, and believes such a goal is attainable. Thus, she must believe that the people who received her help represented the best odds of finding a way back.”

The king settled more deeply into his seat, the palm of a hand rubbing the side of his stomach. The other tapped a rhythm on his chin. His nose grew as flat as any sterile lake, stretched by earnest contemplation.

“Depending on the identities of these souls, she may well be correct,” Goeyren grated.

His face softened.

“Codified descriptions of summoning rites, dating back generations, were regrettably removed from the nation’s records years ago by delinquent minds. We are aware of the existence of the stolen knowledge which would have facilitated such an abduction, but not its details. The arcana of such principles had greater focus in bygone years, with enormous amounts of time and effort going into the creation of these spells. If documents describing the rituals languish in the stewardship of this warrior’s recent managers, it suddenly becomes much more believable that she comes from immeasurably far away. It makes apprehending these criminals that much more compelling.”

He allowed a slightly cruel smile to grace his face, the sort of thing that had crept across Mr. Richard’s features only a handful of times. Its decorations were spiny and decisive and constructed with the sort of implicit authority that explained why, even softened by drugs, Goeyren was a ruler of no small charisma. It could only be called pleasant in that the smile was directed to some mindward elsewhere, rather than at the people standing before him.

“How thoroughly did those with whom you colluded discuss the details of your arrival here?” the king asked, the smile slowly warming to a frown.

Sandany gave the whole room a long look, turning in place slowly enough to not trigger killer protective instinct. Her attention stuck and held on Ktsn. When she completed the turn, those hair-fringed skin flaps fluttered over her eyes like beetle wings.

“I can’t see my recounting historical events making things appreciably worse,” she half muttered.

Those eyes closed, and opened again, very specifically not looking at Eihks.

“I was on the Magellan-class transport Mari Lwyd, as part of a detail escorting some members of the Consul of the Sol Confederation to meet with the members of the Treasurer of the Sol Confederation about wartime developments. We were attacked by a frigate-hive of unknown affiliation somewhere near Edos Prime. The craft to which I was assigned was disabled and brought down, then it sunk until it flooded.”

Except for the motions of her lips, her breathing, and some uncommon blinks, the woman was essentially petrified.

“Sometime after getting thrown against a bulkhead, I found myself caught in a current and carried far down. I had effectively no air left when something critical failed in the vessel, and it split open. I lost consciousness. I next woke up in the middle of a… ritual of some kind, carried out by a man named Sginer. He-”


The name shattered into pieces like glass made of thunder, the tongue lashing sounds with flame just as the hand wished to lash the named man with a whip.

“Continue,” he insisted, after four or five extremely deep breaths.

“He was laying plans on behalf of some shadowy collective, backing a man named Rollhir. He informed me that we could reach an understanding. The ritual to send me home requires what he called ‘goldbeer,’ and they already used everything they had when they brought me here. According to him, you evidently have a goldbeer stock. I help them clear the way for this Rollhir, and I get the benefits of being returned when they have the means and materials to carry out the ritual.”

Her feet spaced a bit farther apart.

“Some planning for an assassination and coup later, things fell apart. As for what I can tell you, these people loyal to Rollhir had other plans and prospects, but they thought my talents would be their best chance at a successful assassination. The rest, I suspect you already know.”

Goeyren’s hands swallowed each other. He turned to a smaller entrance branching from the throne room’s side.

“Ledwinsōr!” he shouted.

A man whose wrinkles could be used to hide small animals rushed out from the gaping entrance, coat flapping. His eyes either had been removed or were so very taxed he could barely bring them to admit light. He had enough purses and pouches hanging from loops that even empty they probably doubled his weight.

“Your Highness,” he said with a fantastically deep voice.

“When Liliansmith was summoned to our country, the rites required a measure of goldbeer – isn’t that so?”

“Your Highness speaks correctly,” the man said.

“Do you ever recall hearing about any other method of calling a person from place to place?”

Ledwinsōr placed his hands on his belly, folds multiplying as his frown dug into the infertile face-soil.

“There are very few such workings. The one of which you seem to be speaking is far and above the most practicable for purposes of translating an individual. A few SIMILAR techniques exist, though of limited usefulness. If we were willing to… make a handful of human sacrifices, there is a ritual that may move a person to anywhere within seventy days’ walk – if I understand you, though, this isn’t the matter about which you desire to learn.”

A puff of air caused a tuft of the man’s hair to spring down and then up. He remained hunched in thought for many seconds before speaking.

“There’s another which might be capable of sending a person across less traditional boundaries of distance and that does exist in full detail among our records, but it may only be performed at the coincidence of Lugrun, the bright star of Resp-Otan, and the full moon.”

“Really?” the king asked, his voice sufficiently hook-curved with stern puzzlement. “This does not sound familiar – what is stopping us from using that method to send this woman away?”

The way his hand swept out at Sandany reminded Ktsn of scattering animal feed for livestock.

Ledwinsōr hung his head, despondent.

“Regrettably, the stars and other celestial bodies won’t be in their proper places until long after our grandchildren are old. If you wish, I can verify whether your predecessors’ records describe anything from out of mind, or-”

“No. If you can’t remember it, it isn’t worth remembering.”

Goeyren the Lean’s visage softened from sedimentary rock to stiff river mud, and he gave a dismissal to his servant as his attention returned to Sandany. The long beard he sported followed his head movements like a sleepy pendulum.

“As it happens… your benefactors were at least guilty of misdirection, warrior.”

He sighed.

“The technique that was used to bring you from there to here is an old one, powerful and guarded to prevent its misuse. It is lost to our own practitioners now, as I said – but it has been famously employed in the past, during what a very few people alive today recall as a time of strife. It may well be that the party responsible for your abduction meant to acquire you specifically, or merely any person enjoying the embrace of water in a time of personal tribulation.”

Legs folded, he rested his chin across the back of his well-tended hands, watching her as a hunter watches a quiet stretch of prairie.

“Sadly, one thing can be said for certain – as the spell existed when it lay in the repertoire of our wise-minded scholars, it wasn’t possible to send in the same way as receiving. It was meant to summon, not banish.”

Ktsn felt something turn over in her chest. Beside her, Eihks hissed quietly through his teeth.

“For this reason, we cannot in good conscience agree to any terms guaranteeing you a journey home,” Goeyren told the soldier. “Which is not to say that we have a complete lack of recourse.”

Eihks shoved a faint squelch of noise either into or out of his chest.

“Please explain,” said Sandany.

“We will have to discern whether or not it is possible to send you whence you come, though that is only a theoretical component of the matter with no guarantee of feasibility. However… if you should devote yourself to the preservation of the crown’s authority for… say, at least three turnings of the seasons, we shall likewise devote exceptional time and effort to the sciences of ritual conveyance. You shall protect us, and we shall tie ourselves to you.”

The king frowned, hands clasped together before his nose. Staring at the bound shape of the soldier, his lips pulled away from his teeth, petals of worry-blooming flesh.

“At the end of this period, presuming the aforementioned lessons of ages past have been recovered, we will give you passage – along with rewards fitting the quality of your service. Again – we would be premature in promising success. Nevertheless, the caliber of our kingdom’s minds gives us hope.”

Her skin took on a slightly gray cast as he looked sideways, staring through the walls of his fortress-abode into the infinite lace of the mind.

“So the question becomes whether or not you can be trusted under these terms,” Goeyren said. “It will not be impossible to reach an accommodation, presuming you have an interest in this form of clemency… but compacts are built upon mutual good faith. What assurances can you offer, or tokens can you surrender, that would make it more appealing to allow you within any sort of range of our person?”

Sandany’s chin tilted hard to one side; a crack coincided with her movement, and her shoulders relaxed as much as their constraints allowed.

“I can’t give any sort of promise that you could honestly believe… nor any sort of promise that you should believe.”

She dragged her locked leg out in front of her, using it more as a mechanical prop than a biological appendage.

“For that matter, if there’s anyone in this strange place with its witchcraft and kings and bamboo who has first claim on my duty, it’s the people who brought me here.”

She shook her torso, giving an anger-slanted smile at the living-water that formed a shell on the surface of her armor.

“That may be technically true, but it is also not important.”

Ktsn didn’t know she was going to speak until the first sentence had already sneaked out of her lips and managed to divert the attention of those present. Then, she was already on a roll, and she decided to keep it going, but didn’t have much of a plan as to what she was going to try to prove, to herself or anyone else. But as it so happened, her words came out smooth and directed.

“I consider myself an unremarkable creature,” she said. “My life’s story is not worth reproducing in its entirety here and now, and it is not relevant besides.”

Sandany’s body language suggested – insisted, really – that aggravation was rising.

“Really? Because that’s a story I must hear sometime.”

The remark may have come from Ledwinsōr; it was difficult to tell.

“The important part is that not long ago, I had a certain point of view through which I saw the world, certain things which I valued, ambitions to be a student and a teacher of sorts. After… a significant change, it became clear that my ambitions could accurately be called ‘petty.’ Part of me wished to ignore that change, or even go back to a time of ignorance.”

Ktsn’s head dipped a bit.

“In the time since, an important realization has settled in. You strike a more worldly figure than I, and by that reasoning you may be suffering the same disorientation that I was forced to survive not long ago – disorientation that reaches far deeper than mere facts or logic. Surely the words I am about to say will not suddenly change your perspective on life. However, though that is true, in some ways I am now more well-traveled than you.”

Glass jars shattered. Her family, fighting. Eihks showing her a certificate that bore their names. Reading eccentric texts until she collapsed asleep. A vision admonishing her to invest her trust in a human she had never met. Watching strange stars embedded in strange nights.

“I had invested a great deal in my old life, in the interest of teaching and being taught, before learning that the subjects of my study are realms that were holistically plumbed and mapped by those who have come before me. You have invested a great deal in what you consider to be a necessary evil, the taking up of a faulted cause for the purpose of vaulting to a worthier destination.”

She felt her reasoning wobble a bit, and tried to correct its heading.

“My hope to better my life, your hope to return home – our respective ventures foundered under us as we initially sought to correct them. That does not mean we should continue and merely hope our fortunes pick themselves up off the ground. We should take lessons from our efforts, make effigies from our failures, and turn ourselves into creatures who govern our ambitions rather than who are governed by them. Perhaps it is best if you assist this present kingdom and this king by safeguarding his life… but regardless, it sounds like your most likely path to success travels through his goodwill.”

Sandany stared at her, breathing with the depth and passion of the last respirations of a creature’s life – or the first.

“I have been trying to produce the most net good within my own limitations and while meeting my desires as best I can,” Ktsn said while settling more solidly in her footsteps. “It has required dismantling expectations and making disappointments. Under other circumstances that dismantling may have been more strenuously resisted… yet I am proud of the things in which I have participated.”

Eihks cast a sidelong, thoughtful look at her. With a small mouth-shift, he visibly ascended in spirit to the cloudy neon realms of objectless design. Maybe he’d gotten some insight to her character which he’d previously lacked.

The idea that something which she now realized was almost painfully simple could grant him new perspective suddenly set her tongues to licking each other. Had she really been that opaque when talking with him? Was it something about the fact she’d brought up her insecurities now?

How can you ever have any confidence in anything when everything you know – even, or especially, yourself – was constantly bearing new sides for examination?

Her almost-devolution into rough-edged angst arrested itself when a leg stepped a tad closer to her, and a set of thin fingers patted the pants wrapping it.

The gaze no longer rested on her, or the limitless distance, but the softening of his face’s features told her, “You’re a good one, Ktsn.”

Sandany’s nearly shorn skull and hobbled demeanor revealed wrinkling that other human heads would have hidden behind hair and height.

“That’s… a useful thought,” the woman said to her, her deeper tones and strange accent expertly courting the attention of the witnesses. The words came slow, and steady, and mealy like something just about to be baked in an oven.

She inhaled once, held it, and rolled her shoulders as best as her position and restraints allowed. Then she squinted at the king.

“Actually, I may still have some worthwhile intel. That Sginer had a bit to say to me, and his associates did as well. Assuming they weren’t lying or misdirecting, they may have a lot of people available right at this minute for assisting their mission, some of them hiding in plain sight – somewhere between a couple hundred or a couple thousand of them in total. Evidently Sginer had some fallback plans in place for them to help fulfill. I don’t know what those are either, or whether they’re still viable right now. It was clear those plans weren’t popular, though, and they preferred to rely on me.”

She thought about it a bit more.

“That, and the places where they stored me, are all the help I can think of… for now, at least.”

When a soft thump intruded on the resounding stillness, Ktsn almost leapt straight out of her fur, skin, muscles, and corporeal body. The sound came from the king’s chin-rope slapping against the framing of his seat. Judging by the set of his shoulders, he had some heavy thinking transpiring behind the fortress wall of his skull. A single finger that most definitely did not represent its owner, with its slack tranquil ease of motion, poked in the soldier’s direction.

“You’ve given us some useful perspective, and if it’s accurate it will be counted in your favor. However, while the prospect of services from such a formidable warrior doesn’t displease us, there are certain reservations. We would require additional reassurances to instate someone so capably violent in our employ.”

The king’s lips thinned, and Eihks and Ktsn received his dilated gaze.

“To put it simply, for our own peace of mind, we would induct you into special auxiliary roles of our court. You shall be protectors of our person with… special uses.”

Goeyren carefully didn’t look from them to the disabled warrior.

“If that is your wish,” Eihks started, then halted, and gyrated a wrist at Ktsn.

“Any objections or complaints of a comprehensive, irreconcilably-conflicted nature?” he asked without words.

Ktsn rolled the thought around. After a couple breaths she subtly pushed and pulled with a hand as though sanding down a rough, saw-cut surface.

“A request in kind, Your Highness – our employer is extremely competent, but if we take up your offer, she will lose the only assistance she presently has, at a time where her backlog of clients is-”

The king flapped a hand before she could finish.

“Easily remedied. We’ll dispatch a courier immediately, to offer her employment in the palace as well. She may accept at any time, now or later, and if she chooses to do so we will provide whatever she desires for her industry, within the outer limits of reason. We have need of the services of woodworking talent at this time. We suspect we’ll continue to have such need for the foreseeable future.”

“Yes, good to hear, but – assuming this is a time for frankness – there’s another reason you might wish to keep her nearby. Her mother went by the name of Liliansmith, you see.”

“Oh?” asked both the herald and the king, in very different voices, just as Eihks finished speaking.

A bit of a chortle came from… whomever and whatever the wrinkly fellow was.

Eihks gave a single-handed wave.

“She deserves credit for our favorable view of your rule, as well as having exceptional quality in her craft. However, what she knows about certain ritual workings could prove even more valuable. It might be a benefit, or it might be negligibly helpful, but…”

The rambling trailed off at an abrupt laugh from the king.

“Rest assured that we grasp the importance of such an individual. Her contributions past and potential will garner her considerable rewards. Her life will improve. Her viable decisions will multiply. Take these things as though they have already happened.”

He brought up a bit of smoke from his lungs’ depths.

“Consultation on matters of magic and ritual… well, that can be negotiated at a later time, if need be. For your assistance, we thank you.”

Some more prim and proper happenings dusted the meeting, then they found themselves shown out into the hallway. The nice people with halberds smartly encouraged a brisk journey through the wending architecture. Eventually, the two of them were deposited in some sort of temporary holding chamber, and their minders told them to wait until a different set of minders came to show them where they’d be sleeping.

A grinding soft squeal brushed against the palace’s ambience, then seriously disturbed it.

When Eihks finally broke, the yip-honking evacuation of air through interfacing orifices actually made her clap her ears flat to her head. It still came through loud enough to constrict her blood vessels and close her eyes.

The man’s arms sort of dangled loosely forward from hunched shoulders as he finally quieted. The windowless storeroom’s lights wove wicker patterns across his face.

“This will be ‘fun’ for some value of the word. I can’t decide if Fonlat’s going to give us the highest of accolades or murder us.”

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