“The question of morality is not simply about what ends one considers just enough for one’s means, but also about the distinction of means as ends in and of themselves.”-Gealag mun Lingi mun Dolaph munnin Deddsi the Grand, Strategy and Tactics in the Mastery of Grediwe
The first day, there had been the simulation contract.
The third day, an unexpected visit threw things into disarray.
The eighth day, thirty percent extra got piled on top of the up-front payment.
The twentieth day, a lengthy discussion of engineering edge cases side-tracked development.
The fifty first day, the human client hinted at a different kind of interest.
The hundred and tenth day was today.
Today, a hundred and ten days since Seroku Adz Tataki Ba’fus had first met a peculiar human seeking design talent, the udod aodod was sitting down before the human, as capable of semantic elegance as a brained baby. The identity of said person had been kept cloistered behind a borrowed identity, but that veil’s creator had just torn it away in dramatic fashion.
The man in question was none other than Lord Sebastio Artaxerxes, arguably the most discussed person… well, anywhere, for the past half of a year. Adz had heard countless anecdotes of his being cruel and forgiving, hasty and patient, distant and familiar. The fact that he was the udod aodod’s liege – seeing as the town of Crying Falls followed Pennat Gate whenever the estate pulled up stakes for migration – made distinguishing between witness and hearsay not the slightest bit easier.
However, his legacy already included more informational material than the first decade of his predecessor. The man’s nearly manic production of records, from personal sensories of conversations and meetings with the nobility to a documentary on the facetary origin of his adopted sibling Louis, had at first indicated a person desperate to bury their mistakes under a flood of output. Many critics found themselves neatly hamstrung as Sebastio proceeded to publish memoranda in which he carefully outlined some of his greater blunders. He laid plans to prevent himself or anyone else from such gaffes again.
Then he had to go and suggest marriage.
Adz looked down. The udod aodod stood more than double the human’s height, even with its ears flat against its head. Resting on a chair growing out of his arm, its Lord retained his middle nobility disguise everywhere except for his face and the substrate flowing from his shoulder to form the elegant seat on the floor.
“Are you… well, Lord?” Its eyefibers covered its eyespots until only pores peeked out. Embarrassment, disbelief, a prickling of affection where a human might have felt disgust or indignation. Some indignation to be sure (a lot actually), but that was because of the deception, not… ahem.
The human gazed over his shoulder, out the foyer’s impressive lakeview window. He was genial enough, xenial enough, though the udod aodod felt a breath away from deflagration.
“My condition has granted me something like strong immortality, not the weak immortality we all enjoy thanks to cellular perfection and the prevalence of re-lifing stations.”
An idle careless-seeming wave.
“I cannot be truly unwell.”
“Then, you are s-”
“I am quite sure,” he said, interrupting with a voice like a bar of steel heated to a point of softness. Not unkind, but not extremely patient either.
He stood, gauging Adz like an engineer might gauge the effect of a dark generator on its local gravity well. The pseudo-biological mass writhed and then subducted into the arm once more, leaving the small foyer of eSsonnss Architecture one chair shorter.
“Oh, do get up!” he said, after a short sigh. “This is no less discomforting for me than it is for you, I assure you.”
Adz awkwardly obeyed, left leg-cables knotted a bit from doing the equivalent of kneeling. It had not been genuflection in the sense a human might think, more a surprised vacation of one’s vital energies. It jerked a tad, when its supporting limbs unevenly faltered. Actually, it nearly fell flat on its face.
A tattooed woman in the hunting attire of a Duchess abruptly seemed to fold next to the Lord. Human looks being what they were, Adz had no firm idea if she was attractive, bland, or even ugly.
Sebastio immediately waved a placating hand.
“Argyva, please assist the others now that the ruse is up. If Bark is still in position, he probably wants some help doing a final check for vulnerabilities to standard weapons fire.”
At the woman’s pursing of her lips, he sighed again. Longer, this time. His right hand extended, and the fingers merged into an axe. Along its face coiled scenes of warriors doing disorganized battle on their way toward the cutting blade. The edge of the thing had the shimmer of a destabilizer construct, but it… smelled wrong.
“You are an exceedingly smart woman,” he enunciated, suddenly putting on the conceit of any Ninth Step noble sparring in the debate halls. “You certainly know how long it would take me to destroy every sign this settlement even existed, if I needed to defend myself.”
He tilted the axe, a feigned interest in its precise thickness. It was very, very sharp.
The woman saluted and left through the glass-elm entryway arcade without ever having opened her mouth.
Adz considered the man once again. His body was back to normal, and he’d finally done away with his disguise. Woven garments and a few ceremonial articles draped his form. He cut as acceptable a figure as one might ever witness in the estates or their territories. Only the right side of him betrayed his nature.
“Sadly, my idealized abstention from normal politicking has proven… troublesome. As a result, I require, or strongly want, a partner who can act as co-ruler, who is unafraid of speaking their mind.”
He shook with repressed mirth.
“You made your opinion of my attainment of my lofty rank wonderfully clear! ‘An effective and theatrical stunt’ indeed.”
He looked up, appraising the udod aodod.
“If you choose to accept my hand in marriage, that is the kind of forthrightness I would ask.”
Choose to accept.
With the differences in their respective kinds, Adz knew that they understood serious courtship on fundamentally incongruent bases. Udod aodod entered into a relationship only when both prospects mutually voiced an interest, usually while breaking bread. Humans, being asymmetrical in their pairings like much of sentient life, tended to see one party or the other as the initiator in many respects.
But it was the prerogative of a Lord to observe that baffling social construct known as the arranged marriage. The beneficiaries of the arrangement could be as random or premeditated as desired. Yet, Adz had an offer instead of a duty, a choice instead of a directive, which did not sit easily. One did not survive long in places like Crying Falls without developing a cynical sense for favors owed and purchased.
“Tarry as you please on your adjudication.”
Sebastio evidently read some amount of its embarrassingly visible concern. That stretchy emotive face suddenly grew a grin, shallow and yet wide enough to eat one of Adz’s digits.
“It would hardly do for me to gain a prurient and wanton reputation in addition to my well-known wrothful disposition, immaturity, fits of madness, and gluttony for all things unspeakable.”
Adz’s leg-cables began to twine with humor, but with force of will alone they were halted mid-motion. It didn’t want to like this man.
“You enjoy crippling those with whom you have dealings?” it demanded, harshly. The winding twists and needless obfuscations of the nobility’s dialogue were things for which udod aodod were not suited. Nonetheless, it would make the attempt at fighting this Lord with words.
“Do you consider all compliments as poison-thorned flowers?” he retorted.
“Evidently the Lord of Pennat Gate must avert his fears with evasions.”
“The people of Crying Falls have a wonderfully candid speech about them,” he replied. A very mild insult, or a consolation? In either case a placation, an attempt at defusing.
“A very strange man, to visit and ask for marriage, and then treat the betrothed-to-be as a danger.”
“Swords need whetstones,” Sebastio Artaxerxes pronounced very carefully.
And just what was that supposed to mean? An extremely cursory allusion, or some codified response to confluences of context Adz simply could not see? It had had enough anyway.
“You want me to swoon over your obviously considerate and charming nature, like some… moonstruck girl?”
Sebastio’s grin vaporized. The non-human eye glittered like a coin bounding down into a black hole, stretching into a refined shiny infinity. For a terrible instant Adz feared he would do what he’d done to that elf woman.
“Beasts take me, no!”
His voice was filled with what Adz recognized as sadness, not anger. It had the sound of a monk ascended to the highest mountaintop, speaking and listening for echoes. The udod aodod realized it had been hearing thin threads of that same hermetism since the Lord first came to it in disguise.
“First, you are an udod aodod, not a girl. Second, I have quite enough people moonstruck around me lately, and it is part of the reason for this kind of arrangement. Third, if you begin swooning, it will not only fly in the face of your character, but it will also remove you from candidacy effective immediately.”
The grin returned, peeking out from a thicket of eclectic thoughts.
“So far I have one young soul who thinks the world of me. When I told you of my adopted little brother Louis, I spoke truth, but much also remained left out.” Lords did not often permit themselves wistful expressions, but one floated recognizably along the man’s bearing. “For example, how quickly I would do all I have done again for him, and all other washed or otherwise inconvenienced people of the gem. And yet I find myself lacking in crucial ways which he is unsuited to fill. Few nobles who share my vision wholeheartedly. A famine of confidants.”
Adz pointedly stared at the right side of the human’s form, following the very subtle seam on the one side of his face. He sighed, and poked at the glistering jewel that protruded from his artificial hand like the prettiest tumor in the world. The designer’s eyespots opened flat against its face when the next words came from the same mouth, but a different speaker. Of course, the phenomenon of the Lord’s other side was well-known from the several speeches published by his body’s cohabitant on the subject of its refrain from exercising agency independent of the newest Lord of Pennat Gate. Yet hearing it in person was something else.
<Not without companions, and yet we… it is hard to describe. We are distinct entities, but our accident caused us to blur a little in our manifest forms, and we have adopted many of each others’ characteristics. Now, we differ like humans who are twins differ.>
Adz had seen its share of identical siblings, an utterly alien concept to the udod aodod before they had been introduced to extrafacetary society. Twins could arise in other races, of course, but watching human twins always struck a beautiful and haunting chord. The riotous individualism of humans so completely set aside in appearance, and often attitude, gave one all kinds of pause.
“An extremely interesting offer,” conceded Adz eventually.
Sebastio suddenly hid his face, mocking joy coming through his words like rain through a sieve.
“As interesting as when that pompous lady from Nor’ridge interfered during your New Year’s tenshe? At least I have not tried to weasel a complimentary simulation of my eldest daughter out of you by diverting business to your rivals!”
Adz’s eyespots closed up instantly.
“I never should have mentioned that.”
“If you had not,” the human mused aloud, “I would not know about how deeply you strive for superlative performance in yourself and your peers. I would not know about your love of competition. I would not know you for a person willing to talk back to those surpassing your authority, nominal or otherwise. Those things I crave.”
A rubbing of the mouth, meaning unknown.
“Those things,” he added in a voice as gentle as silk while looking up at it, “are as beautiful as sunset over Úda’s stele pagodas.”
For a moment, Adz could see the human accompanying it on the semi-sacred game hunt-and-not-hunt that was an udod aodod’s tenshe. He didn’t have the leg-cables to give a boar pursuit in the traditional manner, but he would certainly keep up all the same.
His divided mouth reshaped into a sine wave, and his attention diverted from Adz so violently it wondered briefly that his neck didn’t snap.
“Forgive me,” he said more softly. “You do deserve to know – you were not actually my first choice from this settlement. However, I would like to know more about you, Adz. Maybe talk about the great athletes of Crying Falls and the surrounding area.”
Adz’s nostrils flared, remembering the eccentric love of hoop-hook in a noble as a pleasant surprise the first time its disguised client had broached the subject of sports. The fact that he didn’t have the good taste to follow the elite maypoling echelons of the area did arise from a moral failure of character. Adz supposed such defects could be forgiven. Eventually.
Sebastio chinned the udod aodod’s arm – forward bordering on scandalous given their legal status in relation to each other – and Adz stiffened until he pulled back again, though he took his time. “Regrettably, I must leave presently. Take ca-”
Like the axe into which the Lord had metamorphosed his limb was the edge of his fractured thought. With tilted eye and straightened spine, he swung about to greet the human male who had just walked into eSsonnss Architecture.
“Good day, Lord,” said the mustached figure, in Rhaagmini colored with a thick Ilsabal Square accent. It was dark and starkly shadowed beneath a tall hat, and carried a jacket under one arm. Upon removing his hat to show a bald shining head, the man genuflected with a bare hint of sincerity. As he rose, the man revealed a streak of interpolation paper in one fist, holding it forth like the holiest of sacrament.
“I’m Hereld Upswitch, a friend.”
It took a decent time for Adz navigate the mental udod aodod acrobatics of such an abrupt change of topic. From farewells and speculation on future altercations to a false salutation and… something else. Humans had difficulty with innately factoring semiprime numbers higher than a million; udod aodod had difficulty with switching cortical contexts.
Society told many tales told of a person, upon meeting another, somehow knowing with deepest conviction an evil intent within the other’s heart. Adz had long given them a cursory doubtful speculation at best. Now, it realized, it would have a tale in that vein of its own.
Sebastio’s own Rhaagmini made him sound like he was chewing rocks, and that he hoped Upswitch’s head was among them.
“Hello, Hereld. I’m surprised my armsmen let you through to the building.”
The man’s expression fell, a perfect actor’s best performance.
“Ah… I must have come through without running into their perimeter.”
Those orb-shaped human organs had infinitely more welcome in them than those of the Lord, and they still could have been replaced with glass marbles and leave none the wiser.
Sebastio sniffed. It was an eloquent sound in its brevity and derision.
“Really? Fascinating. Now, please, excuse me. I’ve certain business elsewhere.”
Adz noticed how its Lord stroked his long braided beard. Somehow, he gave off an air of one recently gifted with the talent of foresight; a person who had been introduced to their present circumstances, and the most likely outcomes, days in advance.
Upswitch’s mustache twitched, a symbiotic pet scouting the topography of a face.
“Lord Artaxerxes, I’ve got something f-”
“If you have something for me, show it and remain blissfully silent, or tell it and remain blissfully silent.”
“… You’re quite direct, Lord.” That abominable mustache bent to follow a slimy grin.
“The last person to announce they had a gift for me in a public setting had her entire dermal layer removed after she tried to kill me. Let me tell you something: I implied to her, and my estate, that such was the worst punishment I could contrive at the time. I LIED.”
From its vantage, the udod aodod noticed a twitch in the newcomer.
Upswitch glanced at Adz, the manner of a man evaluating the worth of a head of cattle.
I hope he is to be found wandering the wilderness on the next tenshe I undertake, and if so I will not just chase him for sport. I will not just pursue him for several kilometers, either.
Adz felt mildly surprised at itself. Animosity fell into the realm of the noisomely familiar for most designers of directed simulation consumables. Clients who traded good sense for indulgent requirement specifications tended to excel at drawing out ill will. Actual bloodthirst, now…
“I’ve brought you a suggestion of a happy sort. A much better gift than your last – recommendations on suitable partners upon whom to lean your dynasty’s future, Lord.”
The man caressed his paper like a newborn, holding it out to Sebastio with a more genuine smile.
“I bring this from others, infinitely better suited than you or I at foretelling whatever the future may hold, who wish to see you content.”
There was a creak, like a freight ship settling under its own weight. Adz followed the sound and saw the Lord’s right fist, clenched and still.
“I witheringly disagree. I don’t know the actual identities of the special people whom you serve, but I’ve got an inkling of their nature. Their thoughts are in my thoughts regularly, and I hope that my choices run as far counter to their desires as possible.”
“You surely don’t mean that.”
“Fairweather friends are one thing. The creatures you pledge to serve are quite another. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve my fill of Olds for the time being.”
Of a sudden, a silence swaddled the Lord. His hairs began to rise from his skin. Adz felt that oracle of the fall of lightning: a synesthesia of change in pressure and electrical charge.
“Now, get out.”
The man fidgeted, then quickly dropped his interpolation paper before Sebastio, sweeping his hat from his head and tipping it at Adz.
“Remember, then, that those I serve only wish you to be happy.”
He pointed at the paper once more.
“Good day, Lord.”
The newcomer gave a simpering salute.
“Good riddance,” responded the other man with a tone Adz had once before heard come from a human, following a squawk’s deposit of droppings on her scalp.
Flashing a painted grin, the man quickly retreated. It was the slowest sprint the udod aodod had ever witnessed in a human.
The Lord folded his arms, frowning after the… person.
“My armsmen are all intact, but for some reason the idea of an interloper getting past them, without generating alerts about folding usage, is causing a bit of a manhunt.”
The Lord yawned slightly, showing the many small irregularly shaped things that humans had for teeth, instead of neatly arcing plates.
“For some reason they also want me to stay put.”
A long silent stretch, filled with heartbeats and the sound of Adz’s leg-cables sliding over each other. Then, the human stepped on the interpolation paper hard enough to leave a pattern of his shoe on the material, picked it up, and ripped it in two.
“When I first came to you and explained that my design project focused on recreating the battle behind the recent acquisition of Pennat Gate,” Sebastio observed eventually, “that was the first time I ever saw you get really worked up. At first I thought it must’ve been because of the… well, distraction. I’m sorry again for coming unannounced, by the way.”
Because I am udod aodod, Adz heard. Not to offend particularly, which was fine. It didn’t take that kind of offense easily. With some further difficulty it mentally switched topics, trying to follow the slower yet far more nimble human brain.
“But it’s become more clear with time that you – as the naufer saying has it – admitted breeze, when you complained about the new Lord being an occasional idiot. An occasional idiot with a bit of engineering background, but idiot nonetheless.”
He watched the sky as though in augury, past the towering green-and-black Bokov tree through the glass section of the small building’s roof.
“I’m a lightning bug rather than lightning, and all lightning bugs need a mate, a partner, if they’re ever going to shine bright. Damn that Hereld and his Old masters, but I’d very much like to see you play the part – completely regardless of spitting in the face of their machinations.”
Sebastio gave a small snort and a small shining grin.
“Of course, only if you’re amenable.”
His forehead met his palm and smeared his smile into a grimace.
“Sorry,” he added, switching back to Yrdkish, “my manners stand up to only the meanest and most forgiving scrutiny at times.”
“No, no, Lord,” Adz reassured him in the Parsed City-State’s tongue, unsure of whether its actual aim lay in reassuring itself. “Rhaagmini is fine!”
“Fine? Hardly,” its Lord replied, switching languages again guiltily, “but…”
He looked about as though to check for eavesdroppers.
“Being totally honest, there’s something one really doesn’t realize they’re giving up until they start making small talk at meals in a language without contractions.”
Reflex was the worst imaginable traitor, and reflexive hilarity doubly so. Reflexive hilarity, in fact, made Adz’s leg-cables twine so thoroughly it was tipping barely a second later. Right onto Sebastio Artaxerxes.
The Lord’s weapon-limb sprayed outward. It extended flagella like so many molten rivets, fanning into a slightly angled cupola. He carefully and gently caught the udod aodod, then picked it up without saying a word. He seated Adz on one of the undecorated couches, a hundred lightning-forked tendrils flexing and breathing as they pulled back.
“Let me think,” said Sebastio. Freed of the designer’s burden, he sat with deliberation. Adz hastily pushed itself over to make room.
“Note that you’ve adopted my troubles, in some measure, by dint of owing me fealty. But if you take a place by my side, you’ll invite monumentally greater attention from certain people best classified as forces of nature. People like those I’m sure that Hereld Upswitch indirectly assists.”
Two halves of an interpolation paper crumpled in a knotted fist.
“People you wouldn’t want as enemies,” continued the Lord, eyes suddenly emitting a glow.
<People who are far older and more cunning than is easily explained,> interjected a slightly altered Rhaagmini voice. <The Maker, of course. But others as well. Target. Poacher. Thomas the Librarian. Comedian East.>
Names that gave chills to those who had seen their monuments in Ilsabal Square.
And then the voice kept going. Names that Adz had never before heard. Names that bespoke shattered husks of facets and pristine Edens and tales not meant for the retelling.
<Alsuph. Ms. Nightjar. Saint. Dry-man. Yawning Kris. Shogun North. Metatronus. The Gray Boatman. Dice. MerCadesa.>
Adz’s eyefibers pressed against its face so hard they felt flattened. Its breathing had almost stopped.
“Are you sure,” asked Sebastio, “that you want to get involved with creatures of that sort? Because I am now a pawn in the games the Beings of Old play, and you will become one as well.”
Eventually, he began shaking like a man who has slid to the floor after being thrown into a wall. Eventually, he did what Adz later learned he had not done for hexadecades, and wept silently.
“I have done grievous harm in my life, Adz. In the name of protecting others at times, yes, but no more excusable for that. It felt good to hurt people, to know I was alive.”
For six of Adz’s heartbeats, the human could have been carved from plastics for all the motion he showed. Then came a single sigh that actually began to alarm the designer as it went on and on and on.
“What,” resumed that voice, “do you do when you hate yourself not for where you’ve been, what you’ve experienced, or how you’ve thought, but who you are?”
The rest became wordless, soundless tears.
Adz knew right then.
It saw the one it called Lord as a contemptible thing.
It would never respect him, or itself, unless it took the opportunity to improve its liege.
“You want to better the world, Lord?”
Something in its voice must have done what Sebastio’s mind could not. He stilled, and looked up. The… whatever state of matter it was flowing down his face made forking, counterintuitive progress in angular slim streams. His jaw tensed.
“Then stop your infantile self-pity. Go. Do. Believe. But do not simply BE.”
There was a charmed quality to the air for a moment, as though seen through the window of a scrying. Then the Lord said the words reserved for Yrdkish blood-oaths, and celebrations of state.
“May those after me break my legacy and mount my cadaver on a goldspire if I speak untrue.”
Woven fibers snaked down from the human’s torso. Adz almost fell over again when they became stilts, bringing its Lord suddenly eye to eyespot.
“I want to marry you, Seroku Adz Tataki Ba’fus, and no other. I want to share your next tenshe with you, and together hunt the worthy prey of a better future.”
He held his hand of flesh over his heart.
“I want to see you on the other side of the border between me and the world.”
Somehow, despite all of its still manifold reservations, Adz knew of only one choice as it met that singular gaze with its own.