“When you have the luxury of enemies, the second wisest thing is to be in constant preparation for conflict. Saddle the steeds so a moment’s notice is sufficient to depart for a battlefield. The wisest thing, of course, is to soundly trounce your foes immediately after you arrive.”-Yrdkish Lord Horok Danashi Se-thep Duomunte Dtal Poorrinthinius
The sound of very big, very heavy loads being set down had a weirdly satisfactory quality.
Ktsn walking around, running around, hurling around, and dodging around made up most of the effort being expended in the packing process, but Eihks managed to contribute a decent share. Granted, only one or two boxes at a time, and only fast enough to barely improve on the speed of an average native, but he didn’t mind that so much. He didn’t have four legs and a long torso with which to support more cargo.
Conversely, he had the strength endowed by generations of tailored chromosomes, a tolerance for more rigorous environmental conditions, and a complete absence of subjective fatigue (which did not necessarily preclude outright collapse).
Some alike, some different.
A slide of the box that he was holding was just barely enough to earn a click from the colliding contents. Both the creatures harnessed to the front made little whipcrack sounds, piggy faces looking back with bemusement. He clicked his tongue, and they stared instead. It wasn’t that they looked unhappy so much as impatient.
If it were him lassoed to the front of a titanic wagon, told that he needed to get a full shop’s worth of things carried roughly a hundred kilometers, and additionally informed that he had only a single day in which to perform that duty, he wouldn’t exactly be happy with the hurry-up-and-wait model of business either.
He stepped out of the way, just in time for Fonlat to walk up. She threw a bundle of leather-wrapped shop tools onto the back of the wagon. It sounded like she had about much as four armor suits of various metal denominations in the sleeve.
“It’s about time for us to be going,” she murmured, subdued and minorly morose. “Just a few things yet left to get.”
She stopped, sizing up the place that she’d called home for quite a while. Eihks hadn’t pried into precisely how long, nor her age. Her adventuring days evidently ran into the leading edge of her time as a specialist of her craft, though. That was a long time of calling the place home, unless he missed his guess.
“What isn’t here?” Eihks asked. “I can-”
“No. I must take care of things.”
Fonlat looked up over the wagon, and her eyes paused momentarily on the long shape of her pet. The lanky creature had curled around a firmly roped sack two and a half times, and looked like she would bite the hand off anyone who dared to unwarrantedly disturb the neat assembly of the wagon’s goods.
It was an outward mask that had become familiar. Tassy was not the sort of creature that generally scorned her owner’s wishes – even the implied ones.
He’d abruptly gotten very familiar with the idea of masks and deception once again, ever since Ktsn’s demonstration of her skill as an arbalestier.
In his personal telecommunication effects, he had a slew of recent correspondence. Some were letters from fans. Some were headlines from all over the place. Some were sports updates – normally a matter on which he was lukewarm, but apparently three professional hoop-hook teams were on strike in light of his outing.
The thing that had caught his attention was a single curt missive, originating from an obviously spoofed source. It didn’t beat around the bush.
The people will soon know about those victims you infected about four hexadecades back. Maybe it’s time to rethink contaminating Rhaagm with your presence.
The (biggest) problem with the nondescript voice’s message was that he HADN’T infected anybody. Most of his time in that period – save a short stint in eight hundred ten thousand one hundred twenty nine and eight hundred ten thousand one hundred thirty – was spent abroad socializing with exotic sentiences and uncovering neat allotropes of various alkalis. That meant that the sender, unfortunately, proved willing to openly lie about an exceptionally grave life-ruining matter.
Rhaagm and the other extrafacetary climes had had a curious sort of economy since time immemorial. However, no matter how many dats you had, your coin’s worth dried up fast if you got fingered as a chronic deceiver. That was problematic for Eihks. Between his staunch supporters and the respect he’d reclaimed by clearing the air immediately, though, he’d managed to wrap a bandage around the issue and begin rebuilding his credibility quicker than expected.
It wasn’t… quite a character death sentence to get caught spreading rumors of this magnitude. Even so, Eihks felt fairly confident that – were they ever unmasked – the peddler of this fiction would probably willingly go into hibernation for at least a couple hundred thousand years.
He tried to skim a few veins of extrafacetary news transmission for information on this threatened story release, but found nothing. The same went for the editorials and publications which stood adjacent to the Journals in the material they covered. He had full confidence that the threat would be nullified before too long. It took an awful lot to cover up truly significant falsehoods in extrafacetary society, and one skilled dowser with decent experience – provided the liar of the day wasn’t a professional in bypassing standard dowsing techniques – should be able to extricate the truth from them.
And yet… he hadn’t told Ktsn.
I’m sorry, but your association with me is no longer merely a problem. If people start taking this charge seriously, they’ll… I don’t know, maybe take me away. Yes, I’m serious. No, I don’t know for sure if this is ACTUALLY the case. No, you can’t do anything about it.
Not yet. For now, he needed to put that aside. Libel wasn’t something that could be addressed now, supposing this wasn’t someone’s special idea on how to mouth off. That was something to worry about later.
Eihks watched Tassy go around the building. He looked to the horizon, where new spilled light soaked into the edge of the world’s table. He glanced away from the morning sun, at the slants of nearby hillsides, and the lolloping ground lazing toward the same stand of trees where they gathered sappy cones. He was recording pretty much everything for posterity’s sake, but he suddenly had the compulsion to – as the bards put it – make a joyful noise.
Despite his worries about rumormongering, it was a good day to be… not alive, but at least extant.
“Hang on,” he told Ktsn as she started back around to the front of the house.
She paused midstep, and worked halfway back through her walk cycle, ears flat.
“I’m going to go… do something of a musical nature.”
A recital. Sort of.
A glance toward the workshop’s front door, and he hefted the weight of his voice with a loud grunt.
“Fonlat! Do you need anything else for the next tenth of a water or so?”
If he had anything to say about it – and he didn’t – “water” was a horrible name for a metric of time. Not intrinsically, but when you had so much dependence on the stuff for everything else, and your-
“Be ready to leave, or you’re staying behind!” came a response with far more gusto than one might expect from the appearance of its originator.
He started down toward the little stand of trees.
“Want to come with?” he asked over his shoulder, and noted that Ktsn had already made a step or two to follow before the words were out of his mouth. Not like a hound after its master, or like a Tassy after a Fonlat, but like a zoologist getting a better angle to see some strange amphibious thing pulling itself from the primordial depths.
Without any direct answer, the karkshesh trotted along behind him. His feet were less sure than hers on the occasional bits of holey instability or sunken dirt, but he still managed to draw forth Lusendrad from his jacket without undue trouble. The seven section shape in his hand dangled arcs of rope in mute outcry, lamenting that it suffered such an indignity of unuse. He pulled one loop free, and tied it off in its place at the bottommost section so that the rest of his tool of choice had its customary freedom.
One spin of the accordioned staff, and then a reversal, and a final twirl, each punctuated with a click of metal on metal and deft twists of joints. He planted the staff’s length every other step not because he needed it, but because it was what one had to do with a walking stick. Such objects, even as patently unsightly as Lusendrad, deserved to be employed in both conventional and highly unconventional ways.
“I remember that thing from when we first arrived in this land,” Ktsn said. “What is it? And do not say that it is just a walking stick. I would perhaps believe that from someone else, but not you.”
Eihks sized up the surrounding countryside, and tried to pick out a section of hillside with less than terrible acoustic properties. He wasn’t rewarded.
“It’s what’s called a bullroarer. Magical properties that are somewhat interesting. Very interesting, actually. But for now, I want to… it feels like a good morning for a bit of music, or at least artful sound, to start the day.”
As she undoubtedly looked up what a bullroarer actually was, he pulled on another loop. Some of the many meters of rope fell free from Lusendrad’s long length, then he tied the loop off elsewhere. Four meters of slack should do.
“This weighty metal-looking bit here is the slat that lets it actually speak, if you will.”
The planchette-shaped piece that resembled a very polished forearm-sized hematite rolled out of the coils into his hand. A very complex knot threaded through the rounded hole at one end of the object, and where the threaded hole looked a bit like a pierced nostril or ear, the many pits on either side of various sizes resembled the eyes of a hundred kinds of night-things.
He couldn’t actually feel anything with his hands anymore, no, but he had a vague inkling of psychic or memetic encouragement every time he picked up the metalloid slat. “It feels good!” his mind told him, as though parroting lines from some behind-the-curtain narrator.
“Its name is Lusendrad,” he told Ktsn.
And before she could ask anything else, or he felt the compulsion to prolong his explanatory kick, he gave the rope slack and released the weight. Fishing for melodies, he was.
“Stand back, please; this usually takes a bit of room.”
The karkshesh heeded his warning instantly, and Eihks slipped the rope through one hand’s fingers while the other grip solidified on the staff. An unusual arrangement for use of a bullroarer, but it was an unusual instrument… and not just because of the faint inherent magic that constantly retwisted its rope while being “played.”
As quiet as a gathering of sleeping silkal Aidenists. Perfect.
With a calming expunging of focus, he angled the point where rope and staff met as far away from his free hand as possible, and began.
Reduced to about a meter of freedom, the ribbing growl of the rope’s gyrations started at a high humming register. The cycles incorporated a minimum of arm movement, relying almost entirely on elbow and wrist. Back and forth, forth and back, back and forth. The whizz spoke of bugs and upper-brain thoughts and statues chiseled to nubs by desert winds. It lay in a strange meditative antechamber of inaction, thought characterized by potential energy.
If one listened very intently, one might even discern that an unusual portion of the noise came not from the rope’s winding and unwinding or the resistance against it swinging in a rapid elliptical movement, but the weight itself. Wind fluted over the pits and pip-scars of its faces. In fact, it brought back the very first time he’d seen the artifact, just before he’d briefly stolen then returned it: the sound of a chorus of voices with each on the leading edge of the first note in an aria.
Then he relaxed the severity of the staff’s angle, and the real song began.
High hum dropped drastically as an extra meter of agency was given to the greedy slat, and it slewed wildly outward. The pits of the metalloid pseudo-lozenge started to chant, and the rope cut a darker deeper tone out of the air. Pitch soared and dove with little warning as he slowed and sped up the rotations according to the bullroarer’s own desires. It was a morning song, a mourning song, and a celebration. It was a brief sad reflection on the passing of the last lost day and a solid grounding in the inception of the present. It looked outward on that axis called time, and slipped into a stolid haughty baritone.
The listener, if asked – and one Ktsn Wdondf Daephod would indeed be asked – would probably call it the audial equivalent of corduroy. It had an asymmetrically distorted texture at once regular and softly fuzzy, yet also subject to broader disruptions; fabric with little cirrus striations across sine wave hills. It had the odd ringed toughness of a good alloy woodmetal. Sonorous, hollow, hard. To really hear it gave the impression that the weighted end possessed a mass of several megagrams, rather than the neighborhood of a single kilogram or so.
Then, the tune evolved again. Eihks kept time with the spinning, and simply lengthened and shortened the free rope by levering the staff. It was a fishing rod for music. It marked a change from an animal of accented beat to a creature of actual tonal melody. Not traditional tone progression by any means that an Earth Standard native would probably recognize, no. However, it was something that a great many more people would identify as true music instead of a mangled single-string mystic chant.
To the beat of each revolution, Eihks slapped a foot in the grass.
It was only played on a single “octave,” but the song started to resolve itself into a reduced version of Towers Through Power. It was a song that had been composed slightly before time began. Except for some minor cross-pollination in cultural exchanges, it hadn’t changed an iota.
He didn’t sing the words, or hum, but they ran through his head in the cadence and progression of a liturgy. A foot kept time, and hands kept playing.
(I AM A FOOL)
I TOOK WHAT I SHOULD HAVE GIVEN
I LEFT WHAT I SHOULD HAVE BROKEN
I ATE WHAT I SHOULD HAVE PLANTED
I BECAME WHAT I SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN
(I DO REGRET)
I WILL GIVE
I WILL BREAK
I WILL PLANT
I WILL BE
(NOT OF ME BUT OF ELSE)
SEEK HALF BUILT TOWERS
FIND HALF DEAD POWERS
GROW STRONGER NOT OF STRENGTH
DRINK DEEP OF GRANTED GRACE
(BY THIS IS MADE A BETTER ME)
He allowed himself to slip into the stream of consciousness that had caressed many souls before him. It was a pure place that, even without instinct and having a slightly emotionally watered-down experience of the world, brought him a heartful of solace. In such a nirvana, it wasn’t hard to see how Lusendrad had originally served as an implement for enacting religious rites.
Then, the moment came.
Feet stilled. Hands snapped around. The shivering tearing howl sped up, like a message being shouted as its deliverer fell from a cliff. It surpassed urgency, surpassed mania, and somehow it still managed to be a full undamaged song as it hypercompressed to the space of a single second.
And the recitation was over.
“Well,” he murmured as he rolled Lusendrad back up, and turned to a silent Ktsn. “What do you think?”
He expected one of a wide range of responses. Maybe she’d say something about the weird musical style, or inquire about the implement’s place of origin. Maybe she’d give him a demonstration of her own people’s musical tradition – a subject where the ill-fated Gegaunli studies showed notable deficiencies in their thoroughness. Maybe she’d tell him that it was the worst thing she’d ever heard, then he’d laugh at her, and never do it again unless she gave her consent.
One thing he didn’t actually expect her to do was calmly turn toward Fonlat’s place and silently begin walking back.
Eihks finished tying off the last loops of the bullroarer’s rope, slinging the weight in its complex harness up by the end, then broke it down into its seven hinged lengths. As he secured its place under his clothing once more, he started following her back up to the workshop.
Saying nothing, he caught her as she paused some ways off from the familiar shape of the building, and its yard, and the shed where they’d roomed for a while. Her head made little jerky birdlike bobs as she moved in place and trod some of the ground a bit flatter underfoot. Her hands gave nothing of her thoughts away.
“You know… I have had some curious experiences since meeting you, Eihks Richard,” she didn’t quite stutter. “‘Curious’ is exactly the right word. Strange foods. Strange people. Medicine and technological marvels.”
She finally acknowledged his presence by stepping closer and swinging one palm out in an indicative way.
“Some good, some bad, all interesting. You showed me wonders as well. The sky of your city… our city… that is something I shall never forget. But until now, I do not think I have seen anything from you that I would call a miracle.”
One dewey karkshesh eye cemented on him.
“Thank you,” she told him, with the small earnestness of nightborn whispers.
She continued her stride, heading for the place where Fonlat was just now exiting the building again.
Eihks waited a few seconds. Then – one side of him smiling, the other side cringing with the remorse of the liar – he followed.
“… so we couldn’t just-” a man was saying just as he approached the scene. He was one of six people all clustered together, one or two of whom bore tears. Ktsn stood not too far from the porcine beasts of burden, and their employer as well, watching the proceedings with interest.
“I know, Radsegel,” Fonlat told the man, whose scarred head bore only a single ear. In his hand the man had an ornate-looking toothed apparatus, like one might use to clamp a chain to a felled tree trunk. The way he was holding it clearly stated he intended to give it to the lady at any cost. The way she stood at arm’s length just as clearly stated she had no chance whatsoever of accepting.
“Ye’ve dun a lot fer us,” Radsegel told her with strained tones, as though trying to convince her of something, or to sell her a particularly unappealing appliance.
“I know!” she repeated. She looked out around the gathered souls, wearing a roughly hacked-out proto-smile. If someone told Eihks she’d carved herself a face that morning in a hurry, he’d half believe it. Her weathered hands held onto her own clothing as though to steady herself in a gale.
“We’ll miss you,” admitted a woman with no emotions on display at all, save earnestness.
“I’ll miss all of you as well,” Fonlat replied, her hands loosening a bit. Then she scowled. “But don’t think that I’ll be gone forever – I fully intend to visit, and if anyone’s been awful in my absence, I WILL find out about it!”
A couple of laughs, and the only child in their company redoubled the shedding of tears.
The woodworker looked around, sighing. Without any indication that she deliberately orchestrated or planned it, she held out one hand, and out of her jacket tumbled a sharp-pointed iron file.
“Here, Trehal,” she said to the man standing at the side of the gathered folk. “Hold onto this for me.”
She tossed the implement, and it landed not too far from the seneschal’s feet.
The guard, after a moment, bent down and pulled it from the ground where its end had sunk two or three centimeters into the dirt. He glassed the people around him, then the pilgrimage-to-be.
“I will,” he said, short and controlled.
His gaze alit on the aliens.
“I hope that things go well, and without undue drama, in your new address,” he added.
Trehal and Eihks gazed into each others’ souls. The former kept his trust just under the surface. The latter put up a thin sheet to cover his gratitude.
“Your hospitality and caretaking are debts that hopefully, one day, we may repay,” the Rhaagmini told the shorter man, breaking the stare-off stalemate.
Trehal cocked his head, and seemed to accept the statement at face value.
“Go on, before the suns begin playing havoc with your journey,” he ushered, as first several, then all, of the people gathered to see the little emigration get underway started offering restrained but sincere farewells.
“May the dead look on you with favor,” Fonlat replied, and Eihks wished them well likewise.
Then the little caravan turned away, and the Journals of Gem Pioneering made their way outward and onward in the hearts of their stewards.