“Why bother learning the history of a nation, when one can see how it will grow by looking at the land on which it is seeded?”-Imhaín Scunesagh, We All Know Someone Who Is a King
The sound of a beautifully made cup filling up yet again jabbed at the room with pins and needles. The sound of it emptying of the local variant of sake set those pins and needles on a hot plate, and prepared them for the next round of acupuncture.
Three figures and one guardbeast all writhed with stillness as they occupied the noon-bright kitchen. Each, except for the imperturbable Tassy, harbored their own unique haze of dread and bewilderment.
Ktsn, in all likelihood, had the easiest burden to bear of the lot of them. Based on the way she had settled her eyes into a faraway fiefdom of her own devising, she’d decided that she had enough recent experience with unanswered questions, and would wait before bothering to feel more confused, thank you very much. Upper bounds on maximum wonder and all that.
Eihks wasn’t too worried about the current developments himself, other than an onslaught of subtle recalculations in the social equation he’d been balancing in his head. The recalculations weren’t too massive in scope, and they weren’t hard to factor in, but there were a lot of them.
Fonlat slammed down a third cup of happy juice, and fixed her gaze on her tenants. It was… as though she’d lost family, and then after half a lifetime encountered people who claimed to be in touch with her absent kin. As a matter of fact, that probably wasn’t the most outrageous comparison.
At the very least, “I’m the daughter of a celebrity and my relational status to same was hidden for much of my life” was the kind of thing primed to cause trauma.
“So let me make sure I understand,” Eihks said. “Your mother was summoned to this land as a young girl as part of a ritual? Not a… something else?”
Sadly, the local lingua franca didn’t yet possess terms like “undirected intrafacetary soul migration” or “exotic metempsychosis” in its common usage. He’d manage.
“According to her, there was an accident in a ceremony meant to summon a hero to aid the kingdom in its hour of need,” she said. What fortifying her drink had done for her took the barest hint of the edge off her attitude. If he needed to worry about alcohol affecting him, Eihks would have been in trouble challenging her to a competition of livers.
“You mean summon from someplace besides another planet, yes?”
“I mean someplace she was fond of calling ‘Saturn,’ and which had a great deal different from our little community to hear her tell it.”
Fonlat gestured with the empty cup.
“This was back in the day of the Almost War, when tensions with Fanlil were so taut that people deliberately kept their knives dull.”
The woman shook her head a little to rid herself of the nascent cobwebs.
“She had stories of different sorts of people there, and all kinds of exotic life.”
She looked at Ktsn.
“I don’t remember her saying anything about talking creatures that weren’t human,” she muttered with eyes that wandered slightly.
“Well, that’s for good reason,” Eihks said with a bit of a wry grin. “I suspect, at least.”
He met Ktsn’s eye, and frowned the corners of his mouth upward, before his hands steepled into a stolid isosceles triangle.
“When we first met, I must admit that we were guilty of some misdirection by omission. While neither I nor Ktsn are from Saturn or any place you would probably recognize, we do come from elsewhere. I think, given the circumstances, that our arrival had similarly abnormal characteristics to those of your mother’s appearance in this land.”
“Involving some sort of summoning?” Fonlat prodded, and her smile had the thinnest possible skin of inebriation.
Eihks’s hands divorced each other with eloquent helplessness. He became robotic and blandly factual.
“What I CAN tell you is that we knew of no such summoning. If anything of that stripe were going on at the time of our arrival, it was coincidence.”
An internal wince. Oh, well; it was a long sight closer to being fully candid with a facetary native than he usually managed to achieve.
“Anyway,” he added, “I can agree entirely on the subject of things being different whence we come. Some of the differences I’d call good; other parts… less good.”
He considered the woman with a light sort of more-than-academic curiosity, itching to ask her permission to draw a bit of her blood for testing and comparison against the natives. The LOCAL natives, rather. The Way preserve, but it was a bit confusing sometimes when you stumbled across a place with (relatively) frequent intrafacetary travel, or other type eight Willabarm events.
Knowing his Earth Standard history like a good little Rhaagmini human, he of course recognized the name of a planet of the Sol system. One would assume, if one were named Eihks Richard, that such indicated a human or near-human society with sufficient advancement to colonize space and leave extraterrestrial land to seek greener pastures or holding orbits or what have you. The place known as earth, or Sol three, or Terra, or insert-synonym-here had a frighteningly high recurrence in the real world. Often, it served as the cradle for homo sapiens.
Oh, wait. Maybe the current subfacetary division, whether it was a world or a plane or an entire country, actually contained the solar empire implied by a populated Saturn. That implied Fonlat’s progenitor was in fact a native of this subfacetary division as well. That might mean the ritual being described constituted a form of instantaneous transport across the mundane spatial axes, and…
But he was getting ahead of himself. The little knot of Fonlat’s hair that he’d picked up from the corner of the workshop would do nicely as a souvenir and DNA source, whatever else might happen.
“I assume you understand, then, why we might want to keep this aspect of ourselves secret,” he said, quietly pleading in his tone as he met his host’s eye.
“In some ways, I actually do,” she replied. “However, whatever your aims are, the people of Dōdielnan would probably be perfectly happy helping you achieve them after learning your origins. It would hardly be as though you were the first people called from abroad, after all. I believe you would find your treatment amicable. My mother’s was.”
A blade-sharp gesticulation at the only other woman present – discounting Tassy, of course.
“Though again, your… kasher?”
“Your karkshesh friend is unlike anything I’ve seen, and those strangers called to assist our peoples are always…”
She stroked a beard of air, eyeing him up and down.
“Yes?” he goaded.
Hmmm. Some suspicions laid to rest, others brought to life.
“She and I come from different lands, as a matter of fact,” Eihks said.
Begging Fonlat’s pardon, he ran a quick relay race of verbal catch-up with Ktsn. Happily, his partner in quasi-pedagogical crime sometimes had a mind like a sponge even without eidetic assistance. She also pushed for him to forward a couple questions on her behalf.
“And you’re still sure you don’t want-” he began to press her, as she finished feeding him questions for Fonlat.
“If I desire you to do more things to my brain, I assure you that I recall the last time you did so quite vividly. I think I will remember it quite vividly for the rest of my life. I will ask if the mood strikes.”
He sighed, swiped a digit across his forehead in resigned something-or-other.
“My companion is anxious to know about your mother’s story.”
Fonlat set her cup far outside easy reach, one hand massaging the slightly lined but firm geography of her temple. Her physical eyes closed as her mental eyes opened, and her focus traveled into the past.
Eihks sat forward, waiting for the playwright’s work to begin.
“My mother, now among the dead’s warm embrace, was named Liliansmith. She came to this land at the behest of Queen Talphir’s cabinet of learned minds. Their plan was quite simple, you see: invoke a stalwart champion to protect our people from Fanlil’s administrators.”
The woman’s tone, nearly chanting, rose and fell in sing-song time to the pendulum of an outstretched hand.
“They used an old ritual – lost to us now, with the revolution that put Goeyren on the throne – to call forth a scion of righteousness. What we do know is that they hoped to bring forth some sort of magnificent fighter. Or maybe not a fighter; maybe a seer or holder of wisdom who could ensure the Almost War remained only the Almost War.”
Her voice became embittered.
“Sadly, there was an agent of Fanlil among their number, a spiteful scoundrel named Serālep. According to the accounts Goeyren has kept, she ensured that the instructions went improperly followed at the worst possible time. When it became obvious that the ritual had successfully summoned something regardless of sabotage, Serālep intervened, and her people stole my mother away. Liliansmith had spent no more than a day in this land, and already she found herself the target of political animals. Aid to your enemies is as a knife in your back, isn’t it?”
She had her eyes closed and the merest hint of tears on her face as she paused for tattered breath. When she resumed, no hint of grief was in evidence.
“My mother managed to escape from a caravan taking her to those barbarians’ land, and wandered for several days in the wilderness. She had little skill in the arts of survival, and in perfect honesty she managed to sustain herself mostly through fortune.”
Eihks painted with all the colors of the mind’s canvas as he imagined the ordeal. A woman, clothed in the rags of what would have been suitable for a life in an orbital space station or other non-planetary environment, shivering on a butte. Every bit of her, from little fright behaviors to her half-shredded hair, seeped exhaustion from the pores. In her tight filthy left fist she held a sharp rock; the right was pressed to the improvised red-stained bandages on her hip. Her head twitched ever so slightly as she surveyed the lay of the land, seeing rivers adorned with titan grasses. Every stimulus was something to potentially fear. In the impossible distance, a thin curl of smoke beckoned her to the horizon.
“In any case, she eventually managed to encounter a supply wagon belonging to a traveling merchant. By this point, Queen Talphir’s regime had distributed some requests for information pertinent to Liliansmith’s disappearance. The merchant, a middlingly successful man named Herraan, knew this and took excellent care of her while bringing her back to the capital. Their relationship was kept largely secret.”
Fonlat’s nose scrunched up with a peculiar asymmetrical transformation.
“He was my father,” she added in a voice that mutely discounted the significance of that fact.
The thought plickens.
“Curious,” Eihks injected. “My grandfather’s name, Heran, is very similar.”
Well, Heran Dwisrol, but you people currently have a monomial naming standard, and confusing the issue by introducing the idea of last names isn’t my idea of productive.
“Really? How odd.”
When it became clear that he didn’t intend to break the stream of storytelling consciousness again, she proceeded.
“After she was returned in some small amount of glory to the care of Talphir’s cabinet, the queen managed to explain the country’s plight to her. Liliansmith was no warrior whose martial might and inspiriting personality could dissuade an engagement with Fanlil. However, she was smart enough to learn our language quite quickly, and it was her mind that buoyed up our nation in its hour of need.”
A finger rapped against the edge of the kitchen table, tracing a long oblique path across its surface.
“She’d learned many things pertaining to liquid and how it behaves over the course of her life. She educated Talphir’s people in the finer arts of plumbing. Living-water became something we could transport and employ far more easily than before. Fanlil eventually learned of our advancements, and the administrators began doing everything they could to replicate them, but they were reacting rather than instigating. Dōdielnan gained a partial position of superiority not because of a warrior, but a person who enriched through teaching.”
“Your mother probably had a very favorable reputation, then.”
“Absolutely. Talphir was once heard to remark that, were she a man, she would have taken my mother as the crown’s consort. She became known as a friend of the nation, in any case.”
Fonlat squinted an eye into her cup, maybe in the hope of crying more alcohol into it.
“She made sure to instruct Dōdielnan’s great minds in the sciences at all levels, teaching any who wished to learn. Some clarification of hydraulics and other things anybody who’s used living-water can grasp. But then she also systematized measures of pressure and temperature, and described the best ways to design dams. She helped design valves to regulate the growing aqueduct network in the capital. She introduced more efficient metal pumps. Innovations got spread around, as metallurgists began figuring out how to reuse heat and farmers improved their irrigation and boat crews were able to design better paddles. Half a hundred little things that each improved our daily life in different ways.”
Eihks propped his chin on a fist. He passed along the retelling to Ktsn in slightly reduced detail as it came.
“We kept expecting an army to march on us at any time,” Fonlat continued. “There were still hostile agents in our midst, and people did have to suffer the demands of preparing for repelling an invasion. Fanlil isn’t known for restraint. But it all remained at arm’s length, and so one newcomer managed to extend our nation’s period of official peacetime.”
Eihks thought back over his career, and those places where he had managed to be that one newcomer, managing to influence a government or nation or universe for the better in small but important ways. Then he pictured himself and Ktsn as two politicians working to break ground on a diplomatic basis, two people wearing their finest and best. He imagined them getting together, each using a stylus and a contract to better flesh out a long-term relationship for the both of them. She was an earthen creature of dedicated nourishment, he was a flaming magical beacon illuminating discovery.
It didn’t take long to decide that yes, the two of them had already picked up that stylus and contract. She’d helped him water and tend to garden plots of self-improvement, however unintentionally or incidentally. He, on the other hand, was more than happy to mentor her in the mysteries of existence, insofar as she was willing to accept such efforts. Pretty much a sinecure, if he was honest with himself.
But… the goal that the both of them had to keep front and center was to do as much good, and as little evil, as they could along their journey of discovery and learning. So he brushed the wrinkles out of his jacket, and the upper part of his bootpants. Then, he gauged Fonlat’s level of inebriation.
It was low enough for his purposes.
“I’m sorry. Things are getting off-track. This is about us, and your mother.”
Something in his mantle-deep pronouncement halted her train of thought.
When Fonlat stretched out her neck and turned to him, it was wearing the face of somebody who needed, and accepted, and would tolerate, no coddling of any sort.
All told, he was guilty of a bit too much dumbing-down and patronization. For her, for Ktsn, and for himself.
“Yes?” she replied. The sound of a teacher, soliciting a student’s viewpoint on the correlation between a species’s lifespan and time to their discovery of space travel.
“I understand what you’re saying. I mean no disrespect, and have no doubt that you’re an-”
He stopped, sighed, grimaced, and tried to get back onto the line of thinking they’d left a few minutes ago.
For some reason, human brains didn’t often do too well when simultaneously trying to make an argumentative point and also thread the needle between insulting a person’s foolishness and insulting their cynicism.
“Your mother was treated well, and I’m sure if she asked she could have gotten pretty much anything her heart desired.”
A brief pause, as he rolled around the hypothetical events that the woodworker hadn’t bothered to tell them. What she considered worth telling, and what he considered worth telling, had partial overlap.
“Tell me, though. She would have been granted almost anything. Would she have been granted the chance to go off and hide herself away from public sight? For that matter, you say she didn’t announce your existence to the world. If more of this country knew your relation to her, would they permit you to continue living quietly?”
When she didn’t immediately respond, he read the answer in her eyes.
“Here, let’s try this from a different angle. For all intents and purposes, your mother was a spur-of-the-moment miracle worker, wasn’t she?”
This time he waited, and Fonlat eventually muttered an affirmative.
“That’s… well, I couldn’t in good conscience call it BAD. After all, it solved your country’s problems, or at least mutated them into something more manageable. But I cannot imagine… erm, Liliansmith was terribly happy wearing the millstone of fame around her neck for the rest of her life. She gave your people something very valuable, and as a result she had to put up with being the single greatest authority on that something. Other capable minds, maybe even moreso than her, were out there; people didn’t want them, though. They wanted her.”
He rolled a shoulder, very distinctly not glancing at his associate.
“It’s good to be of value, but sometimes the greatest gift a person can receive is the cloak of obscurity.”
He stopped, mouth like a caught clothing zipper or touch-seal. Her gaze went flat and distant. Eihks started to say something else, then held himself back and changed it.
Don’t deceive by speaking too many words, and sowing confusion.
“Look. I’m not asking you to lie to everyone about how we’re from some unknown glen in the countryside. I’m just asking you don’t spread this around just yet, please.”
And thus, the secret-keeping circle expands from me and Ktsn, to me and Ktsn and Fonlat. And Tassy. And sharing secrets never had detrimental effects on anyone before, did it?
He tapped his fingers in a sort of tribal hand-dance as the predator huffed, got up, and turned herself around before re-seating herself.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Fonlat.
The complete sobriety in her bearing wasn’t exactly a surprise, but he would have expected at least a little bit of wobbling or weakness. Maybe the ability to control living-water came with some bodily-function perks.
“I will tell nobody what you’ve told me, if you can convince me that you’re telling me the truth,” she said, and a bit of a sly look shot from her eye like a needle aimed at a soft belly.
“You want evidence to support an unusual, difficult-to-believe claim, or you’ll spread that unusual and difficult-to-believe claim around and sabotage your own credibility.”
If Eihks sounded a bit surprised and doubtful of such reasoning, it was because HE WAS. He had an artificially-manufactured skull specifically to protect his fragile brain from virtually anything, and when his dander was up it was still far softer than his metaphorical head.
But Fonlat’s viral grin infected half of her face, as she looked up at his perplexity, and spoke of even greater obstinacy.
“Your fortune and mine are somewhat interlinked now, are they not?” she said. “Oh, I don’t think the seneschal would throw you out of the village, and then arrange an escort to the border so you could experience Fanlilite hospitality. But your unusual and difficult-to-believe circumstances aren’t quite so far-fetched in the face of your strange arrival outside of town. Covered in blood, one very tall and very pale man, and one creature the likes of which nobody here’s ever seen before.”
Her smile narrowed into a bit of a knife-twist.
“I’m asking for what’s probably a very simple favor, and it’s that or you get more scrutiny than ever thrown in your direction.”
Eihks had to admit it was the sort of almost Pyrrhic motivation that he could respect. True, he and Ktsn could always run off and start afresh elsewhere in principle. However, they already had a fresh start right here.
Oh, but this woman really WAS too stupid to be stupid. Now to see if Eihks was smarter than his landlady-cum-employer.
“What do you think?” he asked Ktsn after relaying the ultimatum.
“I say it is little more inconveniencing than what we have already done and experienced,” she said, Rhaagmini slightly bent with her odd accent. “We have invested a good deal in the path we have already taken. And besides – you have the chance to do something different now.”
She stretched out her joints, legs creaking and mouth splitting her head in some sort of yawn.
“If you wanted to see and experience new things, then how is this: taking up the challenge of working under conditions of social duress with the added influence of a companion on your little exploratory journey?”
Eihks paused, blinking. A carnivorous open-mouthed smile brought his cheeks almost up past his eyes.
“I KNEW there was a reason I thought we’d get along,” he told her.
After a brief weighing of things he had and had not seen on this globe during their stay, he arrived at one very interesting suggestion to simultaneously satisfy as many parties as possible.
“How about we do a little practice with projectile weapons this afternoon?” he probed, in a slow sly purring grate.
There was a second of a karkshesh eye lighting up like jagged electrical sky-forks, then his partner’s expression got very deliberately subdued.
“If you have no problems with it, then I will not gainsay you,” she said.
In response to their host’s questioning stare, he held up a hand, and asked, “Would you like to see something my people have used in the past to do battle at a great distance?”