“Bury the living, eat the dead.”-Ast aaned proverb
If you aim to learn about a place’s habits and character, the mores that its natives hold closest to their deep-hidden hearts, then consider the textured attitude toward capital punishment.
In Rhaagm, you would get any sort of personality storage dumped – along with insanely thorough search-and-destroy operations for disguised redundant personality stores – in only exceedingly rare few cases. Crimes involving the construction and deployment of causality sabotages usually took the “big and unsightly carnival” prize for generating spectacle. The same went for anybody who deployed a dæmon cluster offensively against another person, outside of when it demonstrably prevented interruptions besides just the user’s. For the most part, life (or unlife, or other life-congruent slurries of experience as confined to a subjective consciousness) was precious due to its robustness and hardihood, in a culture where getting slammed into a black hole wasn’t necessarily considered “fatal” if your cerv-mesh’s connection proved adequate. Interrupt another person, and it wouldn’t necessarily mean getting interrupted yourself – though it definitely wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.
In this more savage and hard-bitten country, “a life for a life” held sway. Furthermore, it held sway in that fashion sadly beloved by both good and disgusting rulers of many a realm: public display of sentencing for the sake of making an example.
The people of Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur had made preparations to leave their home of guarded plenty, and even the endless entourage of the king’s counselors and staff would be on the move soon enough. But at this time, Goeyren and several of his higher-ranked cronies stood at the edge of a wooden platform. Before them, a short list of individuals, tallied by the shadows of kneeling bound forms. Two people who had previously counted themselves among the king’s cadre, a woman who evidently had fled the kingdom long ago with other Rollhir loyalists, and a familiar man that Eihks thought looked a bit more pitiable now that he was on his knees. He no longer had the mad look in his eyes, just a mask of perfect conviction.
“We’ll be remembered as heroes,” Eihks heard in his head again, and his mouth creased into a completely neutral line.
“Subjects of this great kingdom, draw nigh and lend ear to this, the justice of His Highness Goeyren!” shouted a well-dressed if tired-looking figure, reading from a lengthy scroll. Surprisingly enough, he thought it was the same crier who’d long ago been up on the stage at Tienla-Gaphra, and from whom Fonlat had purchased her now-resold city property. Maybe an auspicious sign that things were suddenly going to be going in a more normal, more calm direction.
A look to the left; no Ktsn.
A look to the right; no Fonlat.
No, things would not be turning “more normal” or “more calm” for a long time, probably for anyone he considered a close acquaintance or friend. Maybe not for anyone on this whole facet.
“For crimes whose recounting would be an ordeal itself – but include highest treason, sabotage of the kingdom of Dōdielnan’s material needs, and murder – these who are arrayed here have been judged, measured, and sentenced. The sentence pronounced by those who bore this stern duty is death by dry drowning.”
The scroll was set aside so that the speaker could gaze upon the doomed parties, a last humiliation or grace. Maybe it could be called both. The king’s expression bore some tiny modicum of respect and a mountain of passionless desire for justice. Immediately in front of and beside him, an armored figure stood at parade rest, port arms and statuesque. The deceptively vacant-looking eyes combed the scene for any sign of aggression whatsoever.
“We give you this time to say your final words. Choose them wisely, and with the dead’s approval.”
Of the accused, only the younger-looking of Goeyren’s staff took the chance.
“May those who come after look back on this day, and judge it fairly,” she said.
The silence that succeeded her statement had a hole cut out of it, and that hole’s shape was the word “amen.”
Eventually, the signal was given. Bags of living-water descended over the condemned heads, and contracted. It was a dreadfully simple thing, bereft of fanfare or pleading. In due time the twitching stopped.
Thorough contemplation of the broken silver cords got side-tracked when a steady gait drew up beside the pioneer.
They both stood, watching the once-watchers of an execution as the crowd dispersed. A still-life of a scene, caught in that rare place of existence between “doing something” and “going somewhere.”
“You’ve been planning on giving up your roles as royal nannies,” said the woodworker. She didn’t look at him; instead, she focused on stroking the head of the lanky shape following in her shadow. Tassy still had plentiful scars and lesions, but obviously couldn’t care less. Her own hand, meanwhile, stayed near the bandages bulking up the side of her clothing.
“We have,” muttered Eihks. “One of the many great philosophers and thinkers from my birthplace once said about trials: ‘You can succeed, or you can fail, but pining after the spent catalyst will usher malfunction untimely.’ It was right.”
She snorted, looking sideways, smiling at the mouth and frowning at the eyes.
“You’d call this a trial?” she asked, almost stabbing at the bodies with a flat palm as servants of the public started to carry them away. She obviously didn’t just mean the freshly-meted-out capital punishment.
“In the sense that it provided a judgment on me, yes.”
He hadn’t stopped thinking about what he could have done, in no small part because it was such a huge unknown quantity. It infuriated him because regret embodied the epitome of reasons he tried to avoid wool-gathering, yet he just had to keep poking at this skull fracture.
That royal prophecy of Ktsn’s made him shudder on the inside.
Could he have realistically hoped to destroy the spell’s ritual with more warning? If given opportunity to kill the central practitioners, then certainly… or at least, almost certainly.
More importantly, he knew with complete assurance that Sandany could have saved the day. Some might call him a hopeless romantic, claimed that he couldn’t possibly know such things. The conviction ran bone-deep, though – that she had held the power to stop this scheme to “condemn many to a life of misery” as Ktsn had put it… if only she’d possessed the freedom so to do. If only Eihks and Ktsn had been able to pick up the slack and deal with the threat. If only Goeyren had been sufficiently lenient with the marine.
If failure was success, if toes were fingers, if dream and reality had complete congruence.
He kept himself from stamping a foot into the ground, and whirling with outstretched fists, and screaming “RIPPER TAKE ME” loudly enough to cause hearing damage. Instead, he very proficiently did nothing.
Then there was THAT thought. THAT thought about the heinous magic of the day, which made him shudder and… but no. That will drive you crazy, if true.
“Now, if I were a truly narcissistic man, I’d think that was the most important aspect of this tragedy,” he sighed.
Then, with a grimy but true smile, he swiveled waist-up toward her. He hefted his belongings in their bags and sacks and pouches, balancing them all with care.
“Would you say that we’ve been good assistants the many days we’ve known each other? Me and Ktsn?”
He had a second of humorously frustrated patience when she seemed to weigh her decision on the matter for a while. Wrinkles deepened into grykes, and a boiling hiss seeped through her airways.
“Yes. You’ve done some disservices – not the least being bringing me to the attention of the establishment – but more benefit than ill, on balance.”
His hands went behind his back. His face became neutral.
It was funny how even “small things” had such disproportionate effect, no matter what laud was lavished upon your name in the highest and lowest quarters of your peerage.
Scanning the sojourn’s regrets, he didn’t count serving as an apprentice woodworker in their number.
“I’m glad,” he murmured just above a whisper.
The woman gave him a shrewd glance, the sort of shrewd glance he’d come to expect.
“If you want to say something, then say it,” she said.
“Well, we two – my associate and I – have things that we feel called to do. We’ll be leaving to chase those things down.”
“Yes. I don’t think His Highness requires us as a buffer for his champion any longer… and without us bothering you, you’ll probably turn more of a profit. You won’t have so many scarred sculptures and the like.”
“Leaving for where?”
Fonlat’s semi-concerned tone drew Tassy’s notice. She kept an academically inquisitive face as she rubbed her pet down the neck, soothing the suddenly attentive beast.
“Somewhere that’s far away. I don’t know when or if we’ll be returning this way next. So I wanted to give you best wishes from us both before we depart.”
He reached into his jacket.
“Go, do, and believe well,” Eihks said. A single unadorned blade sat in his palm, handle outward. When she flinched ever so slightly and hesitated, he gave Fonlat a small smile.
“I have a lot of them. Maybe it’ll make a good scratch awl.”
The bronze-cast woman’s pewter-bright eyes blinked three times. She slowly frowned. She gave a quick gesture as the expression boiled up, going from “stern” to “determined” – a salute.
“We’ll remember you for a long, long, time,” she informed him. “When I return to Tienla-Gaphra someday, I’ll make a woodcut of you conniving scoundrels.”
Then, eyes shining a bit, she abruptly stepped forward and embraced him.
In virtually the entirety of the extrafacetary climes, the mannerism had long been extraordinarily unwelcome for a host of reasons. The rarity was an example of the plurality of species influencing modern cultural mores. A human would find it awkward to hug a dut, futile to hug a wiçfr, extremely ill-advised to hug an assassin, and flatly impossible to hug an aarl – and that only from physical considerations.
Even without knowing how ubiquitous the behavior was among facetary human cultures, though, Eihks wouldn’t have objected. He just chinned her back.
Their height difference meant his chin was atop her head while she hugged him, but that was just how things were.
“You have no idea how many people are going to know your name in the coming years,” he didn’t tell her.
The two extricated themselves. They went their disparate directions without further goodbyes.
The city wound slowly down as he searched the streets. Eventually he cheated a bit, sending out his dæmon cluster to reconnoiter the region. Members of his utility collective, somewhere between machine and organism and magic and shard-of-god, quickly tracked down his quarry and told him he would have stumbled on his objective momentarily if he’d just kept following his street.
Happily enough, a handy tree of alleyways forked in every direction right up until he came out of the slightly shady “indoors” of urban confinement. Stepping onto a patch of sloping ground, he looked up at the massive silos filled with produce. They were quickly getting emptied by a train of crates and shippers. It wouldn’t be nearly quick enough to save more than a fraction, but it would help the emigrants.
Slowly plodding toward him, also watching the scene of determined salvage, a figure kept head and arms down in lethargic contemplation.
His associate cometh.
As emotional status and balance went, Eihks mostly picked up on a person’s quirks and curiosities in hindsight. It still hadn’t taken too much time to see the veins of anger in Ktsn, the way it had driven her to put distance between herself and her family. During her lifetime, she’d wrestled that anger into some sort of armistice. Cloistering, and outwardly diminishing, but not actually deleterious.
He prayed that it didn’t do her harm now.
When the karkshesh spotted him, he ever so slightly dipped his head. The set of those sharp teeth and sharp ears suggested she half wanted to pass him and fade into the amoebic bulk of pilgrims.
Then, as he stepped away, she followed into the shade of a narrow side street. Both figures drew up beside a chipped wall. They stolidly faced each other, away from prying eyes.
She stood there in the alley, head to the side like always, nearer eye assessing him with bottomless… something.
“I release you from your oath to me,” Ktsn said.
Then, for the last time in a while, he saw her don a faint veneer of empathetic worry on his behalf, before she added, “I release you from the word you swore to Crippled False. Is that sufficient?”
“Yes,” he answered. Then his lips closed and locked themselves again.
That single eye, which was on the left side when she stood on highlegs, delivered a message so pointed and deep that Eihks could almost see the smoking words being etched on his skin.
“I wish for you to teach me the full depth of how to utilize my cerv-mesh’s functions, what can be done to further my self-education on this matter, and to otherwise refrain from interacting with me except on request.”
The only possible response was silence.
“I have had people attempting to manage me for most of my life. Until I can come to grips with this… event, I need space for thinking.”
“… I see.”
The velvet sky glowed down at them. Two suns appeared to be gradually parting company in the cyan panorama.
“If that desire has any real potency, I’ll see to it that once we arrive at our next venue, some pedagogic material will be made available. It probably will require about that long to come up with appropriate structure for that material, anyway.”
“With approval, I’d like to demonstrate how to exchange permissions for certain features – specifically, allowing another person with a cerv-mesh to perform limited functions upon oneself, and entirely limited to circumstances where health or sanity or even direr aspects are at stake.”
That took quite a lot of thought.
“Yes,” she said, eventually.
Moving briskly, he and she went through another Rujab de-indexing. He pointed out the appropriate switches in her mesh’s suites. Shortly, a handshake was extended that asked her if she consented to such things as affecting her person with his folding fields, accessing vital components, and other severely weighty concessions. Her own request then arrived.
In a somewhat happy coincidence, they both gave their respective approval for their permissions adjustments at nearly the same instant.
“Now,” he said, looking her person up and down, seeing that she carried all the bags and goods she had to her name, “it is time for us to go.”
She seemed to agree, which only left a hundred other problems, big and small. He started in on the question that required immediate tending.
The choice of where to go should have been made long since, except… well, everything. Perhaps the decision to delay firming up those plans had a root in subliminal caution.
In Eihks’s experience, paranoia’s trustworthiness increased with its specificity. His highly specific concern was that someone from off-facet had followed him, and for reasons unknown taught the locals how to work with red-white-yellow magic components. Was it POSSIBLE they’d just happened upon the innovation? Yes.
When his lips twisted, they formed a puzzle.
All things considered, the agenda now called for a good bit of extra hopping before they landed on their next facet to stay. Simplex-based utilities and network architecture for mapping out explored facetary space could (hypothetically and with some difficult work) be used to trace an unprecedented route. To combat such potentialities, they would stay cold and get strung out on a spool. He’d activate them later when their theoretical stalker got theoretically removed.
If the theoretical stalker theoretically caught up, then the Journals of Gem Pioneering would take things a single step at a time.
“May the Beings of Old and every benevolence of God and saint carry us on our way,” he whispered so quietly that even he didn’t hear it. A long lineup of utilities chirped their readiness through his mesh. They almost sounded like they were telling him to remember his mission statement: improve quality of life through truth.
A little bit of instruction that was worth taking to heart.
An opening swallowed both of the foreigners. The responsible technology had long ago been prototyped as a Darren-Khal surface immersion in n-plus-one dimensional space, and on the far side of time that prototype had descended from a semilinear upstream-downstream volume projection, which had in turn descended from a myriad of other advances.
On the near side of time, that technology sped down the track of adjustments and improvements, bloating into the kernel that became the nonrelative context. This and other simplex connections exploded into a geodesic madness, infecting a massive expanse of existence. At the forerunner of that technology’s viral history sprouted another filament.
The two aliens rode that filament from a shady corner of a shining wooden city into the gasping beauty of the unknown. They left a mess of grimed hope and half of a for-now undocumented mated simplex pair. They moved toward a path sloping into the sky, another chance to take that which was around them and make it better.