“Those who follow Aiden’s call to seek peace fall into three camps: those who retreat from the world for solace, those who dismantle any serious source of strife, and those who raise common ground between foreign shores. One philosophy is effective, one philosophy is convenient, one philosophy is moral. Today we share a single characteristic with all of these: a yearning for that elusive arcanum called ‘home.’”-Dean Rooolishiib Deriree, after founding the Bequastish daughter-colony Úda
Louis felt a little fist clench in his chest, sitting next to the nice but scary monster lady.
It was odd, but even if he hadn’t been told about the tall, fuzzy, horned woman with the blue man, he might’ve guessed she was a lady; she behaved almost like the Missus in a way. She wanted him to call her “Big Sister” or “Sun,” but he could not force himself to address her directly in any case. Her teeth and jaws (and her nose, a little) made him think of a wolf, and between those large sharp white points and her eyes like coal, he felt like she might just bite him if he did anything besides sit there and listen.
His friend Sebastio talked still with the odd man called Jean, and the other strange creature that looked a bit like a rock, and the other other one which looked like those fish things that the fishmongers around Paris had called squid.
Thinking about how Paris no longer had fishmongers, or stonemasons, or Papa, made Louis feel another fist swell up behind his ribs next to the first.
When Sebastio had asked him whether he’d like the chance to find a new life at the place to which the oddly spoken dark-skinned man was going, Louis’s first thought was of the Missus and her admonishments. He’d learned about the bad things in the world at an early age, when Papa lost his brother to “that English dog’s savages in uniform.” Working under the Missus, he knew the kind of men who took extremely special interest in youths, and whose character was usually buried under the cold soot of their burned hearts. Before all the girls save Marta had left, they had told plenty of stories.
It was a sign of how bad he knew it had become in the vicinity of Paris that he, and more reluctantly, the Missus, considered the fate he was sure awaited him in Sebastio’s company an improvement over the Great Mountain. He had managed to cry a single tear after the strange tall man came back from talking with the Missus. He’d thought he’d gotten rid of them all long since.
After Louis saw Sebastio following the calamitous moments which so badly damaged the Great Mountain, though, the lad’s reaction was a fearful interest in the odd man’s sunset-colored gaze. He did not remember the man having orange eyes, though Louis supposed he might not have seen them before. That had largely reverted to startled resignation once the stranger produced a fistful of gold from… somewhere, and given it to the Missus. She’d embraced Louis like a son, her own eyes sad but unmarked by tears when she told him to be strong, and released him into Sebastio’s custody. Before the two, man and almost-man, had left the Great Mountain together, she’d also arrested the newcomer with a challenge delivered in a dead-dry croak.
“You treat that lad well, like a man, or may God damn your soul,” she’d told Sebastio, from her seat in the Great Mountain’s booth.
Sebastio’s response, nearly as dry and at least as gravid, had given Louis pause.
“May God damn me twice if I don’t,” he proclaimed, before turning and gesturing to the subject of his dealings. “Let us go, Louis. I hope you find happier times in your next home.”
It was when he’d given the younger man no fewer than twenty three gold coins, all of them without stamped faces, that Louis first wondered how he might have been mistaken about Sebastio’s intentions.
Before nightfall that day, on a wooded path moving out from the north side of the city, Sebastio had given him a strange round white button, impossibly clean, and fastened it to his filthy tunic. He told Louis that he mustn’t remove it, or else he would be in trouble. Then he’d done a short ritual of some kind, and then the two of them were still in the woods, but some quite different woods. The air smelled more like stone than forest, and the trees all waved about with striking green bark that looked like iron or maybe copper after it rusts to uselessness.
“That was very much not how I planned it,” Sebastio muttered, and seemed to glare down at his wrapped right arm. Eventually he turned to Louis, and leaned back against the side of a green-bark tree.
“Louis,” he said, “we now stand in a place a long, long way away from Paris. I cannot explain exactly how that is right here and right now.”
He crouched at a vague angle to lessen the discrepancy between head heights.
“A few things should be said, though. I’m not a witch; at least, not in the way you use the word. However, many of the people we’ll see in this place may resemble odd creatures or even demons.”
Louis was unsure of how to respond to a person suddenly revealing that they possessed the soul of a madman, but he nodded anyway. Marie and Marta – the two girls who had always been nice to a strange sad boy – gave well-meaning advice to him for many circumstances as he’d gotten older. Don’t take money without checking it first. Close doors nearly all the way, unless privacy is required. He wished they’d mentioned something about dealing with crazy people.
Sebastio kneaded at his eyes’ orbits.
“I know how I must sound, but just hold on before making decisions on my sanity. We’re going to be staying not far from here for the next four days, and then I’ll be taking you to a friend for a little while. A very good friend.”
Sebastio knelt, and those eyes, no longer blue but orange, seemed to be pleading with Louis.
“You’re not a fool, Louis, but this needs to be said: please, please try to act like you’re doing nothing out of the ordinary while we’re here. If you don’t, I may get in trouble, and certain people may try to send you back to Paris.”
“Because they don’t think I should bring you with me.”
Louis looked around, and stared in wonder at a large strange bird. No, not a bird; it had wings, but it also had a tail like a snake, and its horsey face drooped like a stocking as it looked back. It made the sound of a baby stuck in the depths of a dry quarry, a sound which somehow made him smell old paint and think of a teal sunset, then alit and soared off.
“Why is you doing this with me?” the French youth asked.
Those lips bent into a smile of sorts.
“Because I’m not a good man, but I hope to do some good things. Maybe, just maybe, you can be given a little piece of good as well. You had enough bad for any number of people, and you deserve better. I suspect you’ll live a short and unpleasant life if you remain in Paris.”
“Sir?” Louis felt each word sinking into his brain like an arrow. As they pierced and went through, his comprehension leaked out and down to his feet.
“Please,” said the taller figure, “either call me Sebastio, or call me brother.” Another smile, more honest but also sad. “Do you have a real brother?”
“Hmmm. Well, now you do.”
And for four days, he and Sebastio ate little blocks of fruity and meaty cheese, staying in a forest cabin located somewhere called Bikst, or something like that. Most of the time Louis spent whittling sticks from the strange trees into shapes he never would have thought of before meeting his… brother. The taller man didn’t seem to be doing much, mostly pacing and sitting on his large bed when he wasn’t inquiring after his companion’s well-being, but Louis had the sense he was invisibly engaged in something. He noticed Sebastio never took off the cloth around his right arm.
Sometimes, they had played a game with squares of bright material and dice, which had rules far too extensive and metastasized for Louis to completely grasp. Sebastio claimed he had at best an amateur’s ability in the game, which he called Grediwe, and wasn’t engaged overmuch. The distraction of the larger man meant Louis eventually lost easily instead of catastrophically. However, it seemed fun.
During the time spent there, a period in which the French youth never felt inclined to leave, about a dozen people came by the cabin, talking quickly in a language Louis didn’t know. At least, some were people; others were things Louis couldn’t fathom or even describe. One was a big yellow and brown and see-through square that hurt his eyes to look at, but the other man told him it was just as much a person as either of them. Then again, all Sebastio had done with the thing was wave some sticks around and smack them together like a drummer. The thing had gone back into the alien woods after making grunts like shattering flowerpots. Louis had yet to be convinced that Sebastio was less than crazy, but if he was, then they both were.
In spite of sights and sounds and smells Louis had never before imagined, the thing to which his mind kept returning most often was that tiny and alien idea: brother.
Until this very moment, that idea had been a latent seed, unwilling to grow. Now, he glanced between “Big Sister” and the gaggle of odd people surrounding them, all talking in equally odd French. He stared at the thing coming out of the dark-skinned man’s right arm, transfixed. The object seemed to be a sword of some kind. It was obviously not supposed to be there, and Louis had a strong suspicion that he should feel repulsed by the sight. While he was uneasy, it did not feel repulsive when he glanced at that unnatural addition.
“What are your goals, Mr. Artaxerxes?” That was the man Jean, with the mask and the red-and-silver skin. Louis thought he might be a priest of some kind, since whenever he spoke, everyone stopped and listened, like he read from holy scripture.
Sebastio, standing in a circle of furniture like a tree in a fairy’s ring, turned to the speaker. “I hope to find or make a home for those in need, whether they’re taken from their original dwelling like the Gegaunli karkshesh or like my friend Louis-”
He momentarily looked to the French native, those mismatched orange eyes burning.
“-they have little that could be called life and less to make it worth living. I’m through and done with people like the thugs in Rhaagm’s badlands and Niall Bennosuke designing the quality of life for those who don’t have the agency or warning to protest.”
The squid-thing said in a bubbly fish voice, “To extract natives and bring them through Bequast is not unlawful.”
The orange eyes moved to the curving row of white creatures behind Jean.
“No,” he said, “it’s not.”
“… Yet, not unreasonably, you must expect resistance. The Ganymedes will hesitate to exhaust political capital at first. Some shall do so, of course, and those hoping to alloy cooperatives among the Council of Books will take action sooner rather than later.”
Louis watched the squid-thing’s hooded face. The person’s French rolled pleasantly except for the bubbly sound-below-the-sounds. Even so, half the words might as well have been German. Would even a scholar know what “exhaust political capital” meant? And what were Ganymedes?
“We’re discussing a single rescue case, here.” Sebastio glared at the blue and green figure. “I have little enough faith in the Bookers’ initiative on topics as clear-cut as modifying… uh, ‘spirit groups?’” He rubbed his nose, mouth slashed in a half smile above the orange artery climbing his neck. “You know what I mean. Modifying laws about allowing or denying permission for using them. That says nothing about the lethargy of the more local powers that be. The point is, one civilian sets precedent. But does precedent immediately write law?”
“Precedent writes at a speed proportional to the influence of its champions,” replied the crablike person called the Parrot. “She” was easily the shortest creature present, and obviously quite respected. Her French flowed more smoothly and sounded more normal than that of the others. “Consider: before Fallow Srid, our leadership cared about the Beings of Old that made this city, but officially refrained from endorsing study of them. After Fallow Srid’s denouncement and deposition by the very city he ruled, the Archives dedicated to the Olds got funding from that fractious lot called the Council of Books in less than two days. Two days.”
Sebastio looked down at the beastly head terminating his right arm. “If your intent is to draw attention to my addition, that reasoning-”
Louis cowered reflexively when a rolling rain of crashes sounded below, and most of those present peered down in the direction of the source. His back hunched to better ward off an unmalicious but painful blow he expected for clumsiness or some equal failing. That the disturbance wasn’t his fault influenced the reaction not at all.
A grumbling snort squeezed out of the massive blue bald man as a blade might slip from under a novice blacksmith’s hand after hours of hammering. Sitting on Big Sister’s right side on the couch, Louis could see only part of the man’s profile when he leaned around. That part was a squinting eye, a nose, and some clenched teeth. Flat discolored flesh ran in a turgid river from the visible nostril to the chin.
“Cha-ah du oom koss,” he muttered, or something like it. “She always has more difficulty with type three events than type twos, and yet she insists on interacting with objects instead of people.”
“Do you want me to have a talk with her later?” asked Big Sister, turning toward the huge man.
“No, it is probably that visitor you met earlier pestering her for more food. I told you that they are obsessed with bread?”
“Regardless of what you might have implied, you said nothing of the sort.”
“Ah. Well, now you have been told.”
Sebastio glanced over at the couch, from Big Sister to the blue man to Louis. He blinked a few times. After his lips pressed together hard, the dark skinned man continued.
“Your reasoning indicates, if anything, that my whims will be treated like law. Publicizing efforts to act as surrogate to the needy should be embraced at my endorsement.”
Jean put the flats of his hands together like he was about to pray. He spoke lower and more slowly, maybe trying to soothe Sebastio.
“Understand, good citizen: you now represent an elemental force, with all the respect that implies. The undeniable fact that you foiled Niall Bennosuke’s sour ambition-” Here, he dipped his head toward the sword-that-was-not-a-hand. “-should secure you the goodwill of many. In the minds of others, you’re the same villain they previously feared… just wearing a different face.”
Jean tilted sideways, extended a hand sideways, and looked sideways at one of the curious silent white figures behind him in a wending line.
“Think upon how you might react in such circumstances: an imposing maybe-conqueror crosses the horizon in possession of a great force. He announces an effort that he calls humanitarian, which entails ushering in an unknown quantity of foreigners. These people need sustenance and shelter; the former proves a trivial requirement in our city, and the latter daunts the hardiest of political animals. Even if this warrior newcomer shrieks promises of peace from the hills, you cannot help but contemplate just how easy it would be for him to menace everything you hold dear. And before you argue, contemplate your obviously profound motivations. What might you do if those in authority flatly refuse to either evict people or to set up a whole new district of the city so your specially favored followers might have a place to call home?”
The red and silver skin of the man flexed under the flameless lights.
“Not matter how good your intentions, the division over the unknowns buried in those intentions will be as long as it is bitter, and very long at that.” He rolled his head about his neck, glancing at Louis. The Parisian didn’t know what to say. It was obvious that Jean was not entirely supportive of the idea of Sebastio adopting him, or whatever it was called. What was there to do? Deliver an impassioned and reasoning speech defending himself? Louis was barely a man, let alone an orator.
The dark-skinned man at the gathering’s center lifted the toothsome creature’s head capping his long right arm.
<Be that as it may, my bearer wishes to discuss alternative futures that do not hinge upon this city’s gentry.>
The French youth felt himself staring at some invisible manifestation of the voice crawling from the dark-skinned man’s mouth. He subtly drew his feet up to the edge of the couch, not noticing either the way he leaned toward Big Sister or the way her perfect onyx eyes expanded in tandem with his own. The sound, somehow, brought to mind the legs of a chair sliding across the floor.
Was that the sword speaking?
With an incinerating glower aimed downward, Sebastio’s shiny beastly new head was put forward at Jean as though to shake hands.
“May I introduce,” growled the standing man as his stare morphed into a chiding distaste, “the thing named Malumortis, called Caladhbolg by most people.”
The shining metallic face twisted like a snarling hound.
“Malumortis, ‘Death-is-preferred.’ Fascinating.” Jean leaned closer, his rock-red hand bracing his chin.
“Yes. It’s the reason that some of the scouting party in Paris resorted to using their ‘spirit groups’ when Count began showing very flashily how effective it is at ending lives. For the record, I consider their decision fully justified.” Sebastio sounded disgusted, if Louis was interpreting his manner accurately.
“Those involved with your adventure will receive special dispensations,” Jean answered while looking toward the squid person. “No matter how many people need to be convinced.”
The Parrot made a clicking chirp, shifting on her seat. Her red feather hung swaying like the head of a wary snake.
“Excuse me… Malumortis. You can answer particular questions of ours, yes? A very bright colleague of ours cannot join us at this moment – but he would die of frustration if we did not take advantage of the opportunity you represent.”
A silence dripping with unspoken words.
<My bearer and I have come to a consensus – if permitted by my governors, curiosity will be satisfied.>
“Also,” the man to whom the sword was attached added, “it would be nice to keep things quick, even if verbose. While it’s not painful, precisely, ‘speaking’ for two feels like a pair of shiver knives trying to cut each other at the same time. Not very fun, and my intuition suggests someone will be bleeding if things go horribly wrong.”
Louis then lost the thread of conversation. He tried to listen, but his utter unfamiliarity with topics like “partial personhood” or someone they called the Maker made any effort to puzzle out meaning a disheartening and futile gesture.
“What is going to happen to Sebastio now, Big Sister?” Louis somehow managed to squeeze out the question past the petrified muscles of his throat. The horned almost-white shape bent a little, looking down at Louis. The tall form gave off an odor a bit like pine tar. He had a sudden terror soaked image of those talonlike hands grabbing him and pulling him apart. Instead, she made a small noise between a goose honk and the snort of a horse.
“I do not know, Louis.”
For something surely almost as strong as Louis’s Papa, she sounded surprisingly gentle, and sad.
The young man spun back when Sebastio answered, having transitioned to immediately in front of his couch.
“Nothing will happen to me here, Louis.” Those unearthly orange eyes chewed up tension and digested it into some unidentifiable peace. Those lips, crowning a braided beard which was both clean and fraying a bit at its edge, were not smiling, but not frowning. “In large part, that is because I will not be here an hour from now.”
Louis inhaled harshly at what could have been the roar of a thousand kine in pain, coughed, and through his teary eyes saw the blue man leaning forward. Bracing himself on a knee, the man was still taller than Louis standing, though not as much as Big Sister. Whereas she reminded him a bit of a wolf or a boar, fierce but not truly warlike, the blue man made Louis recall those tales he’d heard from Papa, of the crazed warriors from far north – beyond France and the edge of the world – who would rip arm and leg from both friend and foe in the heat of battle. The Titan was, Sebastio had said, as close a friend as he’d ever known.
He also failed to hide a volcanic temper.
“You think you can just run away again without so much as a ‘Hi?’ That we never wondered how you were doing? If you were even alive? No, of course not – Artaxerxes up and takes off after his crazy vampire ‘friend,’ see you later. No ‘Bye, Father’ or ‘Bye, Francis’ after you made up your mind.”
“Would it have made things easier?” Sebastio sounded amused, glancing across his shoulder at the huge man.
“It would have meant a chance to hollow out your overstuffed ego with a hurt spike,” came the gravelly response. The huge man wanted to punch Sebastio, judging from his posture. Louis guessed that a punch from a person of his size would put a horse on the ground.
“I know. You’ll get the opportunity soon enough.”
Sebastio glanced over at Jean.
“Once Pennat Gate falls.”
For the instant it took Louis to realize he didn’t recognize the name, the room was stable yet. Then a commotion overtook the gathering of tense people, and the shouting began with the loud exclamation from the Parrot, “You cannot possibly be serious!”
“On the contrary,” said the orange-eyed man in a tense voice, “I am completely serious.”
“A person who has gone and shown the apparent disdain for rule of law that you have displayed-” the rocklike person began, then pulled up short a moment later.
“I JUST WANTED TO KEEP THIS OUT OF THE HANDS OF A murderer!” shrieked Sebastio, but his voice dropped off a cliff at the last word.
He brandished the sword thing, and to the distress of apparently everyone except Jean and the squid-person, a family of tiny lightning bolts began snapping out along its length. With a shudder, he brought the metal back down to his waist, and his whole body shook for but an instant. He rubbed at his forehead vigorously, and the shaking slowly decreased. Moments later, the lightning abated as well.
“Unacceptable misuse of such privileges,” remarked the squid person.
“Legal, if not popular,” answered Jean, very precise and put-upon. “A plain Rhaagm citizen can hold a place in the Lords’ governance without need for special standing within the Parsed City-State.”
“Attainment to a seat of power in Yrdky could provide fodder as ‘legitimate cause’ in stripping someone of Rhaagm citizenship, though,” the Parrot replied, a bit more quietly. “It could be taken as many ways as one might possibly imagine.”
“… I suppose it could,” came from Sebastio. He was staring at the strange white creatures behind Jean. His teeth ground against each other.
“Wait just a moment, now.” said the huge blue man, before he stood. Some part of Louis’s brain noted that he could probably pitch a hay cart as far as Louis could pitch a rock.
“Are you going to just judicially seal the rest of a civilian’s life away behind foreign borders?”
Francis didn’t sound mad anymore. He sounded sad, and a bit like how Louis probably sounded when he’d asked the Missus whether she’d have to leave like Papa too.
“They will do what they have to do.”
Louis couldn’t tell which person had replied. Maybe it was none of them. No response was forthcoming.
Then, his newly minted brother stood beside him. Louis heard the tall dark man murmuring.
“I’ll see you again soon, Louis. Like I mentioned to you when we were in Bequast, I need to leave for a little. No more than four or five days at most, I think. Stay with Big Sister and Francis for now, alright?”
“Ah… A-alright…” Louis felt tears creeping to the precipice of his eyes, suddenly and unwantedly.
“They’re good people, and like family to me.” That rounded nose twisted at some unscented foul odor, as the orange eyes flicked to the squid thing. Somehow the creature made it clear that it stared at the blade in Sebastio’s flesh, and secreted an aura of moderated menace. Those bright eyes moved back.
“Listen carefully to them, except – you’ve had talks about how men and women… love each other, yes?”
Louis didn’t say anything; his dour expression stiffly reasserted the fact of his having worked in a glorified whorehouse for years. Sebastio blinked several times quickly.
“That was not a question that needed asking. Whatever Francis tells you about that, though, just ignore him.”
That mouth frowned suddenly.
“Louis,” Sebastio stated, “I’ll see you again in a very short time.”
“What is you going to do, si – Sebastio?”
The French youth saw muscles tense, and that beastly head bent into a fist as though made of flesh.
“I’m going to win a kingdom,” said the tall dark man, “and you’ll know what it means to be royalty.”
“Is that what you truly want, Mr. Artaxerxes?”
Jean’s lips bore downward in a broken moon.
Sebastio managed, somehow, to don a thin smile. He locked eyes with Big Sister.
She didn’t smile back, and yet Louis thought they shared some kind of memory. When he spoke again, Louis’s friend sounded less than calm, but controlled.
“What I want, venerable sir, is a hoop-hook glove, and your opinion on Tuoamas Pennat’s level of interest in the Maker’s legacy. On… whether he might be amenable to a highly unusual wager.”
Louis didn’t remember much of the rest of the gathering. Afterward, he was led by Big Sister to an exotic room roughly the size of a barn, and told to make himself at home. Large bits of furniture hunched about like strange sleeping hounds, and were almost certainly not dangerous. In a moment of oddly situated lucidity he realized his thoughts had become divorced from his person.
So much confusion and indecision boiling up from the last several days made him sleepy, it seemed. He clambered onto what he was assured was in fact a bed, moments before his eyes locked themselves shut.
He missed his new friend who called him brother, and he missed the people of the brothel where he’d eaten and slept for years of his young life. He was unsure which tugged at him most strongly.