The art of comedy.
Within a restaurant of middling quality, one woman rhythmically rocked her leg in an out-of-the-way seating, keeping time with the drums. Lights spritzed the mossy dark walls around her with a dreamy cozy air. Socially acceptable scents sliced the place up into cliques, while the faint percussion music lent the venue a united ambiance. Many people slunk and floated around the property. Nobody asked the woman if one of the neighboring seats was taken.
Sheyey preferred to present the world with a furtive exterior the vast majority of the time. This meant, of course, that distractions needed to be relegated to the realm of the internal. She never partook of a holojector when a sensory could be sent directly to her mesh’s facilities. It was harder to compromise private systems than public fixtures, after all. For that reason, her tab would reflect a hefty surcharge on account of notably increased privacy-protection measures.
Also for that reason, she enjoyed her entertainment luxuries very quietly.
In her head, the puppets of Historic Arguments played out their human political “satire” with admirable gusto. Two caricatures of caricatures bobbed in maddened furious glee, wobbling back and forth and faking each other out with lunges across a debate-themed fabric background.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME, YONALD?”
“EXACTLY WHAT YOU THINK, FILLARY!”
The hudenot actors inside the puppets were – not quite out of the sensory’s range – busily trying to hurt each other with their tendrils and various tools of violence. The show would go on until either or both dropped a line delivery, or (far less probably) they reached the end of the script. Even if one of them managed to use an improvised bludgeon to good effect, it took exceedingly rare circumstances for the actors to end a scene in medical distress.
Sheyey Duspink lived for exceedingly rare circumstances.
A disturbance tripped a threshold, and Historic Arguments paused as two visitors approached.
“The Pijahns say the deal is sealed,” said Uudroal Susans.
The large woman thudded into the seat across from Sheyey. Following her, a waxy pohostinlat waitress carrying a pair of extremely tall bowls. One went to Uudroal’s employer. The other began to empty at a prodigious pace. Sheyey thanked the waitress with a sizable tip.
“And you made them aware of how much money a concerned family member is willing to pay?” Sheyey asked.
She cracked her neck. It was hard talking face to face with tall people, sometimes.
“I’ve no doubt that they’ll happily help with records management, with or without compensation, but I want them to understand how important it is to see justice done quickly.”
“They do, and they’re very sympathetic.”
Uudroal’s pout was beautifully convincing, someone fighting to push off tears.
“And the Kroneninen discussion?” Sheyey asked. Her voice was expansive, generous, not quite whimsical.
“He’s so very thankful you told him about his long-lost grandchildren. It’s such a shame neither of them are full citizens, though. It makes simply proving they exist an almost insurmountable challenge.”
Uudroal grimaced with more genuine emotion, showing slightly-sharper-than-expected teeth.
“It’s an even bigger shame about their getting afflicted and carted off to that undead colony.”
“How certain are we in the fact that’s what happened?” Sheyey demanded, suddenly quieter and more sober.
“Maybe you’d like to ask them more directly. The proof, well… it’s not pleasant.”
Uudroal glanced over one shoulder when a bunch of loud people – two pohostinlats, two duts, a human, and a conjugated of unrecognizable provenance – came in through the vaulted side entrance. Two were very very mellow, two were clearly intent on joining them, and the others seemed to bleed the smell of money. Thrill-seekers, contact-seekers, and information-seekers. They waved away the greetings of the salutation spirit floating by the doorway.
“I have to confess that regardless of whether they’re dead, undead, alive, or simply fictional, someone might be able to convince the public that your story is patently false. With the sources available to us, it’s in a bit of a credibility limbo.”
Sheyey’s eyebrows rose at Uudroal’s tone, and she reached for her bowl. A utensil went on a mining expedition and came back with a haul of geometrically pleasing cooked grain.
She glanced at the sextet of newcomers, when one of them did something that resulted in the management asking them to either leave or kindly KNOCK IT OFF. She chewed thoughtfully.
“I suppose I can ask nothing else of you than that you’ve tried.”
Sheyey uncoiled an elbow partway over the table, and leaned closer to the larger woman. Her eyes shone like diamond knives.
“That is, if you’ve tried your best. We’re not going to live forever. Nobody is going to live forever. Even if our bodies are still walking around twelve ages from now, well, we won’t be the same creatures, will we? Crippled False, I don’t intend that we be forgotten. We will make a difference.”
Vocal cords crushed gravel. Her hand ran back across her hair.
The corners of her eyes suddenly warmed up, and she clenched a fist hard enough that her hand started shaking. She hissed through her teeth.
No. She was her own person. She wasn’t a return to the past. She would be a savior by example. She would stand high.
“But that’s unfair, and you’ve been nothing but competent in times past.”
She blew out her budding fury in one strong breath, and it left a smile whose resenting core was almost cool to the touch.
“Anything else you want?” Uudroal asked, not shaken in the slightest.
Sheyey’s hand went back through her hair again. Her grin grew both wry and more genuine.
“You’ve arranged for the Ktarebte machines in case…”
There was a pause while the Dictionary of Euphemism was internally consulted.
“… someone tries to cross-examine and force them into perjury?” Sheyey finished lamely, as her face started frowning. There weren’t many ways a person could circumspectly ask “what have you done to mitigate dowsing results” without going into the patently ridiculous.
A small chuckle at Ms. Susans’s expression of facetious contempt.
“Uudroal, you’re the best amanuensis I could ask for. Go entertain yourself for the evening – and tomorrow too, if you feel like it.”
“I CARE ABOUT COMPASSION, YOU BUFFOON!”
“I CARE ABOUT JUSTICE, YOU WI-”
A few seconds after Uudroal walked off toward a full table, the Historic Arguments bout ended in beautiful violence. The sensory’s visual components stopped being as relevant as the others, when hudenot stress pheromones started cutting into the production. The sounds of a mild beating replaced the dialogue of one of the participants, as the other’s lines became effortful.
She smiled, then frowned, then continued scarfing down her rice.
Sheyey followed the man walking toward her table – would be walking PAST it in just a moment – was one of the very few with whom she found herself circumstantially curious.
Bjill Of No Last Name was, she decided, a very curious individual. She wouldn’t actually have recognized the winter elf, save that he was vaguely handsome in a beaten-and-scuffed-statue sort of way. Also, she’d gone and done some extra homework on the venerable Mr. Richard recently. And wouldn’t you know it, Bjill’s social pigeonhole happened to cross paths with her dear Eihks on one very curious meridian… a meridian now named Taniwen Drjemear Richard.
Of course, she couldn’t reveal her actual depth of curiosity to Bjill. The man was, to put it bluntly, an only marginally different sort of wetwork specialist from herself. A more direct form of character assassin. If she ever reincarnated as or decided to conjugate herself to the form of a winter elf, she felt pretty sure she’d look a good bit like Bjill.
You don’t get to be one of the better muckrakers in the industry without realizing that a clone of yourself is the absolute worst possible partner in any sort of work arrangement.
She’d have to handle this situation carefully, but she could also win an enormous asset if she played her Grediwe hand just right.
As he started to move past the table, she called out, almost as though she’d just barely noticed him in time. She instructed the bubble that helped keep her table’s discussions private to drop for a moment.
“Oh! Helloooo there!”
A slightly shy, almost timorous hand offered a forehead-thumb at the man as he slowed down. He was the sort of striking fellow who could always encourage an eager groupie or two to hang out in his presence by sheer charisma. By the way his face cratered when he collected an eyeful of her, though, she half expected him to just keep walking.
“Sheyey Duspink,” she informed him with a smile. “I’ve written bits and pieces for Coulomb et Coulomb, the Dial Terminal Array, Aniport Sep, and a lot of other institutes… but I don’t think you’ll probably have-”
“You’re the woman who had that run-on Dial Terminal Array article about the Lorbish community adversely affecting Rhaagm’s housing options,” the man said.
With a strange quick mechanical arc-change, he swung to the side. The winter elf went from oblivious to seated across from her in less than two seconds, with absolute precision in his focus. His eyes squinted, and the restaurant’s dull light covered the rough composition of his face with an austere dust cloth. He slid Uudroal’s empty bowl aside.
Sheyey blinked in genuine surprise.
“I’m genuinely surprised,” she admitted, in probably the first moment of candor she’d had in… well. A very long time.
When the man’s eartips swung to the side with his inquisitive head-tilt, she added in a sultry secretive tone, “I haven’t exactly gone out of my way to publicize that little piece in quite a while.”
“I can see why,” he answered. “It’s highly prejudiced, not hardly the best writing I’ve seen except from untrained expert systems or drunk authors, and obviously meant to do little more than deliberately stoke opinions and raise the controversy quotient for the outlet.”
All true. All criticisms that gave her brief and very attractive images of the man’s clothes suddenly catching fire.
“But you’ve got some respectable spleen doing ahead and doing it anyway,” Bjill added, leaning in closer across the table and dropping his pitch to a conspirator’s whisper. “I’ll be honest: it’s a lot rarer nowadays to find someone with guts like that. What’s the scariest thing someone can do these days? Sell themselves short.”
“Sell themselves short?” Let me tell you what the scariest thing is, my sweet elf. The scariest thing is looking back over your life, realizing that your whole lineage has been swallowed without a trace, and realizing you’re about to go the same way. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Sir I-Serve-The-Court?
Sheyey simply gave a gentle contemplative smile.
“I appreciate the perspective, sir,” she told him.
The man paused, taking in the scenery.
“Call me Bjill.”
“Thank you for the perspective, Bjill.”
“Do hold off on thanking me; there are better expressions of gratitude than words. I have a proposition for you.”
Please don’t be something creepy.
The winter elf gave her something that might have been a smile if it didn’t bare quite so much ugliness.
“I’ve heard something about an unfortunate series of events back in eight hundred ten thousand one hundred thirty. Events that you seem intent on documenting.”
Bjill tilted his hand, letting a couple of the gaudy glass rings on his fingers glisten with the colors of hope and disappointment.
Sheyey’s heart skipped three beats as he named a year he had no business naming.
“That’s a curious thing to say,” she replied.
“Yes. It’s also very curious that you’ve displayed such largesse. Doing the public a service by drawing attention to the plight of undeaths in the family is… so unlike you.”
The winter elf turned his fingers over and let his thick rings catch light on the other side.
“I’m curious myself,” she said, somehow managing to sound amused rather than wide-eyed and intent on escape. “It’s not exactly public knowledge that I’ve been moving in philanthropic directions. I wonder how you’ve heard of my recent plans.”
If it came out that the restaurant’s own security was to blame, she’d start by decrying her “research” into the Kroneninen family as a more speculative line of investigation. She had some resources to facilitate that sort of backpedaling.
It’d be a flimsy excuse, but it would also be a flimsy excuse drawing a paper-thin line between “Oh, it’s odd that you think this Richard fellow HIGHLY ILLEGALLY communicated disease to your family” and “Oh, it’s a shame this Richard fellow HIGHLY ILLEGALLY communicated disease to your family” – a blatant fiction with built-in deniability. An obviously counterfeit sort of deniability for that reason, granted.
Then she’d do everything in her power to raze the restaurant’s reputation flat. It was a minor shame. Sheyey Duspink had a bottomless well for the disposal of minor shames.
“Well, there are a great many people on the receiving end of my help lately,” said the man across from her. “Favors, you know? Such high-seated personages have access to avenues of drawing forth information unavailable to the many. Some concerns were voiced about your aspiration for telling the world what they ought to hear.”
He flagged down one of the wait staff, and asked for a plate of something high in iron content, and to be introduced to that interesting aaned over there by the window. The employee gave a quick salute and departed.
“It’s a funny thing that must be catching, because I’ve been feeling philanthropic myself. Feeling, specifically, like helping you.”
He folded his hands in pious repose, and smiled with a sullen happiness.
“We can discuss methods in which I’d appreciate assistance later, but for now consider it a unity of purpose. It just so happens that I know a certain Dressen Kibeth Oria, of the Council of Books.”
He paused, grabbing a flask from his belt and downing about half of its contents.
“And what does Booker Oria have to do with the price of woodplastic?” she asked.
“Why, Booker Oria has some testimony – and some testimony he’d be willing to solicit from other high rollers – on the subject of… well.”
When he gestured, it was a motion clearly meant to indicate “anything.”
“I figured you might find it easier to do your job with the help of some corroborating and at least moderately official accounts,” he said, with a quiet dignity.
A person didn’t bother asking what sort of trade or coercion – or, God forbid, honest cordial relationship – one might possess to swing the actions of those pillars upholding the centralized portion of Rhaagm’s governance. It was a very short and very intense list, whose line items would be most appropriately written in blood or liquid redmetal or something profanely holy.
“I think that would do very nicely,” Sheyey confessed, thinking of all the things she could do with so much delectable ethos. She spent a few objective seconds with her brain overclocked, pondering the thousand ways splayed out on the road before her. This could be a very profitable relationship.
“Maybe we could… get a drink cell of something sweet this hand?” she probed.
“Can’t – busy until next with obligations that aren’t open to negotiation.”
She gave a little frown.
“Next hand, then?”
“I’ll have to rearrange a few things, but I think so. I believe you are worth it.”