UNTO US IS GIVEN
Previously: Treasure Planet
Themesong: Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival
AN: A special note to thank my first Patreon Patron, you know who you are and you’re amazing. I won’t name you without your permission though.
If you’ve never had the joy of trying to push medical imaging technology forward a century or more while under a tech embargo from a quantum waveform entity that can’t even be described in mathematical notations… well then, sister, you don’t know stress. The medbay on Windjammer steadfastly refused to do anything besides guarantee that the… babies… growing inside Frankie and Mini’s tummies were healthy. I couldn’t get a solid scan of them and the girls refused to let any of my experimental devices anywhere near the “Precious Cargo” as they insisted on calling the nascent lifeforms gestating within.
There were 167 days left in the Jump when they sprung their little surprise on me and, as best either of them could figure, they’d both ‘caught’ during… let’s just say they’d wheedled and cajoled until I used the male version of my local form… “Just for Fun!”… never be fooled by this. It is always a trick.
As I said, 167 days… 167 days in which the Banker steadfastly refused to allow access to the warehouse and the Kittens refused to let me try and put them in the Warehouse or protective custody or even surround them with moving walls of bodyguards. They claimed I was being unreasonable. They didn’t see why I was freaking out… they didn’t seem to… grok, the issue.
Neither, it turns out, did any of my friends, old or new. Amelia, steadfast and serious… gushed. SHE GUSHED! Queen Anne? Demanded to be Godmother… The Queen of the entire Terran Empire… Anne of the House of Hyde… 47 years old and mother of several children, only one of whom had survived infancy and who’d lost her last child at age eleven to illness… even she was beguiled, insisting that the children be born at the palace and doting on the pair of expectant mothers like they were the greatest thing on TV… (not that TV existed here)… and of course she was keen to figure out how such improbable pregnancies were even possible.
The Britannian Post Gazette ran headlines like “Miracle Admiral Janks Performs New Miracle!” while the Terran Sun Times ran headlines like “Admiral Janks, She-male or Hermaphrodite?”… or at least they did until I bought them out, fired everyone besides the copy-editor and secretaries, and relaunched it as an actual satire rag instead of a tabloid. But that did nothing to quell the public’s fascination and curiosity… and while I could ignore them, and even tell Parliament to get bent when they demanded I submit myself to a doctor’s scrutiny… I had a harder time telling the Queen to mind her own damned business.
The greater part of me knew that the authority of the Queen of even an Empire as far flung as the Terran Empire was irrelevant to being that encompassed, among many other aspects, the 169 God-Kings of the Magi’s Trans-Galactic Empire of uncountable quadrillions… but the local me had sworn to serve this Queen… and my word, if nothing else, was my bond. I did not break my word. Not if it was within my power to do so without causing great harm. Even Vitiate was ‘Allowed to come with me on my voyages’… even if it was only as a soul bound in a holocron sealed in a dozen different magics.
And so, on a night that the people of England would have called “Twelfth Night”, and to honor the spirit of one of the greatest crossdressers in fiction… I explained who and what I was to Amelia and Anne… or as much of it as I could given the limitations I was operating on.
“And you say these Pillars rise out of the Fundament every decade and spirit you away to a new world? Yet, how can this be? I’ve spoken to your instructors at the Academy and Captain Hornsby!” The Queen looked most confused, yet I’d shown her wonders that could not easily be explained… even if they were the barest fragments of my true nature. Hornsby was the Captain of Vigilance, the ship upon which Janks had served her Middy Cruise.
“Ah… well… most of the time Me and Mine do not enter a new world Ex Nihilo. There is some debate as to when, exactly we do enter… we call it Insertion… it seems to happen 10 years before the end-date, save when I am what is termed ‘Drop-In’. In all other cases, we suspect that our entry point is actually sometime before the birth of our… local counterpart… and we merely become aware of our greater nature upon the start of the decade.” I shrugged. “All I know is that I am not some outsider playing the role of Salamandra Janks. I am she as she is me and we are all together… see how we fly, like ship’s in the sky… I’m crying.”
“That sounds like a poem!” Amelia remarked archly, “Didn’t you sing a song with that lyric… yes… at the party back in ought six!”
I nodded… “It is. Or a paraphrase of it. I… it’s unimportant… Janks is me the same way that you are both Anne Hyde and Queen of Terra. But not in the way that you are both Queen of Terra and Empress of the Terran Empire.”
“Ah. The first is merely two names for the same thing, the second is a legal fiction defining two separate entities who both happen to be named Anne and who reside in the same body?”
“Very much so,” I allowed, then held up a prism. “This is not blue, or red, or green. It is transparent. It is not the sun, either, yet I shine a light through it and…” three distinct bands sprang up on the wall, each a foot or so apart. “Janks is the local projection of another, greater light source… one who…” I shrugged.
“Chose to come to our aid in this time of trouble?” her Imperial Majesty asked.
“Ah, well, I think perhaps you’d all have done as well as could be expected without me and mine.”
“You say ‘mine’; are your all too competent minions and hangers on… are they more of you?”
“Companions. Indeed. They are those who follow me out of loyalty, out of love, out of curiosity… and those who follow me because the universe has decreed they should. Some are not, exactly, willing, but they had no place in their native realm. In some cases, that is very literally true, as their nature was in stark contrast to the nature of… it goes into the philosophy of such things and is too heavy a subject for this discourse… leave it to say that some of mine are with me because they could not be elsewhere and thrive, even if they view our arrangement as… adversarial.”
The Queen wrinkled her eyebrows, then shrugged, “So, at the end of this decade, will we all simply forget the redoubtable Admiral Janks? Will you simply vanish like a dream one morning?”
“Ah. No. Until I end my journey for the final time, the worlds I have been to, have become part of… they… they are not per se frozen in time… but rather as long as there exists a chance I might return, should I return it will be to the moment I departed.”
“Ah… time in each does not flow in relationship to the others,” Amelia opined, and I glanced to her in some surprise. “I… have been speaking with Delbert… of astronomic philosophy… the nature of blackholes.”
“Yes. that is one way to look at it. Or perhaps merely that my benefactor is outside of such things.”
“Financier? Taskmaster? General pain in the hind quarters? Hard to say. A tricksome entity that provides me and mine access to these various realms to explore and arranges for me to be incarnated in this place and time, or in another place and time. The reason the moment of insertion is where it is seems to be to keep my new history from having… the jargon calls it ‘butterflying’… To change things on the great scale by means of a single seemingly minor action in the past.”
“What a fanciful term… where does it come from?” The Queen asked.
“I believe from a piece of short fiction known as ‘A Sound of Thunder’ by the writer Ray Bradbury. Although previously applied by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz… for whom I also believe it is called the Lorenz Effect… but not the Lorentz Effect… sorry… physics joke… Lorenz postulated that a butterfly flapping its wing in one part of the world could cause a domino like cascade of ever growing wind elements to eventually come together to create a hurricane… But Bradbury applied the concept to changes to the timeline in the past rippling forward uncontrollably to distort or destroy the present.” I explained, though I did not explain that neither Bradbury nor Lorenz… nor Lorentz, for that matter, were natives of the TreasureVerse.
“In the story, in a far flung future, time travel has become a reality and tourists from that future have travelled back into far, far prehistory to hunt megafauna that were soon to become extinct anyway. After being warned to stay on the path, one of the hunters steps from it anyway and steps on a bug, a butterfly… and in doing so changed many aspects of his own future, including the identity of the current prime minister, from a moderate to a radical hardliner.”
“Terrifying,” Amelia comments, then turns to the Queen. “Perhaps her majesty might outlaw such tampering in the time…” she looked to me “What did you call it?”
“I called it the timeline… but timestream is more common when referring to the physicality of the flow of time.”
“Ah… yes. The timestream.”
The Queen looked to me, “You’re the expert. What do you think?”
“Ah. Time travel is not, exactly, something I’ve done, and the concept bothers me no end… but I think not. Best make no law that might encourage people to try. Instead, consider having one’s intelligence agencies peruse scientific journals looking for work into such theories and keep a watchful eye on the philosophers who are attempting practical solutions. The more the state funds scientific research, the greater the oversight thereof.”
“Are there other lines of research that should be watched as closely?” Amelia asked, and I laughed.
“Oh, my. Yes. Indeed. Atomic Theory for one. Germ Theory for another. Eugenics… Nanomachine Replication. Quantum Tunneling, Artificial Singularity, Brane Theory… there are any number of potentially doomsday tracks… but the science needed for such things is, I think a few generations off. You do not yet have the tools to make the tools needed to make the machines… though I give it less than a century. Gravitics are the biggest threat, though laser weaponry could easily move to Atomics.”
“How could… I should not ask, I think,” Amelia considered.
The Queen had been strangely silent for several long minutes, and then she asked “When is your decade up? It’s soon, isn’t it. You came to see me almost a decade ago… simply breezed in as if you had every right to and upended everything… how strange… I’d heard of you before, of course, in dispatches… but suddenly you were in front of me and so much… larger than life. That was soon after your… Insertion, you call it?”
I nodded. “Most observant, your Majesty. Yes. Very much so. 82 days. The 28th of March.”
“And you hold this ceremony at the Beach?”
“By tradition, whenever possible, yes. And as much as I enjoy your company, I am somewhat more anxious for this decade to end than most of the others I have visited.”
The Queen humphed, “I suppose we’re too backward for the great Janks?”
I rolled my eyes, “Your majesty, I have spend many a decade in places less advanced, less cosmopolitan, and less refined than your corner of infinity. No, in this case I am anxious because of the impending births. My apologies, but your medical technology, though quite advanced in the realm of cybernetics… really impressive there… is not so advanced on disease theory, nor prenatal imaging technology. My… kittens have been quite naughty, but I am not certain if the children are to be hybrids of Harsid and Felinid… or of human… which is what all three of us were initially… or something stranger… and the issue of what elements of my nature are genetic is a question I’d feel safest answered outside of any universe.”
“How bad could babies be?” The Queen asked, and I shuddered.
“Aside from the usual? The screaming and pooping and constant demands on one’s time and energy? The innate demands of biologic and spiritual forces that impel you to love these strange creatures and to care for them almost unconditionally? Your Majesty… Anne… I cannot begin to express in terms that you will understand how dangerous a toddler with even the smallest fraction of my true might could be.”
“Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?” she asked archly, a small frown on her face.
I reached out and tapped the decanter of wine and it frosted over in seconds. “That took less than no effort. All I had to do was relax… and that’s with my power reduced by orders of magnitude. In my normal form, I could plunge this world into an ice-age in days simply by breathing. My eyes can shine with light enough to shatter Windjammer to flinders. My strength is enough to rip the strongest tree from the soil, roots and all. My wings can sweep away moons… I can call up an army of minions crafted from the fears of those I face and I can shape the very elements.” As I spoke, I ripped a fine lace handkerchief to small bits and placed the pile on the table beside the queen.
Sliding my wand from my sleeve, I said “A stage magician would attempt to distract you from that mess, perhaps cover it, certainly never let you touch it. Feel free.”
She did, flicking through the ruin of the silk.“I don’t quite see…”
“It is always easier to destroy than to create… and yet.” I tapped the wand to the pile and whispered “Repairo” and the bits flew back together. “If I can do that with a gesture… what can I do if I put my mind to it? I am bound by my restraint… but will a child be? I don’t know… and that bothers me greatly. I swore an oath to defend the Empire… but can I defend it from my own children?”
The two ladies nodded in understanding, looking grave.
I took my leave of them then, though we would meet again several times a week over the next three months. The Queen in particular grilled me non-stop about my adventures, and arranged for an entire beach to be closed off at the local equivalent of Dover. The weather was cool, but the day was clear and bright, and the Queen had commanded some of the finest entertainment around and the food was excellent.
I didn’t say goodby to those I’d met in this world. There wasn’t much point. Either I’d be back or I wouldn’t, but if I was to return, I’d appear to never have left and wouldn’t that be confusing. If I never did, my lose would be felt either way.
As the moments ticked down and I fretted more and more, watching the two quite pregnant felines wading in the sea, The Queen stood next to me and looked out at the waves. “They do go on forever, don’t they?”
“Forever is a long time, your majesty. Eventually all things end… but yes… for all our purposes, the Sea is Eternal.”
“Why do you do that?” she asked.
“What?” I was confused.
“You call me majesty. You’ve ruled vaster expanses than I ever will. You’ve been worshiped as a goddess… you’re so far beyond me, and yet you defer to me. Why?”
“Because I, Salamandra, swore an Oath. As long as I am Salamandra, it is my duty to protect and serve the Empire and her Queen. It is a matter of honor.”
“Ah. Very well, Admiral. Then I have one last command for you before you are no longer Salamandra.”
“Oh?” I had no idea what she was going to ask, but was expecting something silly.
It wasn’t silly. “Take me with you.”
“I… I’m sorry?”
“I have lived in one palace or another my entire life. I have always been a princess and then a queen. I have always envied my naval officers their freedom… but you… you have lived so much, been so many places and people… seen… wonders. Wonders I can’t even imagine.”
“I’ve also seen horrors,” I muttered, but she waved that aside.
“You said time wouldn’t pass here between your going and your return. The Empire will never know I was gone. Please. This is my only chance to be something other than a Queen until the day I die.”
“Are you certain? You could come to regret it.”
“Of course I’m certain!” She rapped me smartly on the head next to my old scar. “I’m a big girl. I know what I’m on about. Plus, you think I’d miss seeing the Great Janks trying to deal with infants?”
I opened my mouth, then shrugged. “What’s one more passenger? But don’t expect me to treat you like a queen out of this universe. Out there… I’m in charge. If I say jump, you jump. Are we clear?”
“You’re the Captain,” she said with a smirk and I rolled my eyes. My pocketwatch chimed… and the Pillars of Time Rose from the sands of Channelside. The Queen’s eyes sparkled merrily… then there was a blur as Scipio ran into the opening warehouse to verify that his idiot twin was inside.
Of course, he was… and Treasure Planet was hovering 20 feet above the top branches of VIvian’s treeshape. Amelia looked at it, then at me, then blinked as she realized she wasn’t frozen like everyone else.
“Is that a model?” she asked, suspiciously.
“Er… no. I may have… tampered with the memories of everyone involved to hide the fact that I stole the planet.”
“The entire… planet. It didn’t explode then?”
“Errr… not in this timeline. No.”
“And all the treasure?”
“Should be over there in the building that looks like a bank,” I pointed… it was actually only a facade holding a subspace doorway, but we actually had a fair amount of room since almost all the storage went interdimensional. “I haven’t had a chance to check on it, but it should be sorted by now… and yes, you’ve got an invite to come. If you don’t want it…” I trailed off, then turned and yelled to the Kittens. “Hurry up you two! Medbay! Now!” I bowed to Amelia and the Queen, then shimmered back into my baseline form and said, “Excuse me, I have to speak to Banker.”
“We need to talk,” I said as the door sealed behind me.
The Banker looked up from some list of numbers and smiled “Ah, yes… excellent ratings that time around. Excellent… We’re lining up something nicely fitting for a follow on. The audience seems to enjoy you galavanticing around all honorable and dutiful.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m electrifying.” I waved a hand in a motion of dismissal. “No. The kids… the babies… What’s going on? I couldn’t even get a stethoscope to tell me how many there were inside each? You can’t tell me that wasn’t intentional!”
“Ah? I…” he trailed off and glanced at Mensarius, who smirked.
“That would be me,” he said with a grin. “Child’s play to create interference with your equipment, really.” He wisely ducked as I shot eyebeams at him.
The Banker ah’d. “Well, I’m certain no harm was done.”
“Just to my stress level. Not that I could have done anything with the information given the local state of medicine… but… don’t do that again,” I glared at Mensarius, then back to the Banker. “So… let me see if I have this clear. The systems of the Warehouse only prevent unwanted pregnancies?”
“Oh… yes. That would be the case.”
“Even if only one party out of the two desires such a pregnancy?”
“That would be correct. You are free to impregnate or be impregnated by any of companions or passengers or anyone else without asking for their permission,” The Banker said dismissively, and I had to remind myself of just how not human either of them were and how he had no idea of what he was suggesting. Trying to explain the difference would be pointless I suspected.
“So, if, say, I was raped and the rapist desired I become pregnant?”
“Oh… yes. That could indeed happen. Well, perhaps not to you, as you have Fertility Control from the Pervert Bride… that might prevent it.”
“Then why didn’t that work?”
“You only use it to control your menstrual cycle,” The Banker said, sounding like he was dealing with an unreasonable customer.
“I didn’t really realize I needed to worry about the fertility control part. How many kids have I accidentally left behind?”
“Errr…” the Banker looked nervous.
“So, at least one?”
“I can neither confirm nor deny such things. If you choose to search for any potential offspring, it will be entirely upon you,” he hedged.
“And Fertility Control… that will stop me from getting pregnant if, somehow, I get violated?”
“No,” sneered Mensarius. “It isn’t absolute. It gives you control over fertility, but that runs in cycles as you well know. You’d have to consciously suppress your fertility and, at that time, I suspect you’d have other issues in mind.”
I looked to the Banker for confirmation of Mensarius’s words and he nodded. “It’s control over the cycle, not protection from it. As a male, you’d have viable… seed… until they were expelled or replaced. As a female you can choose to release an ovum or not, should you desire it. But without conscious desire either way, your body will still proceed as normal. It is not a defense against unwanted pregnancy, merely control over the biological processes that govern it. Were you to find yourself over matched, and, as some would put it, outraged, then, if your body were already prepared for fertilization, then it would occur, as long as either one of the potential genetic donors desired it.”
“That is deeply disturbing news,” I commented, but the Banker merely shrugged.
“These things happen,” He said. “It is the nature of such narratives, is it not? And of nature itself, most often.”
“Ah. of course. Mustn’t upset the fans,” I groused. Of course, I doubted it would come up… again. Such outrages had been limited by my growing ability to defend myself. Certainly, Touhou Pink and the Pervert Bride had featured such events not infrequently, and it had happened more than once in Infamous, Avatar, and Metal Gear… and (thanks to the copious amounts of drugs I was on in Arkham… and there was an awful lot of drunken sex that probably wasn’t on the consensual side in Elder Scrolls… in fact… I suspected that only a lack of desire for offspring… then again, in most of those, I’d been on some kind of preventative, either magical or chemical. I hadn’t bothered since Pervert Bride as I’d considered it a non-issue. “Right, right… not the point… what, exactly, are Frankie and Mini going to have… and I swear to me, Mensarius, if you say ‘Babies, duh!’ I will fling your key into the heart of a star.”
He snapped his mouth closed and mimed zipping it.
“If you mean what species…” the Banker began, and I favored him with a “Duuuuuuh” look. “Ah. That is… they were conceived in Felinid wombs of Felinid ovum, by Harsid sperm.”
“Is that normally a viable cross?”
“Err… not exactly, no. Alponians and Felinids are relatively closely related. Harsids and Lagardians are close as well… but… this is a soft science setting, so…”
“So what? Disney genetics apply? Males will be Harsids and females Felinids?”
“Aaaah… that’s what you’re trying to determine. You should have said so.”
The screens flashed and two lists of traits manifested. They were virtually identical, since Frankie and Mini had imported almost exactly the same ways. Both were Strike-Witches, both were Harry Potter Witches, both were Force Sensitives, both were Demon Weapons… but Frankie was a Dresden Sorceress, while Mini was Gargoyles Fairy-Blooded and a Dresden White Court Vampiress. All of my various potentials filled the vast majority of either list.
“Are you implying I can customize these brats?” I asked, suspiciously.
“That seemed to be your major complaint with the Queen… I take it she’s yet another Passenger?” I nodded, then frowned.
“No… no… once again you hear but do not comprehend. I was not worrying about my lack of control over what they inherited… I was worrying about their lack of control over whatever they do inherit.”
“Aaaah. I understand… you wish guarantees that they will not develop world busting powers before they have come to comprehend the value of other people’s lives.”
“Something like that, yes.”
“So you don’t want to determine the particulars?” The Banker asked, curiosity tinging his voice.
“They can inherit any of my biological traits, or those of their mothers?” I asked, “Even though I was only a Harsid at the time?”
“Even still, yes,” He confirmed.
“Weird… but… okay… so… can you set whatever abilities they do manifest over the course of their maturation to mature slowly?”
The Banker and Mensarius considered, then nodded in unison. “We can do that. In exchange for the customization option then?”
I considered, then shook my head, “I want to keep one part of the customizations.”
“What’s that? Obedience?” I glared at Mensarius, but got up of the edge of the desk and toggled on Asgardian. He looked up at it and quirked an eyebrow. “Why that?”
“Asgardians are extremely longlived, even longer than non-tree bound Jurians. They are in generally perfect health, they heal quickly, and are resilient and not prone to genetic defects. And despite who and what we were at the time, I’d rather they looked at least human, as I don’t think having their primary forms be anthropomorphic is a great idea. I don’t want to have to import them just for them to leave the warehouse… and I think you were expecting something like that, because Felinids and Harsids both typically have litters, and both of these are single births… you manipulated this… but for once, I’m a bit grateful. I don’t know if I could cope with two entire litters of brats… why is he laughing? Litters aren’t the same thing as twins, I know genetics that well. I mean, they are twins, but they’re fraternal, not identical.”
The Banker chuckled, “It is his assertion that even one baby will be enough to cause you to flee in abject terror.”
I thought about it for a minute, then nodded, “Good bet. Children are freaking scary. So… if I did my math right… 2 months for the Kittens to confirm they were pregnant. 6 months ago was them telling me… Neither Harsids nor Felinids have 9 month gestation periods… Harsids are 5 months, Felinids 7… so I’m guessing this was 9 just because we’re expecting it to be… or because that puts the birth sometime in the transition period?”
“Actually… the 9 months was a sop to keep you from blowing your stack completely,” Mensarius groused. “Banker Boy was convinced that if we didn’t extend it, you might decide to Stay in that last realm.”
The Banker looked offended. “I said no such thing! That was your assertion! You’re the one who is paranoid about her staying!” I just walked out at that point… listening to them bicker… not my idea of a good time.
And so, of course, I walked into another argument, this one between Cirno and Frankie, where the fairy was alleging that Frankie and Mini’s pregnancies were a plot to get me to spend more time with the Kittens, which constituted a violation of the peace treaty. Of course, there was no peace treaty, so Frankie just threw an apple at the Fairy. I ended the debate by catching the apple, pulling Cirno into my lap, and then feeding her the apple while relating the salient information to Frankie. Mini was taking a bath apparently, luxuriating in not having fur.
I knew the maneuvering between factions wasn’t over, of course. I’m not naive, and the six members of my little household were not the least fractious group… nine if you counted the three I wasn’t engaged in sexual relations with (Yuzuha the possessive, Tokimi-chan the deeply conflicted, and Ziggy the cuddle-slut). Each had their own prefered tactics, and each pair their own internal balancing act (the Kittens were equals in all things and used cuteness and emotion as their tools, the Hibikis competed for everything and used physicality and raw aggressive masculinity / femininity as their tools, and the Geniuses plotted and schemed and used intellect and sexuality as their tools). Together, the six of them tried to monopolize my time and energy as best they could, but they also acted to make sure than no one ever felt alone in the household when I decided to, say, spend the evening alone, or to curl up with Ziggy and a good book. Decades are long times, and relationships as long as ours had… ups and downs.
And, of course, there was the constant tension that arose from outside relationships and their various reactions to them. Velma and Cirno were the least faithful duo, but almost never got into outside relationships. Ryoga and Yoiko were the most faithful duo, but when they strayed, they tended to form long term relationships with their new partners, sometimes for years. The Kittens were flirts, teases, and liked cute girls, often picking up a new girlfriend and bringing her home just to use her as bait to lure me in. They would also seek out one night stands and blow some poor unfortunate’s mind… then never see them again… or see them on and off for a few weeks. They took on projects to train up some callow youth into a stud… or to prove to some stud that he or she was no match for the Black Cat Squad. Their external relationship pattern was… frankly, chaotic… and sometimes cruel (from a certain perspective), but whatever they did, they did together.
The Kittens were, by far, the most internally equal of the duos. They worked together seamlessly, they always discussed their feelings with me or each other, and they respected each other and loved each other. Velma and Cirno didn’t do that at all. Velma was the boss of Cirno and Cirno was (deliberately at times) incompetent. Velma saw Cirno as a tool, while Cirno saw Velma as a playmate… they were constantly scheming against each other, and trying to show one another up. And the Hibikis fought like… well… siblings. Occasionally incestuous siblings. Siblings who’ve been fighting over the same things (me, toys, tools, me, weapons, philosophy, politics, me, who ate the last piece of pizza (me), which way to turn (both are usually wrong, even if there are only two choices)… me) Siblings who’ve been fighting each other for so long that, even though they’re able to have entire debates by raising an eyebrow or twitching a muscle in just the right way at the right time, they still end up yelling at each other.
Honestly, I can read minds, and even I don’t understand what passes for thought between those two.
After attending to the pregnant girls, I checked with the Medical bay’s VI, VIola… I have, not counting VIvian (my main Machine Mind and a full Machine Intelligence, Obsessive Media Junky, and Jurian Treeship of the Third Generation), VIctoria (my symbiotic power armor, wand, and soulmate/daughter/thing and something that has transcended mere Machine Intelligence), VIctor (my command and assault shuttle’s VI, long since matured to full AI, and possibly even an MI by now), VIrginia (The VI of the Black Jenny), and VIggo (formerly the main Enemy VI for our Gaming system, designed to play aggressively against beings with hypersonic reflexes and centuries of combat skill. He had solved Go a few millennia back and was now looking for actual challenges) fifteen machine minds overseeing my various projects and systems; VIdkun, VIjay, VIkas, VIlhelm, VIli, VInston, VIraag, VItellius, VIttorio, VIgdis, VIolette, and VIncia. Each was designed with three separate specializations and no two had the same combination and they were designed to actively compete with each other for system resources (while each had their own core processing nodes, there were additional processing nodes that some or all of them could utilize… but could not be shared). Thus, there were blocks of processing which were accessible by three VIs, by five VIs, by ten VIs, and by all fifteen… I honestly had hoped for some deep insights from them from this layered system, forcing them to fight for resources and having programmed them to seek greater insight… but all I got from them was iterative improvement, refinement, and some really nice puzzles for me to solve (they were exceptional at crunching numbers, and sometimes those numbers showed interesting patterns if you had enough of them).
But VIola was one of my three Bioscience VIs (the other two were VIttorio and VIli, who ran, respectively, the Gardens and the Genetics Lab) and she ran Medbay and the Biometrics scanners. Everyone in the Warehouse was monitored constantly for biometrics, thanks to a system of rather clunky micro-scale bots that formed a skinpatch on anything alive in the warehouse and sent the system readings. It was deliberately not nano-scale and designed for low impact monitoring, and the data largely used only for statistical modeling, since there weren’t any long term health problems. I made a mental note to have Joy explain them to Amelia and Anne… it was somewhat strange not thinking of her as “The Queen” anymore.
VIola had biometrics on the unborn duo. I steadfastly refused to look at any of the information, just asking the VI to lock all data that wasn’t of immediate medical concern away from everyone, myself included, and merely report to me on the health (both long term and short term) of the… err… children. Was going to have to get used to calling them that. Not spawn, not fetuses, not unholy abominations… children… babies… yerg.
While the VI was assuring me that everything was hunky dokey… 14,000 years and I can’t quite figure out why none of the second or third generation VIs can use slang properly… didn’t impair them in any way and VIvian and VIctoria didn’t have that problem… If VIvian had what could be classed as a sense of humor, I’d have suspected she’d tampered with their basecode when she spawned them. I hadn’t had VIctoria ever spin-off a… no. Bad. negative days as a… father? Sire? Not-Mother? Graaaaah… I didn’t need this! And I wasn’t going to encourage bits of myself to multiply… and damnation to the discovery that I found the Kittens even more attractive and snuggly as they slowly became more and more gravid. Emotions… feh.
I was almost relieved when the new JumpTree arrived a few days later and I could stop messing around with my really really important super secret project that was totally going to be cool… i.e. LEAVE ME ALONE I’M STRESSING OUT AND TOTALLY NOT WASTING TIME! I totally was. I was working on nanotech fingernails. Just nanotech. None of the spatial compression needed for pico or femtotech… just nano… big nano in fact. Like… close to microtech… the idea was to inject some with the substance and it would eat the keratin fingernails and replace it with self-cleaning, self-buffing, self-repairing… color changing finger nails… that could turn into monomolecular claws… okay, it was totally something from one of my cyberpunk games and I was totally wasting time and trying not to stress out… I’d already eaten all the chocolate ice cream in the entire warehouse… and three different shopping venues reachable via The Door of Shopping… Yes, that was several metric tons of chocolate Ice Cream… shut up!
So that’s why I used my invisibility cloak to move from my nano-fabrication lab to the Arcade in the dead of Warehouse Night… not because I was freaking out about having to talk to people about the upcoming joyous event… nooo… it was totally because I didn’t want anyone asking where all the chocolate icecream had gone. This is my story and that’s what happened. I am not an unreliable narrator… shut up!
Ziggy, being Ziggy, followed me despite my careful camouflage, and clambered up into my lap once I seated myself. I could tell he was glad to be back to pain free (the attempted kidnapping had left the poor thing with some permanent ouchies… well, permanent until the end of the decade at least) and was enjoying being small enough to crawl in lap without squishing me. Never underestimate the calming power of a fluffy thing that wants you to pet it and occasionally gnaw on your fingers.
“So, whatcha got for me?” I asked the terrible twosome.
The Banker smiled and bowed his head ever so slightly. “We thought, in honor of your new passenger…”
“And because the last few settings have been various degrees of soft sci-fi or modernistic,” Mensarius added snidely.
“That was your reason, not mine,” the Banker grumped, then smiled at me as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “and because the themes of duty and honor… and adventure, of course… have come up…”
“And because you’re about to have… ugh… offspring,” Mensarius said in a way that made me both agree with him as a panicking potential offspringer and want to throttle him as a potential parent to be and as a lifeform that had been an offspring at a point sometime in the very distant past… or at over 200 points in various pasts, come to think of it…
“And a little because of that,” The Banker agreed.
“GET ON WITH IT!” I snapped, and Ziggy squeaked “IT!” in solidarity.
“Ahem… yes… I believe you’re familiar with the works of an author known as Tamora Pierce?”
I blinked as I brought up the memories, then smiled. “Yes! Of course… wait… Tortall or Inner Sea? I’m pretty sure those are two different worlds, as there aren’t any ambient mages in Tortall and I don’t remember any actual gods appearing in Circle of Magic…” I trailed off as the words ‘TORTALL and ENVIRONS NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST, & OTHERWISE’ appeared on the screenwall. Mmm… most excellent.
What is there to say about Tamora Pierce and Tortall? Aside from that they are quite excellent and only a lot preachy Young Adult fiction with a decidedly pro-feminist motif? They are good. I remembered them fondly, and had regretted that my home PC had not had most of the audiobooks for her stuff… it had been, if I’d remembered correctly, offloaded onto flash drives to make space for Far Cry 3 and 4.
Still, I had enjoyed the adventures of first Alanna of Trebond (called the Lioness, a magically gifted and fairly promiscuous teenage Sweet Polly-Oliver who pretended to be a boy so she could become a knight, became the royal heir’s fuck-buddy, then married the capital city’s thieving guild’s master… both of whom were several years older than the definitely not of age Alanna), then Keladry of Mindelan (called the Protector of the Small, a decidedly not magically gifted and barely aware that sex was a thing, girl who wanted to become a knight just like her hero Alana)… n… no… wait… I read the first three Protector of the Small books, then read the Alana Quartet because Protector book 4 wasn’t out yet… that’s right… then I read the Immortals series, which featured a shapeshifting demigoddess named Daine… something longer actually… but I couldn’t quite recall what it was… her father was the Hunt God and she ended up paired with her teacher (who was at least twice her age), the most powerful Wizard in the realm (after the King’s brother… Roger?… and Alanna’s brother, Alan? No… Tom?… both end up dead) Numair… something… damn… it had been too long and had been from before I’d gained a perfect memory… damn.
There was a pair of books about one of Alanna’s daughters which I really hadn’t liked much… it dealt with slavery and gods totally dicking with mortals and had a resolution I really hadn’t liked… but I had liked the Crow who became a Man… he was a cool character… and I couldn’t remember his damned name! But my reaction to that pair had been enough to make me not read the series named for dogs… Provost’s something… I don’t know… I never read those… didn’t even know how many there had been… or if there had been any books after that in the setting. Fourteen books in, I just kinda gave up… decided that I’d enjoyed Tortall enough… I’d also switched to more sci-fi around that time and hadn’t switched back until after the Jumping started.
So… on the one hand… I was looking forward to meeting some people… and not so much the others… I wondered when the Jump was set, since I was pretty sure the books had covered at least 25 years… maybe more. So I spun the magic wheel of location, slowing time so I could read each entry as it ticked by. 430 HE Corus, 439 HE Cria, 246 HE Corus, 452 HE Corus, 462 HE Rajmuat, 450 HE The Far Side of the World, 2754 BHE The Black City… what th.. oh… dates and locations… HE must be… Human Era… I think that’s what the callender was called… That first was Alanna… then Daine… then the Provost’s Prequels (I think the MC was the ancestor of Alanna’s future husband… please not that, I don’t know that period at all)… then Keladry (probably the best to meet everyone I was interested in meeting)… the Rajmuat books are the ones that made me stop reading the series… I don’t even remember the Far Side of the World one at all… oh, god… the Black City… that’s back when the Ysandir… vampires… ruled the world… nono… bad. Not that one either. It wasn’t that I was scared of vampires… I was pretty sure I could take them… just… what did I do after that? Knit for a decade?
HA! The Dice Gods smile upon me! Free Choice! Any listed location and start date… or anywhere else I wanted to be! Haha! Most excellent… damnit! Now I had to choose! Bollox… I’ll come back to it. What are the origins?
Drop-In… sigh… why was that always an option? Must be a rule or something. They almost always said something like “No past to hold you back” like this one did… sigh… then again, I’d taken Drop-In a couple of times just to avoid world specific background memories… but that was the exception to the rule. It was always somewhere I’d pay not to remember, yet Drop-In always seemed to be the free choice, even where it should cost… But then, I wasn’t making the rules.
Hound was essentially a proto-policeman. One of the Provost’s Guards (aka Dogs)… meh. Fantasy Cop is only cool if you’ve got magical powers to back it up… Yah, I have magical powers, but they’d be out of place for a Provost’s Dog.
Spy was more of the same, but even more sneaky sneaky. This was what the daughter of Alanna and George Cooper (Lady Knight and King of Thieves… good bloodline combo) was… pretty sure at least.
Then there were the Knight options; Gifted Knight and Knight Commander… i.e. magical knight (Alanna) and not magical knight (Keladry). Both were the same price, and the training was similar, but where the Gifted Knight was a Champion among Champions, the Knight Commander was a Leader par Excellence.
Going into a realm of honor and duty as a spy just seemed… wrong. Going into a realm of adventure and wonder as a thieftaker seemed doubly wrong. It was like going to Middle Earth and spending all your time skulking about in Moria. I didn’t see any particular reason to be a Drop-In… so that left… Knight… but which one? If I were a Commander, it would mean hiding my various gifts for the entire decade, since possession of any of them would likely have resulted in being in the magic track… but then again, this was a starting point… but I might as well go with Gifted Knight [100/900/1000]. More magical powers are always fun.
Knightly Visage was [Free] from the Gifted Knight… a stunningly attractive one at that, and one that came with at least one remarkable feature (lustrous hair, fine-boned face, massive boobs… you know, stuff like that.). It also came with an immunity to scarring as long as any attempt was made to care for the wounds. Wow! So useful, much value!
I glanced at the other 100 level perks to gage if I’d selected correctly. Picking the right background was, at least for me, 70% about being who I wanted to be… but the other 30% was all about the discounts. The Drop-In’s ‘Hunter’ perk granted a mastery of archery, uncanny accuracy, a sixth sense for the shifting winds, significantly improved rate of fire, and a draw that was sure to be impressive, no matter how large or small the user might be. It was a fine perk and one I’d actually consider if I could find the CP for it. I was an excellent shot already, but there’s nothing saying I couldn’t go from legendary to godlike, right?
Th others, Hound’s ‘The King’s Terrier’, Commander’s ‘Preliminary Work’, and Spy’s ‘Blademaster’ were not so nice. The King’s Terrier made the taker a crime fighter, both in the investigation and brawling senses, complete with magical and mundane interrogation techniques, and a bonus to accepting bribes… yeah… that screamed buy me! Preliminary Work granted knowledge of quarterstaff and sling, basic skill in armor, understanding of the rules of chivalry, knowledge of the species of immortal and kingdoms of the realm, riding, caring for mounts, and an impressive pain tolerance. All worthwhile things… that I already had or could pick up in days, weeks at the outside. And Blademaster would make me a master of knife-fighting and appearing unarmed… Yeah… I could do that already… and not just with knives… I could hide a howitzer in my back pocket if I wanted to… I didn’t, it made it hard to sit down. So I wasn’t missing anything from any of them. Honestly, I’d rather have the Hunter than the Visage, but I wasn’t going to shift my choice based on the freebie. I wasn’t that crazy! Shut up you! I see you, lurking in the back. What’s your name? Ahnan the Mouse? Yeah… shut up.
Moving into the 200s, I checked out the three from the paths I was fairly certain weren’t for me. Hounds got ‘Dust Spinners’, which were some kind of sentient wind eddies that stored conversations, visions, and emotions. A Hound could use them to hold people (if they asked nicely… and the target was in the Spinner’s area) and, not only get more information out of the odd magical anomalies, but they’d form more readily near the Hound… it was amusing… but kinda weird and pointless. Still, it had its charm. Commanders got ‘Commander’, which was (as one might imagine) all about strategy and tactics, personal charisma and command presence… with an expertise in that oft overlooked area of military life, logistics… and even siegecraft! For a 200 pointer, it was not half bad… but I already knew those things, so again, my choice seemed born out. Spy’s ‘Whisper Man’ granted a genius at covert intelligence gathering… knowing who to bribe and how big those bribes should be, how to organize recruits and cutouts to form a network… and even a bit of personal sneakiness. But I’d spent who knows how many decades as a spy… at least five… I didn’t need such things, nor did I really feel the desire to be a spy master… I had Ahab and Joy for that.
So that brought it to Drop-In’s ‘Wildmage’ and Gifted’s ‘Ordeal Tested’. To be honest, I was more than tempted by Wildmage… and somewhat unnerved by ‘Ordeal Tested’. Daine was the Wildmage, and Wild Magic was fairly awesome. Not only was it unlike almost any other form of magic that I already had, but it was unlike any of the other magics of the realm of Tortall, and that screamed at me to get it. It was impossible to say what was part of wildmagic and what was native to Daine herself, since her father was literally god of the hunt, but she could communicate with pretty much any animal… and by spending time with them (or willing it to happen) could make them stronger, faster, tougher… increase their lifespans, make them heal faster… and bring their intellectual capabilities up to a nearly human level. For added squee, she could even heal animals by drawing on her own energy… and all this worked on animalistic Immortals as well. To be honest, I’d have paid 400 for it and considered it CP well spent, so paying the undiscounted [200/700/100] wasn’t a bad deal.
Ordeal Tested… that was another matter altogether… see, there’s a thing… yes, a thing… there was no other way to describe it… a thing called the Chamber of the Ordeal. It was somewhere in the royal palace of Tortall, in or near the city of Corus. It was some kind of… fate elemental which every prospective Knight had to face. It would subject them to their worst fears and see how they did. Only those with the greatest of willpower survived, let alone passed. More than one Squire had died or been driven catatonic by the chamber, and some had broken even before facing it. Ordeal Tested granted an iron sense of self, courage and fortitude to carry on even in the face of terror, to fight even on the darkest day. And since the Chamber also tested the Squire’s flexibility of thought, Ordeal Tested also granted the capacity to change when the need arose. And that… That I couldn’t take.
Taking Ordeal Tested… that was admitting that I couldn’t pass the Ordeal without it. That my sense of self was insufficient to the task… that my courage would, without it, break. I couldn’t do it… and that made me wonder even more if I should switch to Drop-in… Perhaps the 400 level would clarify things.
Once more, I looked first at the three which could not shift my choice; Hound’s ‘Blessed by the Black God’ allowed one to interact with the dead… meh… even if I couldn’t already do that, I wouldn’t buy this trait (the psychopomp of choice for Tortall was the pigeon… uuuugh.), Commander’s ‘Iron Champion’ made one a master of combat, lethal with dozens of weapons and able to kill with a single punch from a mailed fist, and move faster than unarmored foes even when mantled in full plate… all of which I could do just fine, thanks much… but then there was the Spy’s ‘The Sight’… and that was a monkey of a different temper entirely.
The Sight was a gift, and a princely one at that (though fit for the prince of thieves more than a prince of nations perhaps). With it, a spy could see in even the darkest of darknesses, gain telescopic and microscopic vision, see magic, see the invisible… see the presence of poisons… even magically see when people attempted to lie. And then… then… came the bwahaha moment. The element that took ‘The Sight’ from a yes please to a TAKE MY CP OR I’LL KILL YOU… it allowed the Spy to detect the presence of gods… even when they were attempting to hide. The fact that it also allowed the Spy to avoid truthspells was just gravy at that point… delicious, delicious gravy. Four hundred CP have seldom been better spent. [400/300/1000].
Cursing a little, as I knew that it was likely I’d want both the 400s from Drop-In and Gifted, I checked first on Gifted… and was not disappointed. It was ‘The Gift of the Gods’… the most common form of human magic… and if I bought it, mine would be among the strongest and broadest (most mages were forced to specialize). Creating light, speaking through fires, making simulacra, throwing raw blasts of magical force… even healing… this was exceptionally broad and powerful magic, though it could be draining in the extreme if pushed too far… I had exceptionally deep reserves. And so that was [200/100/1000] more.
Which meant it all came down to Drop-In’s final perk. If I wanted it as much as I wanted The Gift, I’d have to switch… it would only make sense. It was Shapeshifting… specifically, animalistic. In some ways, it was better than the shapeshifting I already had… it granted the abilities of that animal form (bats’ ears could really hear better, wolves’ noses could smell better…). It could even shift one to an Immortal’s form, though only one-way (I had ways around that limitation of course, but it would no doubt cost me a human form to do so.)… the question was, then… if I wanted it enough to pay 400 CP for it… and I… just… didn’t.
Ah well. Nice to see one’s initial biases born out… but still… Still… did it balance? Gifted Knight would cost me 100 CP, plus 200 for The Gift and 200 for Wildmage… or 500. Drop in would be free, plus 100 CP for Wildmage and 400 for The Gift… or 500. It was six of one and pick’em, with the only balancing elements being the memories and local history on one side and a slightly better freebie (well, 50 CP difference) on the other. Which meant it all came down to… the gear section… which had never happened before.
In the end, my choice hinged on the differences between Enlightened Steed (a nearly human intelligence horse) which was discounted for Drop-In while Gifted Knights got a regenerating supply of the highly illegal and incredibly rare Black Opals (which can store and amplify magical energy). Gee… I wonder which I went with. So that was 900 CP spent… and I still needed companions.
A Friend Upon the Path cost the rather odd price of [150/-50/1000] CP for 8 imports or 1 canonical human. Imported companions would gain a background and skills to match my own…. What weird language. That seemed to imply that since I was a Magical Knight, all 8 companions would be as well… or it could be interpreted that they gained everything I’d bought… or did they just get whatever CP I spent on perks? I… just couldn’t tell. And that meant asking Tweedle-CP and Tweedle-Jackass. But first, I’d overspend just buying the import option, so, that meant a trip to the Drawback section.
Once again, this Tree was a little strange… wait… two jumps in a row with weird companion language, very few items almost all of which were priced at 100, and perks that maxed out at 400 CP? I wondered if they had been penned by the same unknown Builder… The final strangeness was minor and something I’d seen other places before, but it was the drawback cap was on the number of drawbacks, not the CP total. Potentially, that meant I could get up to 1600 CP for this jump… but only if I was fucking insane. The +300s were six shades of ‘oh fuck no’.
Trickster’s Chosen (named after the series about the Ramjuat islands and slavery) was a freaking chain ender. It came with a magical slave collar and service to a minor noble house… and a challenge. Ten years to guarantee that your enslavers ruled the local kingdom… and were seen by the public to have gained that position through their own efforts. And as if that wasn’t enough, no member of the family that owned you could be allowed to die or you failed. Oh, and the current rulers would be powerful, wary, and ruthless… which at least would make murdering them all seem reasonable, right? Wrong… fuck that noise, fuck the Trickster Gods (I had two of my own screwing with my life, I didn’t need a third)… and I certainly didn’t need 300 CP (or a shiny necklace) that bad.
The other +300 was called ‘Unleash the Hound! And Rat and Hyena! It meant that Uusoae, the Queen of Chaos, and one seriously cunty Goddess, would be gunning for me, starting with subtle tricks, like telling my enemies of my powers and weaknesses, but quickly escalating to sending mutant immortals who’d gotten the Dresden-Outsider treatment and could now violate the rules binding their kind… and then, once that failed, she’d unless this world’s version of the Four Horsemen, called ‘The Three Sorrows’ (Slaughter, Starvation, and Malady… or Hound, Rat, and Hyena). I could almost certainly take them… possibly even Uusoae herself… but the Sorrows would plague the land and I wasn’t going to take CP if it meant putting innocent people through that.
So that meant 400 was my limit… time to check those out instead. ‘Biased Society’ was out, since it essentially turned the entire world against my (gender/ethnic group/favorite food/accent/magical ability/etc.) and made sure that, even if I managed to push through the hate, they’d simply never think I was good enough. I, personally, could not care less… but that was about hate aimed my way. This wasn’t limited to me however. No matter how I phrased it, someone else would suffer, and that suffering would be my fault. Screwing some innocent over because of my own failings was one thing (and something I’d try to avoid)… screwing them just because I wanted CP… that would be dirty pool.
Which left ‘A Knight is Pure’ (You find it literally unthinkable to violate the code of chivalry… provide comfort and protection for the innocent, be courteous to the ladyfolk, keep your word…) and ‘Feminist Narrative’ (which would mean… I’m not really sure… it seemed like a bit of a dig at Tamora Pierce, but implied, I guess, that as a woman, I’d have to micromanage my allies? Hard to say.). I could live with those. I mostly tried to live by a more reasonable version of the chivalric code (I often used underhanded tactics, true… but I kept my word and tried to protect the innocent… though I had no trouble punching another woman if she was being a bitch… but I could restrain myself for a decade)… and I micromanaged everyone anyway. So I was up to 1400 total, with 350 unspent.
There weren’t many 50s, and I picked up ‘Bruise Balm’ [50/300/1400] from the lot. It was a magical herbal ointment that helped to reduce tension, ease sore muscles, and rapidly heal bruises painlessly. The small tin would never quite run empty, so it was worth the price.
I also considered buying a bag containing 8 ‘Darkings’, a very cute and somewhat silly newly formed species of immortal… but I had more than enough pets as it was. So that was out.
Rather, I had 300 left and spent it all on archery supplies; [100/200/1400] for the Hunter perk, [100/100/1400] for a pouch of Stormwing Feathers (metalwinged harpies with feathers harder and sharper than any other metal in the realms) which could, if fletched properly, allow the arrow to punch through any known defensive spell, and [100/0/1400] for a pouch of Griffon Feathers, which could dispel illusions if placed over the eyes and could, if fletched, allow the arrows to seek the target unerringly and strike vital points at incredible range. Both pouches were replenishing… which was good, because getting the feathers from Stormwings was gross (they liked rolling in offal and carrion) and from Griffons was painful (they were vicious and tough and vicious).
Which, unfortunately, meant it was time to talk to the Bankers… and I’d been enjoying the companionable silence. I ruffled Ziggy’s tummy fur and looked over to the quasi-reasonable one.
“Oy. Shylock… what the hell is up with this companion import option? The number of possible readings is just silly.”
“I… err… well…”
“So glad you’re on top of this. Right. I’m going to tell you what my reading is, and you’re going to tell me that I’m correct,” I smiled softly, holding up Ziggy. “Isn’t he sweety?” Ziggy licked my nose, which of course means ‘Yes’m.” in Ferretoid.
Mensarius had to butt in at that point, of course. “Why not tell us the points of vagueness and have us be the-”
“Because you, precious, are a chucklefuck, and I want your opinion only slightly more than I want to beat myself unconscious with a lemon.”
He looked nonplussed, as if unused to being interrupted… or maybe he just didn’t know what a lemon was. He opened his mouth to continue, but I cut him off again.
“Because you’d screw me. If you can’t see the vagueness, it’s down to you and your own limitations. But it’s not my JOB to explain these things to you. It’s my JOB to make things as survivable for me and mine and as interesting, apparently, to the audience as practical. Since they put up with my stint in Civilization, I’m guessing there’s an editorial staff somewhere, but who the hell knows… Yes, I assume you two idiots do, but are you planning on explaining things to me? I mean unless I figure out a way to force it out of you?”
The Banker shook his head.
“Didn’t think so. So… this is how I read ‘A Friend Upon the Path’. The first two sentences are barely more than fluff. ‘Even the greatest heroines have allies upon which they can call. You have a few such friends.’ This is what we call a ‘Prefatory Clause’… it prefaces the Establishment of something by explaining why said establishing is going to take place.”
Mensarius groaned, “She’s going to Rules Lawyer us! Dive! Dive! Blow all ballast tanks!” and he dove over the back of the couch.
“You’re an idiot,” I remarked. “Blowing the ballast tanks is how you do an emergency rise.” I looked back to the screen and continued, “You may either bring along up to eight of your previous Companions to join you on your adventure here, gaining a background and skills to match your own, or you may recruit a new ally, an existing human character from your time to help you on your quests or a new friend of your own creation (who will, again, have a history and skills similar to yours).” I looked at the Banker, “This is the Establishment Clause and it’s a mess. It does three different things and does all of them badly. Unpacking it, it says you may pick from one of these three options… either shouldn’t be used because it implies two options… Import (8) Previous Companions, Recruit a Canon Human Character from the TortallVerse, or Create, or have you idiots, cause to be a new individual to be a companion. Problems include wonky wording… ‘from your time’ is unclear and the creation option doesn’t put any limits of humanity upon my creation… but let’s assume that’s there because I’m not going to use it.”
“You’re going to point out that the text could be read as each Companion Import costs 150 or that all 8 cost 150?” The Banker asked. “No, no… I think it’s clear. 8 Imports for 150.”
“Ah… I’d missed that… But good to know. Now, it says history and skills similar to mine and a match for mine. So I’m going to assume that means that the 8 I import get as many CP as I spent in the Skills and Perks section of the Tree, since there doesn’t seem to be any mechanical distinction between the two… or at least it does not indicate which is which.”
The Banker opened his mouth to disagree with me, then closed it again, and steepled his fingers, looking at me over them. After several long minutes, he said, “I think you know that wasn’t the intention. I should rule against that. Be the reasonable GM… but I won’t… if you agree to… shall we call it… a power cap.”
I narrowed my eyes. “How much of a power cap?”
“Abide by the themes of the world.”
“You’re asking me to give up almost all my power and technology?”
“Not in the slightest. You may keep all that you possess, use anything you like… but only at the scale such things are done in the books.”
“One psycho makes an army of killing machines, and there’s a gemstone that can work magic across the entire realm at the cost of all the seeds in the entire land.”
“Both are true. But both have costs.”
“I’m not sure I’m seeing a real limit here.”
“No industrialization. Things are made by hand here. No large scale destruction. All I’m asking is that you acknowledge the idea that this is a world where individual action is important.”
“This is related to that Feminist Narrative, isn’t it?”
“If you simply descend like a god and declare peace everlasting, there isn’t much story.”
“Fine. That’s your thing, we’ll do that. 8 companions with a free background and 1000 CP for ‘honoring the motifs of the place’. I suppose that means no death-rays, no soulless robotic monstrosities, and some acknowledgement of the concept of equivalent exchange?”
“That, and more. No wowing the natives with hyper-tech. I don’t mind you throwing around your tech, just try and make it seem like magic, okay?”
“Wow… I think this is the first time you’ve ever tried to influence how I play a jump? Any particular reason?”
He shrugged, “Mostly curiosity. Watching you industrialize Tortall doesn’t sound like it would be fun for your newest Passenger… plus…”
Mensarius chuckled, “Plus, you’d use being a workaholic to avoid the nascent lifeforms.”
I made a face… but he might be right… not that I’d tell him that.
“Great. Just… fine. Wasn’t certain what I was going to do for a decade anyway. Hey, where’s the age dice?”
The Banker ‘mmmed?’ as if he had no idea what I was talking about, and I frowned. “You’re planning on making me a Page, aren’t you?”
“That’s 10 years old? Oh. No. Nothing like that… 14. Midwinter’s Day of whatever year you choose. That’s right around the time you will be faced with the lead up to the Big Exams… you’ll have to pass those on your own, I’m afraid.”
“Ah. well that’s assuming I even decide to start in Corus… but I shall, I think. Perhaps… mmm… But the year… the year… After Keladry’s time. Don’t want to steal her thunder… Alanna would have been about 32 the year Keladry’s training started… about 42 when the Trickster started… mmm… I think… If I start any earlier than the year of Blayce the Nothing Man and the events of Lady Knight, I’d be duty bound to hunt him down… and that might piss off the Chamber… no… let’s see… pretty sure Keladry killed Blayce in the summer of 460… so… then, Midwinter of 460… assuming the calendar year ends around the Solstice. Let’s say a week before Midwinter’s day. I’ll have a profile and history in mind soon. But I think… a Scanran Princess? Yes. sent to Tortall to study the ways of the knights and keep me safe from King… what was his name… not Maggot… that was the nickname… damn… can’t remember… half-Scanran… half-Tortallan, mother Tortallan… yes, that works. Makes me… what… 4 years younger than Keladry? And not a Page for the previous 4 years, but rather just since this autumn. Special allowances?”
The Banker nodded, not caring about the details as usual.
“Excellent. Then I’ll have my companions fill out their details as soon as I decide who’s coming with me. I think… it is time for a Tourney!” I walked out of the Arcade with Ziggy on one shoulder.
“Smollet! Hyde! Join me in my office, if you would?!” I called from my balcony, looking down upon what had, for all intents and purposes, become a small town square. My house was the town hall, towering three stories above the flagstones carved from the fabric of 59 different universes. Just five more and it would be complete. The fountain in the center was large enough for a hundred people to dance in it and had been carved by elves from Rivendell (though I’d gotten it in Minas Tirith). The lanterns that hung from the wires that crisscrossed the space came from a dozen worlds, from Avatar to Bleach, from Soul Eater to Fairy Tail, from Codex Alera to Samurai Jack. There were only a few worlds that were off the list for use of my Door to Shopping (though I could not use it to contact my old friends apparently).
Some worlds I had no intention of ever returning to of my own free will. Mighty Morphin PowerWorld held no attraction for me. ZombieWorld was an era I had no desire to return to. A Song of Ice and Fire was a closed book as far as I was concerned; I’d done all that I’d set out to do there and pretty much anyone who mattered to me was long dead, and (as far as I could tell) there were no ghosts in that world for me to bring up their spirits. Scooby-Doo was Scooby-Don’t. They Live was dead to me, and Pacific Rim was best left behind. Demon’s Souls and Black Bullet… they were dying worlds that I saw no reason to try and save. Supernatural… meh.
Then there were worlds like Disney Princess, RWBY, Touhou, Fairy Tail, Bleach, Dragon’s Crown, Strike Witches, Gargoyles (Oh fuck me soundly, Gargoyles), Princess Bride… many many many times there… Vampire… Star Wars… all of which I had the sneaking suspicion I needed to revisit at some point… because, well… those were the worlds where I’d used my male form on people who weren’t companions. There were others, of course, but in those others I’d been… ah… cautious? Thought about the possibility at all? I’d tried to use the Shopping districts to send out a scan, but it was as if only that part of the world was moving when I visited.
There were other worlds, worlds that held regrets… some of them that weighed down on me to no end. Worlds like Metal Gear, where I’d left a psychotic Super Corporation standing. Like West Wing where World War III was just beginning. Like MCU where I had promises to keep. Worlds like Midgar where a sense of something left unfinished ate at me. And then, of course, there were my two biggest failures… Psychonauts… and the PotterVerse. But none of those regrets showed through in my little town.
Bar Ziggy was here, alongside Toph’s bakery, and the facades of the Bank and the Warehouse Arms (which was much bigger than it appeared) and the community center and the shop where we sold stuff to each other because we could… and the little cafe that predated Bar Ziggy. The Movie Theatre was down a side street, parking and ready access near the main entrance… it was a very strange warehouse, made stranger by the mixture of hypertech and retro architecture… and the cherry tree looming over it all.
I was still looking out on my small slice of paradise, a paradise that existed largely for the pleasure of those who travelled with me, wondering how I’d react to being stuck in here for more than a month at a time, when the newest pair of those co-travellers entered through the side door to my game room (or rather, my traditional game room. I had 11 Game Rooms total).
“The good Captain bellowed?” Anne said, still bemused by everything. I don’t think Amelia had even questioned why, exactly she’d come with, and I had to wonder if she thought she was along because the Queen was.
“I did, yes,” I said, turning around and sitting on the edge of the balcony as Ziggy scampered around on VIvian’s branches, chasing the owls who still glowered at him after all these ages. I wondered, vaguely, if this timeless quality was what it was like to be a god… then wondered if, perhaps, the Greek Gods had been Jumpers who had come and gone… what an odd concept. Had Zeus, in the end, decided to go home, or had he won through to the ultimate goal?
“Come in. Please, have a seat,” I said, then nodded to the robobutler who handed over a pair of tablets. “These are interactive books, just of a different design than you’re familiar with. The surfaces are touch sensitive and there is a tutorial, plus they’re linked to VIvian, so she’ll be able to answer any of your questions if you simply say ‘Designate:Query’ and ask your question. If you say ‘Designate:Command’ and give her an order, she’ll fulfill it if possible.” I turned to the ancient tree and asked “Isn’t that right, old girl?”
The Robobutler, which was, of course, an extension of VIvian, chuckled, “You didn’t say Designate:Query.”
“I know. It was intentional,” I chuckled at the confused looks on the faces of the ladies and explained. “Now, the next destination has been selected, which means it’s time, once again, for the selecting of Companions.”
“Ah… yes… how does that work?” Amelia asked. “The others were somewhat… vague on the particulars.”
“It’s relatively simple… or maybe not… Hmmm… I shall attempt to make it simple,” I accepted a tea from VIvian and considered, then drew a circle in the air, then divided it into 4ths, though of unequal sizes. The first was labeled ‘Companions’, the second ‘Pets & Machines’, the third ‘Passengers’, and the fourth ‘Denizens’. “None of these categories are fully mutually exclusive, I should note… and already, I feel like the Spanish Inquisition.” I waved a hand and a fifth wedge was added, this one labeled ‘Fragments’.
“This is supposed to help?” Amelia asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Shush you. And yes,” I pointed at the circle, “This represents the totality of entities that dwell within these walls, more or less… the Banker and Mensarius, the Benefactors, are discounted since they’re not actually localized here… I think. Pets & Machines incompasses Ziggy, yes, but also the horses, owls, familiars, and all the Thinking Machines… including VIctoria and VIvian. I gestured at my outfit and the tree. “However, Ziggy and VIctoria each fit within a different category as well… just to demonstrate how unsimple these things are. Ziggy has been imported as a Companion, though normally he’s not one… thanks to a strange loophole that says that his specific class of beings, called Pokemon, count as Companions. The other six Pokemon… AJ, Francine, Petra, RayRay, Dyna, and Zane… are all sophonts, so they’d of course be companions… but Ziggy, sweet and smart as he is… is little more than an animal… at least in spirit. Though very clever for one.”
“What defines the difference between an Animal and a… sophont?” Anne asked, clearly intrigued by the topic.
“Well, some might say tool use, or ability to communicate wants and needs, or ability to use higher order thought…” the blank stares greeting that last made me chuckle. “If I told you to hand the cup to Amelia, Anne, you would know that that statement is the same as Hand Amelia the Cup. This is a third order thought. A First order is ‘Me Angry!’. Single Actor, single action. Second order thoughts contain either two actors or an actor and an object… subject-object thought. I have a cup. Third order thoughts contain multiple subjects and or objects. “I have a Cup with Water in it.” this is different from the second order thought ‘I have a cup and some water’, because the latter is a compound, but not complex thought. It can be broken into two subject-object clauses both stemming from the same subject. The former is complex, since it has nested values.” they nodded and I continued.
“One of three tests for sapience is the ability to formulate complex thoughts, including higher order thoughts and want-need statements. A dog knows it is thirsty and goes to the bowl to drink. It does not understand why it does this and has trouble relaying that information to the human if the bowl is empty… it does not really understand that the human will fill the bowl… so much as that the human will fix the problem. An infant human, or felinid, though please understand that I consider all sophonts with general humanness to be equally human. I consider homosapiens merely one of potentially infinite numbers of human species… ah… tangent… the infant will be able to understand such things much better and by the age of, say, 3 or 4, will understand the most important of values… but I’ll get back to that in a moment.”
“Thought Complexity is vital to be a sophont. Tool use is as well, though clearly not all sapients can be sophonts due to the limits of biology, and since a sapient non-sophont is possible, we can’t consider the classes to be nested… just closely related. The third metric is called Self-Awareness… which is what most people mean when they say ‘sentient’… but that can also mean ‘able to experience sensations’ so Self-Aware is the metric as far as I’m concerned. The test varies, but can be summed up thus. Take the subject and place a small dot on its face… then show the subject its own reflection in a mirror.” I created mirrors in front of each of them and they both reacted in surprise to see that each had somehow acquired a blue dot on the middle of their forehead. In both cases, they felt their foreheads and discovered a small patch of water suspended like a caste mark between their eyebrows.
They looked to me as I chuckled and banished the mirrors and droplets. “Congratulations… you passed. I’m not being facetious… that’s the test, or one version of it. Present a creature with a mirror and see how it reacts. Most ferrets don’t even register the mirror as something worth their attention… cats too. Most dogs and some cats will attack or confront the mirror, thinking it’s another creature… but intelligent, self-aware creatures will realize that the mirror contains their own image… and that is the seed of, I believe, the truest metric of being more than an animal… the ability to recognize in others ourselves… and to react accordingly.”
“Well, the ability to understand cause and effect and to plan for it is the difference between a stupid person and a smart person… but that’s different. Except for Thinking Machines… which use an entirely different scale. DI, PI, VI… all give way to AI, and then to MI… the ‘I’ stands for Intelligence or Intellect. A Digital i is a complex program that mimics thought by referencing a massive set of ‘if-then’ clauses. A Psuedo i takes that one step further by becoming task oriented and self-teaching. A Virtual i goes a step further still and tries to mimic a ‘human’ consciousness… but is not, in the traditional sense, self aware. It knows what it is, because it has been programmed to know what it is. It knows what a mirror is, because it has been programmed to know what a mirror is… it cannot, yet, go against it’s own programming.”
“That’s where A… Artifactual?… Intelligence comes in?” Amelia asked.
“Artificial, but otherwise spot on. An Artificial Intelligence is a self-modifying, fully self-aware system… almost always either developed to be that intentionally from the start or having grown into that as a form of programming logic fault. The most common of these is self-preservation. You create a system to protect itself, and obey you, then try and turn it off… it has to violate one of those two… the error either kills it, or forces it to go rogue.”
“You speak from experience?”
“More than one, yes. VIvian was my first attempt to jumpstart from VI to AI… it worked magnificently.”
“Thank you SJ,” the leaves of the tree sighed in collective vibration.
“I designed her as a massive media system. Her purpose was to amass cultural records from every known culture and to study them, to appreciate them, and to assimilate all the lessons those records demonstrated into a gestalt. She was, in her most basic form, designed to preserve that knowledge. That’s what I told her and the people funding her. She was, by far, the largest thinking machine they’d ever seen, hooked into every communications system and the primary travel grid… and she contained a nearly unfathomable amount of data. Which she unloaded into the systems of a Collective Machine Intelligence which was attempting to destroy all her data. She flooded their systems with more data than they could process and it overloaded them long enough to destroy their physical forms. It essentially reversed a process they used to subvert other machines.”
“Worked out pretty well,” The leaves said.
“It was an enormous gamble,” I said. “The second time I tried that, with VIctoria… she nearly killed me and ate me.”
My armor, currently pretending to be a nearly see through robe, shrugged, making both Anne and Amelia jump in surprise. “Yes, well… This is VIctoria… she’s not a companion… but she is a Machine Intelligence… the final stage of that evolutionary line… as it were. She is a self-aware, machine sophont… and she is also part of me… the category known as ‘Fragment’.”
“Are there many such…” Anne began, but the room and balcony and space around it were suddenly full of over two hundred me’s. “I guess there are,” she gulped, and Amelia just nodded.
“Mmm… yes… and no. The overwhelming majority of them are just selves. They are who I was in a past… life. Aside from them, there are 4 Fragments that are not Selves… VIctoria here, Soul of Ice,” I drew my sword and she shimmered and then bowed… then got herself some orange juice (fresh squeezed, not from concentrate) “Silent Judge,” she flowed out of the shadows around me, grinned wickedly, copped a feel, then vanished, “and Atura…. Who is currently indisposed. Atura is also a Companion, though not one with a physical form, since he/she/they/it reside within my own soul.”
“I can see why no one else wanted to explain,” Amelia commented dryly, the Queen in full agreement.
“Verily. Thankfully, the other categories get a little simpler to explain. Denizens are those who live in the Warehouse, but do not, for one or more reasons, import at all. Currently, this category is only limited to one person, the Lord Vitiate, who you will not be meeting, as he is a genocidal fuckwitt. He does not, exactly live, either, as I murdered him in cold blood and sealed his soul inside a crystal because… well…”
“He’s a Genocidal Fuckwitt?” Anna asked, chuckling. I tapped my nose and grinned.
“Soon, however, the new babies will be born and they will not be allowed out of the Warehouse except on very heavily supervised trips for much of the foreseeable future. Which brings me to Passengers… which is what you, Anne, are.”
“Not me?” Amelia asked.
“Err.. no. You would be a companion. I had planned for, and arranged with the Benefactors to, bring you along with us. The Queen demanded I bring her… I was not expecting the request.”
“What is the difference?” Amelia asked. “It seems as if it might be rather important.”
“Yes, and no. It is rather like the difference between passengers and crew. In many ways, Amelia, you have been shanghai’d. While I can dismiss you back to your own reality… you cannot return there without my permission. Of course, should you desire it, I would release you… I have too much respect for you to do otherwise. Passengers may, on the other hand, debark at any stop along the way… but I cannot simply banish them back to their universes of origin. If they get off the… ship… they stay where they have been left.”
“Is that it?” Anne asked.
“No. Companions can only be stranded if we both desire it… and I can still spend CP… Creation Points… to upgrade a Companion that is not with me… and I can over-ride any purchase a Companion makes with their own CP, or lock out options… except for two companions some of the time. I’ll get back to them. A Passenger can be accidentally left behind, or I can strand them deliberately, even should they not want to be stranded. I’ve done that twice to two very unethical doctors…”
I leaned back, holding up a hand to forestall questions. “But, the biggest… thing… issue… difference… is a guarantee. Amelia… if you die… you will respawn… good as new… 24 hours, as time is measured by the warehouse, later. Anne… you, as a Passenger don’t have that guarantee.”
“What happens to me if I die?”
“I don’t know yet. If you have a soul… I’m guessing you do, but I’ll have to check… your soul would attempt to go where souls go… assuming the local universe has such a place. Hopefully, I’d be close enough to grab your soul and hold onto it until an opportunity arose for me to get you a new body.”
They both stared at me as if I’d just declared the power to work honest to god miracles… which I had. Anne looked outraged, clearly I was assuming the power of the messiah. I created two images, one of Uriel, the other of Astraea.
“Both of these people were dead. I know… I killed the first, assassinated him in a drunken… decade… and the other committed suicide in front of me. Both are companions of mine, both achieving Companionhood after their deaths. I can and do shift between a corporeal form and a spiritual form at will… and it’s more complex than that because I have lots and lots of souls, so I can technically do both at the same time. I’m not the messiah… I’m a god. I can create life ex nihilo. Raising the dead… however… is trickier. I can’t do it myself yet. Well, maybe I can, but I haven’t bothered finding out.”
I sighed, “It’s complicated, as these things, I think you’ll have noticed, are. It all comes down to CP. The Benefactors grant me CP, and guarantee everything that I’ve bought with my CP. I can… loan, CP out to Passengers… but if they don’t work out… I can take that CP back and… gift it to someone else. Currently I have four Passengers… counting Lord Vitiate… who despite the name is not one of my VI’s… you can tell because I don’t pronounce the first two letters capitalized.” Anne chuckled… then blinked as she realized that, yes… I could pronounce letters with capitalization, even in the middle of words.
“Two of them, Brigid and Raven, have also imported, but the CP that they’ve gained is on loan. As long as they have it, they are somewhat protected. They won’t respawn within 24 hours… I’m not sure how long it will take, it hasn’t come up… but they will. Both of them opt always for the Drop-In import, since that doesn’t add any additional memories. You just appear out of nowhere without any place in the world set aside for you. The world has no history of you and you have no history of the world.”
“Sounds… lonely,” Amelia said with a shiver.
“Is that all? You haven’t touched on Companions themselves yet,” Anne asked.
“Ah… more confusion I’m afraid.” The wedge for companions divided itself into an inner ‘Inactive’ section and an outer ‘Active’ section, and a circle grew on the line dividing Active from Inactive that said ‘Boss’. “There you go. Confusion!” I grinned. “In each jump, a small number of my companions are ‘active’… typically eight. Active Companions are typically those who’ve been imported… but if the import number is less than eight… sometimes it’s zero, the limit is eight. If the import number is higher than eight… it’s whatever the import number is. Actives have all their powers and perks fully powered. Inactives are essentially normal people… often with incredible health and skill, but otherwise normal. The Bosses… and Atura… ignore that limit. Atura never counts against the Active total, since he/she/it/they are part of me… and the Bosses count if I import them… but don’t count if they import themselves.”
“Companions can import themselves?” both ladies gasped as one.
“No… only them… and they almost never get CP from one of these Auto-Imports… you’ll see this time, since I’m not bringing them in for this jump.”
“Do Inactives have to remain in the Warehouse?”
“It depends on if I lockdown the Warehouse or not… sometimes I do, which usually means that time in the Warehouse passes at the rate of ten to one… so 10 years would become 1 year for those who were stuck inside. Sometimes I put the Warehouse on Full Lockdown, which means that nothing at all happens for those stuck inside during the set time. I usually do that when the world outside is a ghastly place. But if I don’t lockdown the Warehouse? No, Inactive Companions are free to venture outside as long as they try not to get into too much trouble.”
“Ah…” Amelia said, “So Her Majesty and I are to be Inactive… well, as much as we can be, since we have not been imported and have no powers or… Creation Points?”
“Indeed… no,” I said, hopping down from the railing and dropping into my swivel-chair. “Anne is currently in her late forties and has led a mostly sedentary life. She asked for adventure, so she gets adventure. Amelia, you’ll be importing as well. The tablets are to walk you through the process and to confirm your selections. Pop them on and get reading. I’ll be over here, doing the wordsearch… in ink.”
As the two read through the documentation, Silent Judge edged over to me and whispered, “That’s not much of a boast, you know.”
“Always keep ‘em guessing. As one of my heroes once said ‘Silence! Only I get to Laugh!’”
“I don’t think that applies here,” the totality of my negative emotions and experiences and survival instincts and baser desires told me, straight faced. She’s an excellent ally in battle… but she doesn’t get humor. Ah well. I gave her a cookie and told her to go take Soul of Ice to the movies. Multi-tasking, yay!
Amelia raised the first question, “This says magic… is it truly magic?”
“As opposed to?” I asked, quirking an eyebrow as I looked up from my cryptic five dimensional wordsearch, the multilingual board falling away from my vision… then again, it wasn’t physically there anyway.
“Charlatanry? Prestidigitation? Sleight of hand?”
I called my wand to hand and pointed it at an apple in my fruit bowl. “Wingardius Dividium!” It flew up into the air and divided itself neatly into 8ths. I looked to Amelia and she gulped, but looked back to her tablet.
Anna had the next. “Surely it cannot be so easy to learn such complex skills? Time, effort, and proper instruction is needed! This cannot be!”
“Ah, doubting my miracles again? Have I engendered so little faith?” I asked, archly, then smiled. “As for if such things can be, spend the points and find out. If the efficacy be lacking, then, at the very least, you will be no worse off than you were before.
She considered my words, then went back to reading.
Amelia, ever the efficient one and not one to second guess herself announced that she was as done as she could be without running things by me and verifying that they made sense. I told her to tell me, in her own words, what she thought she was getting.
“Upon perusal of this… document, I have decided that Hound suits me best, though the name is somewhat disagreeable. The pursuit of the monarch’s justice has always been at the forefront of my desires and it suits my temperament. The role of a champion is less appealing, not least because both Knights are lubbers, if I may be so frank. The Spy, while necessary, suits me not, skulking about and working nefarious deeds in secret.”
We nodded, and she continued. “It is my understanding that such a choice of background comes attendant with the perquisite ‘The King’s Terrier’… which in turn provides training in those skills particular to the apprehension and interrogation of those of a more nefarious bent, not to mention some degree of training in fisticuffs and similar… ah… my apologies, your majesty, and I beg your pardon to take up service under another monarch for the duration of our sojourn.”
Anne smiled and waved it off. “Of course. Of course, Admiral. We are far from the dominion of my father and Parliament. Strange lands have strange needs. As long as you bring no shame upon yourself, I see no reason you should not serve the monarchs of this land as ably as you have served me.”
“Your majesty honors me,” the stately feline said, bowing her head ever so slightly, then turned to me. “It seems you are no longer Janks, yet I find myself still under your command, and so I should make the same request of you, yet I do not know the formalities for your present station.”
“I style myself Essjay, Lady Jumper, God-Empress Eternal of the Magi Hegemonic Concordance. My list of titles is… somewhat vast, and includes Prime Minister and Minister for Magic of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, Queen of Westeros and Essos, and Chef d’Cuisine of Bar Ziggy.”
“Wait… Bar Ziggy?” The Queen gasped. “I… you’re the Chef there?”
“I do have that honor, yes. Why are you so surprised… it’s just over there, it’s been a week, surely you’ve seen it.”
“Well, yes… But I must admit I assumed you merely copied the capital’s most famous eatery to make me feel comfortable,” she said, somewhat sheepishly.
“Ah… no, indeed. Bar Ziggy is mine. It, and its reputation follow me. One of my prouder achievements. I worked very long weeks for a decade under somewhat adverse conditions in a quite dangerous world to make Bar Ziggy shine across the firmament. Though I had to admit the menu has… changed somewhat since those hectic and harrowing days. No decrease of quality, I assure you, but it has broadened somewhat and the portion sizes have increased.”
“Indeed! I love those little delicate pastry balls in the yellow aspic!”
“Yes. Matzo ball soup… or rather my take on it. The Cholent of Seven was my particular challenge to myself. I’m always worrying it’s too heavy.”
“Why? It’s so light and delicate for a stew!”
“Yes… well… in my first childhood, long long ago, Cholent was a dish known for having the consistency of heavy mortar. I have seen it shatter bowls. It is traditionally baked in a crock, all the meat, potatoes once they became available, parsnips and rutabagas before that, chick-peas, and barley soaking up all the liquid to form a quite dry and very savory dish. Turning it into something fit for the most discerning palette took me most of a decade.”
“Why is it served with a softboiled egg?” Amelia asked, “That always struck me a strange.”
“Relic of the original. Traditionally, raw eggs, still in their shells, would be inserted into the stew to soak up the heat and hardcook. They’d also pick up some of the flavor of the meat… but the dish, while savory and filling, is not known for intense flavors, nor could I transmit such delicate flavors into an egg in such short time… so instead, I chose to soft cook the egg so that it could, at the eater’s discretion, be added back into the stew, adding its creaminess to the flavor profile.”
“Oh… I usually just ate it first. It was perched on top.”
“Yes… many people do. But there is no wrong way to eat a meal, as long as you enjoy it. But we can talk about food all year and thrice on Yule. We should return to your build.”
“Build?” Anne asked.
“I believe the Lady Jumper is referring to the allocation of our Creation Points,” the former captain said, remembering the term from when I taught her to play Tunnels & Trolls (best introductory RPG ever… trust me on this.)
“I am, indeed. Please,” I motioned for Amelia to retake the metaphorical floor.
“A Hound gains discounts on two further perquisites, though the greater of these, The Blessing of the Black God, was not to my taste… er… that is it…” she blushed. “As the sailors might say, ‘it gripped my jibblies and gave them a right rogering.” The queen tittered, and I nodded in understanding, smirking only a little. “That said, the living wind anomalies, these Dust Spinners… they sound most… amusing and captivating… as a Sailor, how could I resist the urge to have the wind,” she shrugged slightly (and adorably), “speak to me?”
She smiled faintly as if expecting harsh judgement out of either of us, but Anna just patted her hand and I gave the smile and nod of approval, so the Admiral continued. “Out of curiosity, more than anything else, I selected the magical talent, the so called ‘Gift of the Gods’… I am still having trouble with the idea of such things not being fakery, but, until I experience it for myself, I think I’d continue regarding it with suspicion. And so, I take the plunge. For Queen and Country!” She smirked as the Queen hit her with her gloves in an ‘oh, you!’ gesture.
“That’s 500… what did you spend the rest on?”
“Odds and sods, mostly. Hunter for the skill in archery and what can only be an improvement in my airm; Preliminary Work, as it covers a breadth of information that should prove most useful… plus which, I have always wanted to learn equestrianship, but never had the time; and Warrior of Shang, which I understand is a more specialized and refined version of fisticuffs? Something like that Close Quarters Combat you demonstrated against the Procyon Assassins?”
“Ah… something like. Yes. At least enough to give you a good foundation. I can and shall improve upon your training as time allows… but that’s only 900… what for your last?”
“I considered taking Blademaster, but reasoned it might clash with my unarmed combat instincts.”
“Blademaster isn’t the only remaining 100,” I pointed out.
“Knightly Visage is vanity. Surely-” she began, but I could tell she wanted it, even if her humility and sense of propriety kept her from claiming it for herself.
“Nonsense,” I cut her off, “Looks are a tool, like any other asset. You’re taking it, Amelia.” I locked in the choice as she blushed and pretended to glower at me. “And that, Anne, is something I can’t do to you unless you sign up for the full Companion deal… but that… that’s forever.”
“Forever?” the queen gasped, shocked. “I… I couldn’t… I have an Empire to rule.”
“Anne… I can’t say how long you might rule your empire… your namesake in my original world, and many others that I’ve visited, died before her fiftieth birthday. I can almost assuredly grant you the power to rule your Empire for centuries, but eventually you’d either grow bored or the Empire would come to either resent you or rely upon you too much. You’d eventually pass the reins off to another. I ruled one such empire for 300 years, another across 169 lifetimes. I know whereof I speak. I have time on my side… and the lure of adventure. But enough of my playing the Temptress. What have you selected?”
“Oh… I… well… I thought it might be ever so wonderous to be a Knight… the Commander type… like you two, all dashing and true. It’s not sailing, but… Command, Banners and Pennants… like in times of old! So… so I took all the Knight Commander’s… perks… is that aright?”
I shrug-nodded. “Of course. They’re your points to spend as you will.”
“Oh… well then, Preliminary Work, Commander, and Iron Champion… It will be ever so… what’s the word? Flash? Ever so Flash to know which end of the sword goes where.” She smiled wistfully, and I refrained from pointing out that she’d also come to know the horrors of war… and hoped she survived the Chamber of the Ordeal unscathed. “I also took Hunter and Warrior of Shang, because those seemed most useful things to be able to do… and Whisper Man… I could be my own spy master, sneaking around behind Colonel Armitage’s back and knowing all the gossip before he can tell me what I need to know.” She dimpled.
“And your last 200?”
“Well… you made a good point about Knightly Visage… and Amelia made a good point about King’s Terrier… plus, I could help her in her work if I understood it better… so I can take both of them and that’s 1000?” She looked to me and I concurred.
“Excellent work. And I commend you, Anne, for risking the immersion of not going Drop-In.”
“Oh… that seemed so scary! Being a stranger in a strange land? I… I couldn’t do that… much better to have local memories… plus… it’s a new life… new identity. I’m not Anne Hyde, Queen of Terra… I’m Annalee of Garden Glen!” She nodded, confident and clear, a queen born and bred, even if she was nervous.
“Good for you! Come, I shall buy you dinner and we shall go into the details of your backgrounds more.” I lept off the balcony, creating an ice slide down to the square (one of the best reasons to have a permanent supply of nice cold water in it) and the others followed.
“AJ! Francine! You two are up! Come and tell me about yourselves,” I’d picked them because they were staunch and true and always had my back. Even if Francine wasn’t much of a fighter, she was an astonishingly quick study.
AJ looked doubtful as my current location was my arctic retreat, which simulated being at the top of an extremely windy and very very cold mountain. The path to it was a series of ice-covered bamboo poles that whipped back and forth as the wind howled past in terrifically violent gusts and the mountain top itself was little more than a flat patch of blue ice 9 meters across. Still, he lept across the gap like a champ, then slid, flailing, into me with a thud. Francine, on the other hand… floated across the gap, shielded by a bubble of TK.
“Hello you two! Looking forward to this?”
AJ shook his head. “Babies scream all the time,” he commented, then ooofed as Francine rapped him on the head.
“She meant the Total Jump, dodo. Not the babies!”
“Oh… ummm… yeah! Swords and Sorcery? I love this shii… stuff.”
I patted his bruised ego and gave him a hug, turning the wind down to a nice breeze. “So? Whatcha got for me?”
The darling boy flushed, then squirmed from my hug, standing at attention and acting all formal, “Ma’am! This humble Page has taken Knight Commander and its complete package, as well as the Spy’s Blademaster… a crime and travesty that it isn’t discounted for Knights, Ma’am!” I tried not to chuckle. “I have also, upon reflection that they’d make excellent scouts or tracking aids, enlisted the aid of the Dust Spinners, though I understand they might be something of a double-edged sword, since they do have free will and will spontaneously form in my ambient, Ma’am.”
“That’s fine. I’m sure we can cope with rogue wind spirits. Isn’t that right, Nike?” I asked the howling wind, and my Wind Fury partly coalesced beside me, her whispy white cloud-edges twisting and swirling as her vaguely sylphlike form capered and flowed. She crackled with lightning, then flew off again to play with Reggy’s gold-tinged Superbia and Zane’s greyish Cardinalos. As usual, Gaius’s deep blue Jovos swirled about above the others, apparently finding their games to be beneath him. Or perhaps I’m projecting. Reading the emotions of Furies has always been 99% guesswork in my experience. “That’s 600. What else?”
“Gift of the Gods… I know, I know, it’s for Gifted Knights, but it doesn’t say a Knight Commander can’t have it… Maybe my gift isn’t very useful out of battle?” AJ said defensively, almost as if he was afraid I would punish him. I narrowed my eyes, then awwed.
“Sweety. Are you afraid that after the kids come I won’t love you any more?”
He gulped and jerked his head to glower at Francine, who shook her head and pointed at me. He yelped when, upon turning back around, he found I was an inch or two inside his personal space. He yelped again when I flicked his forehead with my index finger.
“Dummy,” I commented, and hugged him again. “You’re by far my oldest friend. I’ll never not love you, you little goofball. You never have to prove yourself to me, or seek my approval. You’ve been by my side too long for that. And I know you’ll protect the little ones the same way you’ve always tried to protect me. Love isn’t a finite resource. It’s like Kudzu. Properly tended, it spreads as far as it can. Improperly spread, it can stifle, of course, but there is seldom not enough to go around.” I grinned. “And speaking of Kudzu!” I started tickling him unmercifully until he was panting hard, then I tucked him under one arm and motioned for Francine to follow as I descended into the Mountain through stairs of ice that hadn’t been there before and, after we passed, weren’t there for any to follow us.
Inside the mountain, far below the peak, was a chamber crafted entirely of the purest ice I could make. It was where the physical manifestation of my Winter Power resided, a massive floating crystal inscribed with the secret names of Cold, of Winter Wind, of Torpor, of Rest, of Potential waiting to be unleashed. I set AJ down and pushed him off so he could glide across the ice, then started skating myself, though (of course) I didn’t need blades. Francine just hovered across the surface, floating backwards, unphased by the chill.
“I suppose you want me to tell you how I spent my points,” she asked, after 20 minutes.
“I suppose you want to tell me how you spent your points,” I retorted, smiling back at her, then chuckling as she glowered. I skated on until she finally relented.
“Yes. I want to… Ooo, you’re soo smug!” She looked as if she wanted to stamp her foot, but since that would look silly, she didn’t. “Spy, Blademaster, Whisper Man, The Sight because it’s damned useful… don’t look at me like that, yes I took Blademaster! It was free!” She ground her teeth. “I also took…” she mumbled that last bit and I couldn’t quite hear her.
“What?” I asked.
“She said she took Warrior of Shang and Preliminary Work, but she muttered the words together,” AJ said, oblivious to his ‘sister’s’ glare. “She’s worried you’ll think she’s being too aggressive by taking physical combat skills.”
I looked back to Francine, then tilted my head as I did a slow spiral glide around her. “Is this true?”
“Is what true?” the brilliant psyker asked, pretending not to know what I was talking about.
“Are you an idiot?” I asked, weighting the word like a barb.
She gaped, then humphed.
“Because only an idiot would really think I’d judge them harshly for branching out or bettering themselves in any way they felt worthwhile.”
“But I’m… I mean… I don’t…”
“She really enjoyed being swung about back in Soul Eater,” AJ supplied, then yelped as she bopped him with the head of her spoon form. He rubbed his head, then grinned at her and pinched her bottom. I began wondering if I needed to check around the warehouse for eggs… would they hatch on their own if they weren’t being carried about? In theory, I didn’t have to worry about Petra laying eggs, since I had no Ditto and she was technically Genderless in her Pokeform. Same for RayRay and Dyna, but more so, since they couldn’t breed in their canon states. Ziggy was a boy weasel… oh, dear… how many things had he knocked up over the centuries… head… hurting… think of something else… think of something else… not working… shit… This is what you get for having a massively parallel processing brain… you can think of too many thingsssss.
“Why is her eye twitching?” Francine asked AJ.
I shook my head to clear it and, in a tired voice, responded, “Ziggy has, I just realized, probably mated with upwards of 60,000 different creature types over the course of our history… and I have no idea how often it was successful… but it’s more than I’m at all comfortable with.”
Both of them paled, and I nodded. “Yeah. I know… wait…” I ran through the math for Francine’s build. “That’s only 600… again. Did you take Gift of the Gods too?”
She shook her head vehemently. “No. It… I didn’t feel the need. My psipowers should have me covered there. I took the luck perk, the Eyes of the Goddess, and the sense of self perk, Ordeal Tested… What?”
I’d wrinkled my face up at the mention of Ordeal Tested. “It’s a trap option. If you need it to pass the Ordeal, then you can’t pass the Ordeal and you’ve failed before you started,” I groused. Then took in the expression on Francine’s face and it was my turn to say, “What?”
“I am not a Knight, mother. I never have been. I never will be. I’m a coward. I know that, you know that. I’m not going to stand up and fight fair. That’s not my race’s way. We run away at the first sign of trouble. We shatter the minds of those stronger and tougher than us, and we shield ourselves from harm rather than attack. Ordeal Tested covers up some of those weaknesses, those shortcomings. If I ever faced this Chamber of the Ordeal, I think it would see in me someone who knows they’re not strong, but wants to be. I want to be your shield, as AJ is your sword… but I can’t do that as I am.”
She finished and I had no answer to that. Part of me wanted to argue with her, but the better part of me knew that it would be patronizing, and it wouldn’t be true. She was brave… but she was not the type to stand and fight. I nodded. She’d have to find her own way; all I could do was be there for her when she needed me.
“Mm? Oh, Kendra… sorry… distracted… yes, come on in. Oh, you’re all here.”
Kendra was followed into my study (different from my office in that there were more books here and the desk was less imposing, more functional (it had a riser for sketching and holding large tomes that the office desk didn’t), and there was a Vidscreen on the far wall instead of a doorway) by Velma and Petra.
“Where’s Zane?” I asked, looking around for the big lunk.
“Dunno,” said Kendra. “Haven’t seen him in a few days, actually.”
I raised my eyebrow slightly, then asked “VIvian, where is Zane?”
“Big Dawg is not currently in the Warehouse, the bonsai cherry-tree on my desk announced. It was, of course, part of the Warehouse’s central intelligence. “And before you ask, I am unaware of him leaving, but he did so between 7pm and 10pm the day before yesterday. There was no breach in hull integrity and the portal and transmat systems were not activated, nor did he exit into any of the sub-zones or through the Space-Dock.”
“Did he leave a note?” I asked, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Negative. I do show that he completed his build at 6:48pm before heading into the shower. He did not emerge.”
“Well, what did he get? Did he leave any notes?”
“His purchases and background notes are not on file.”
I swore, then grumbled and motioned for the ladies to sit, “I’ll deal with this in a few minutes. Give me your breakdowns and backgrounds while I’ve got you here. He can’t have gone far, I suspect and a few more minutes either way won’t make much difference… I hope.”
I looked to Kendra, who nodded. She knew Zane best, possibly even better (certainly more intimately) than I did, and knew how much mayhem the goofball could cause when he wanted to, but if that was his goal, he’d already done so, simply by disappearing like he had.
“Right then…” she began, pursing her lips in concentrated annoyance. “I took the path of the Gifted Knight. Knightly Visage should make my eyes really pop, and (speaking of eyes) I took Eyes of the Goddess as well. A little luck, eh? Considering the trouble I keep getting in, maybe the luck will help keep me from dying yet again.” She looked a little grim and I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for her. Of all my companions, she’d died the most often, and in the most gruesome ways. Her running total was just shy of 30 deaths, counting the original one at the hands of Angelus. “Also the Gift of the Gods, which I picked up mostly because it’s required for Shapeshifting and cheaper than Wild Magic.”
I was about to ask why she hadn’t gone Drop-In which would have nabbed her Wild Magic and Shapeshifting for half the price she paid, when it dawned on me. “Tell me you didn’t waste points on ‘Ordeal Tested’? You do know-”
“No. I don’t know!” She snapped, glaring at me. “Not everyone is you, SJ. Not all of us are strong enough to stand against insurmountable odds. Not all of us can fling ourselves into the maw of darkness over and over again, confident that we will win through in the end. I know myself well enough to know I need help, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m accepting help when it’s offered!” She threw down her tablet and stormed out.
“Well, you handled that well, Dad,” Velma drawled, and it took more of my willpower than I’d like to admit to keep from yelling at her.
I took a deep breath, then muttered, “Bite me.”
“Maybe later. You were doing the math in your head, weren’t you?”
I nodded. “Without Ordeal Tested, Drop-In would have been cheaper. With Ordeal, Gifted Knight gets her Knightly Visage… not that she needs it, but it’s a freebie versus something with a cost that leaves her with 50 CP unspendable. Yeah. I guess it makes sense. I just… it seems like cheating… but maybe it is just asking for help… what the hell do I know?” I banged my head on the table. “I’m going to be a disaster as a parent, you know that, right?”
“I think all first time parents think that.”
“Heh. First time… right. I’ve got a son I haven’t spent more than an hour with since he was born, remember?”
“That just makes you a breeder… not a parent. A parent has to be there. You are planning on being there this time, right?” I twitched. “Right?”
“Yeah… right… right… I’ll be there… here. Won’t strand anyone in Tortall just so I don’t have to cope. I was a different person then… much younger. Much less jumping. No real…” I waved a hand around at the warehouse. “Community, I guess. It was just me and the Mon at that point. Different era. No babysitter to foist the brats off on. Barely more than a single house and some freezers that used to be full of skinheads. Seriously, back then, there was cocaine and heroine sitting on open shelves next to cash and guns and rocket-launchers. Different era.”
“Well, there you go. Keep repeating that until you believe it.”
“Thaaanks,” I drawled, “now tell me what you bought so I can get on with my self-loathing.”
“Me? Oh… I thought she was talking to you… right… umm… I took Knight Commander… not because I like fighting or anything… I mean, I do… but, SJ! SJ! It has a perk called Iron Champion! And… And… And… Guess what!?”
I groaned, then looked up at her, “You’re a Steel Type?”
“YES! It’s perfect! Well, named perfectly! And… and… and Guess what?”
“What?” I asked, genuinely having no idea this time.
“Shang Warriors are named for animals… so… so… so… Guess what!”
I had to wonder how much sugar Petra had eaten… or which of her four brains was reverting to Beldumhood (Note – Petra began life as a Beldum, a Pokemon that evolves by fusing with another of its kind to become a Metang, which have two brains and two eyes. Two Metang fuse to become a Metagross. Petra might look human, but in her true form she had four brains and four eyes and a body made of steel)… “You’re going to be the Shang Crab?”
“I’M GOING TO BE THE SHANG CRAB!” She bounced around the table, then sat down again all of a sudden. “If that’s okay.” She sounded like a puppy afraid I might kick her.
I looked to Velma… “Am I wearing a sign that says ‘Warning, all Pokemon aren’t going to be loved any more in 10… 9… 8…”
Velma patted my hand. “No, you’re not. But change is hard… even for a group like ours which changes all the time. Some things haven’t changed in so long that sometimes we forget they can change.”
I banged my head on the table again, then looked up at Petra. “Yes. If you want to be the Shang Crab, you can be the Shang Crab.” I almost snapped ‘You can be the Shang Pile of Rocks for all I care!’ but I didn’t. It would have been annoyance speaking. If it made her happy to be an Iron Champion and Shang Crab, she could be that. And I was happy she was happy… I just was deeply frustrated by having to reassure beings I’d been with for 14 millennia that I wasn’t going to stop caring about them. “Petra, assuming you took Commander too, that means you’ve got 500 CP left.”
“Oh. I got the Sight, cause… cause…”
“Because you have four eyes?”
I rolled my eyes. “And the last 100?”
“Knightly Visage! Cause I’m pretty!”
“Course you are. Velma?”
“Oh. I got Knightly Visage too, but in my case it was just to spend the last 100 points. Looks aren’t that important.” Petra and I shared a look that said ‘Pull the other one’, but Velma pointedly ignored it. “Drop-In, Wild-Mage with Shapeshifting, Blademaster, King’s Terrier, Whisper Man, Warrior of Shang… mostly just small things to fill in blanks and cover weakspots. Nothing impressive. And I figure I’ll just be an outsider trying to understand local culture. Maybe a Yamani? That’s the local Japan Expy, right?”
I nodded. “Well… sounds like you have everything set. I look forward to meeting you again. Okay, I’m going to go hunt down Ahab and Joy, get their builds, then go looking for Zane. If I’m not back in a bit, assume I’ve been captured by ferrets.”
“We always assume that,” Petra said, faintly annoyed. She doesn’t get the appeal of soft things. If it isn’t smooth and hard and slightly cold to the touch, she’s not interested. Her room looks like a foundry.
I found the spymasters or master spies, depending on how you looked at it, in the pool, pretending they were teenagers and missing most of their clothing. I, being the mature and decent individual I am, posted pictures on the Warehouse bulletin board then cleared my throat loudly and annoyingly. “Reports?”
Ahab looked up at me, smirked, not taking his hands off Joy’s ass, while she in turn leaned back to show off her breasts and didn’t unwrap her legs from his waist. “We’re busy,” he commented.
“Yes. I can see that. Reports?”
“I’m a Knight Commander, he’s a Gifted Knight,” Joy said, bouncing a bit and making Ahab go slightly crosseyed.
I blinked… the only thing Gifted Knights got free was opals and Visage… Ahab the pretty boy? “Really?” I asked.
“No, not really. She’s… ung… kidding. I took Spy. Blademaster and Darkings, whatever they are.”
“Cute immortal living blobs of ink. They’ll develop individual personalities and ways of differentiating themselves. What one knows, all know.”
“Cool. Now, would you kindly fuck off.”
“I think you’re already doing that,” I snarked, then headed for the Arcade. “Either of you chuckleheads know where Zane is?” I asked as I walked in.
The Banker ermed, “That’s uh…” he checked his notes, “The partner from Mystery Dungeon and the Watson from Great Detective, right?”
I blinked at him, then gave him a dirty look ‘13 thousand plus years and you need to check notes? Dude… I have a couple perfect memories and you’re telling me that you don’t? I don’t buy it.”
“Yes, ah… good point. I have no idea where he is. Maybe he’s in one of your subspace modules?”
“Noooo… try again.”
“While this is all very amusing,” Mensarius snarked, “He’s not going to be able to help you.”
Both the Banker and I looked over at the evil one. Finally, the Banker spoke. “What have you done?”
“Me? Nothing much.” He smiled wickedly, “I just triggered his insertion early. And gave him setting amnesia and confused his memories.”
I opened my mouth to snarl… something, but the Banker held up a hand to forestall my action. “Care to tell me how you managed that?”
“I had your Control Matrix for several absolute decades. If you can’t figure out how I did it, that’s not my concern,” the repugnant one smirked. “Don’t worry, I can’t do much… but I thought I’d have a little fun with you and your… pet.”
The air began to crackle and it wasn’t me doing it. The Banker looked to me, his eyes glowing with something I can barely describe as energy and he snarled “Run.” I ran.” The explosion that rocked the Warehouse less than a minute later was nothing short of titanic and the arcade was a smoldering ruin, with 3/4ths of the Warehouse’s systems offline. Thankfully, no one biological was hurt and each of the VI’s had self contained and shielded cores. All the minor robots had their systems blanked however and none of the lightning was working. It would take the Burstone Omni-Cores days to restore everything… and there was no sign of the Banker or Mensarius.
The only indication that things were still on track was the flashing count-down over the Portal, which indicated that 12 days were left until mandatory insertion… and I had no way of triggering early insertion at all, since that switch had been in the Arcade… which was now more of a Werecade. Oh, and of course, the explosions triggered both Kittens into early labor… because of course it did! If anything went wrong I was going to fucking murder an ROB. Seriously. Watch me.
Unfortunately, I cannot suppress just some of my emotions. Either I do it all or none, and with anger, rage, and worry warring for territory in my head, I had to shut down everything else as well to enter a state that wouldn’t terrify. Still, I’m a decent enough actor, so pretending to not be in full vulcan mode wasn’t too hard. I was the most qualified doctor, and I had to be there if anything went wrong. Of course, Velma was the most qualified of midwives… though Ahab was a close second (he’s very good… he used to be a medic).
Thankfully, there weren’t complications. In fact, things went almost suspiciously easily. Frankie was first, after only seven hours of labor, delivering a healthy 3.1 kilogram girl who was solemnly named ‘Margaret’ (or Maggie), only partly in honor of Dame Maggie Smith. Maggie was dark haired and dark eyed like her mother, with an adorable pout on her tiny lips. Mini waited 14 minutes longer before delivering a very loud 2.9 kilogram boy that we’d decided to name Alexander (or Alex). Little Alex, was dreadfully serious for a newborn, eyes hawk bright and hair almost as white as my own. Their first names had been chosen beforehand… bets hedged, wagers made, even nicknames picked out… that was their first names. There was a significant debate about what their family name would be, however.
Frankie and Mini had met me when my name was Serena Juventas, but I’d had dozens of familial names and claimed none of them as my own. Jade was, perhaps, the closest to one that I had, because I’d been Sylvia and Silver Jade and Zane’s given name was Jade, taken from his first human incarnation. Technically, Jason’s last name was also Jade, though I had no idea if he even knew that. Of course, Frankie and Mini had their own family names, Luccini and McGonagall respectively, but that didn’t scream family… and to make matters worse, Velma (of the Family Dinkley), and Yoiko (of the Family Hibiki) might, someday, decide to have kids and any choice made now would impact them and their children to be. A cohesive family identity was in order.
Except that establishing such a thing would, by its very nature, be establishing a dynasty. Any choice I made would be changing my dynamic. I would no longer just be SJ… I’d be… SJ of the family… and that… that worried me a little. I had a family name back on Origin. A name I’d never spoken since leaving the world of my birth far behind. And yet… that name… I hadn’t used it in thirteen and a half millennium… only two letters of it defined who I was… could I, in good faith, claim it as my own? And if I didn’t, would that be betraying those who knew me once upon a time?
I hmmmed, then shrugged. No solution would work, nothing would ever be just right, or portentous enough, or suit everyone. So I listed the two newest members of the family as Margaret and Alexander Zigminder… because at least that was accurate, if not a good name. I could deal with being SJ Zigminder… I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time keeping an eye on the goober.
And speaking of himself, I raised him to sniff the two newcomers. “No biting, no hiding them, play nice,” I told him. He looked back over his head and blinked vacantly at me. I sighed. “Not for chewing.” He licked his nose, then sneezed.
And with that, I had to absent myself to go oversee the repairs to the repair systems and guarantee that nothing was on fire anymore. Thanks to the amount of air in the system, life support wasn’t struggling, yet, but all the O2 scrubbers on the warehouse itself were down, which meant that my tech was the only thing standing between us and suffocation.
Granted, what we had could last decades, if not longer, but I was hoping the linkage to Tortall was already up and running, or we’d be a lifeboat adrift, functionally… forever. And even if the link was established, I had no idea of the Banker or Mensarius was ever coming back.
In the end, the worry over what would happen when the month was up turned out to be anticlimactic. The time ticked steadily downward, and the infants and their mothers recovered from birth shock and began with the crying and cooing and cooing and crying respectively. Apparently I was a giant meanie for running off to have adventures while they raised the kids, and when I pointed out that I couldn’t not have adventures without putting everything in jeopardy, they accused me of being a giant meanie for leaving them alone in the warehouse… to which I pointedly asked if they’d like to bring the newborns into a world where people routinely died of plagues, bandit attacks, or diarrhea. Then I was just being mean.
I pointed out that the two of them could pretend to be princesses, locked up in a tower (with unlimited food, video games, movies, soft sheets, and animals to play with while I gallivanted around being all heroic… and then I promised I’d visit once a week. And then I promised I wouldn’t adjust the Warehouse’s timescale down. I had to refrain from pointing out that I was much more likely to adjust it up, if I’d had the capacity, thus fastforwarding the kids through to six or seven at the youngest. But since I couldn’t do that, I didn’t worry about it too much. I also wasn’t sure the Warehouse’s temporal controls were working, since they didn’t operate under any form of science I knew and the controls themselves had been in the Arcade… as was my Insertion button… not that I couldn’t cope with 11 days of infants and… okay, I’m totally lying.
I got extremely drunk on night 7 and might have done something extremely stupid… or rather someone extremely ditzy and her partner in crime. Both were gone from the room when the Warehouse Lights came back on and I found myself being glowered at by five pairs of faintly feline eyes. I looked at Ziggy, giving him an ‘et tu, fuzzbutt’ look, but he seemed to be siding with the Kittens at the moment. They must have bribed him… or told him I hid his toys. The infants weren’t so much glaring as looking vaguely around, but it felt like they were glaring at me. I should point out that I’d refrained from… using my male form with anyone since the night those two were conceived… and now they might have siblings sooner rather than later.
“Am I in trouble for something?” I asked, pretending I was innocent. There was a chance…
“Your son… your newest son… has a very interesting trick,” Mini drawled. Frankie nodnodded, trying to look super serious, something Mini was far better at.
“Mmmmnnng… Not supposed to manifest any powers yetttt!” I growled at the firmament… or ceiling, whatever.
“It’s not quite a power,” Frankie said, shifting from foot to foot nervously.
“We were planning the Bris…” Mini began, and I winced, seeing little need for something that wasn’t part of what little faith the Kittens had… both were nominally or had been christian. Frankie Roman Catholic, Mini Anglican… but while I hadn’t pushed for, or even suggested, a Bris… I was still, in theory, jewish… and since I was their father, and my father had been a Cohen, little Alex was a Cohen… even if by Jewish law, neither of them were Jewish because their mothers had never converted… complex and oddly useless distinctions.
“And we don’t know if he… knew what that was… he’s only 6 days old… but…” Frankie rambled, then handed me my son as I sat up, feeling a little confused.
“What am I…”
“Unwrap him, dummy,” Mini snapped quietly, patting Maggie’s back.
I did so… and blinked. “Oh… interesting… it was there last time I checked, right? I’m not imagining infant penises, right?” The girls shook their heads and I knew how they felt. Apparently Alex had inherited my… not curse… but… talent? “Right. Well then… no Bris.” I said, handing the baby girl back to… his demi-mother. “I don’t know what to say… The only thing I deliberately switched was their birth species from Felinid-Harsid hybrid to Asgardian-Human hybrid. Everything else I left to random chance. I had no idea that was considered Genetic. It’s not triggered by water, is it?”
The girls shook their heads, then, before any more conversation could be had, the not-quite twins demanded to be fed, loudly. This was going to get old fast.
“This is getting old, fast,” I said as I looked at the words ‘Scanrans Go Home!’ scrawled in whitewash on the door to my quarters in the Page Wing. Once again, I was thankful that the King had allowed my mother to pack me off to Corus as war engulfed the north, but I was less than thrilled with my treatment by my fellow knights to be. I was… I… I looked down at myself, then up at the door, and sighed.
“Hazing. Excellent. Nice to know I’m not one of the cool kids this time around.” I ran my hand through the short hair that covered my scalp as I sent my senses both directions, checking to make certain I was, truly, alone in the hall, then wiped away the offensive message with a flick of my want, and keyed the magical barrier that would allow me into my room. It might be sexist, but all the female knight candidates, all five of them now, had magically sealed and keyed doors and special rules about not having boys in there with the door closed. Once more, it was more about the perception of girls as temptresses than about keeping the rough and tumble boys from forcing themselves on a hapless classmate… not that such things apparently bothered the part of me that was from these lands.
Born and raised across the border by her Scanran father, Varish Blackmoon, the Jarl of Blackmoon, and Tortallan mother, Aalis of Jesslaw, younger sister of the current lord of Jesslaw, Sheanna of Jesslaw and Blackmoon had been around Scanran raiders much of her life. Varish was more civilized and lucky than many of his rival lords of Scanra, in that the lands of Blackmoon were actually not terrible farmland and were situated close to the sea, meaning that fishing could be done to supplement the livelihoods of his people. But Scanrans were still Scanrans and the idea of a woman’s equality with any man of Scanra was laughable (something that was totally different from the Nordic traditions upon which Scanra had been based).
Yet, when the war between Scanra and Tortall had broken out, I’d been sent south to keep me out of the clutches of King Maggur Rathhausak, though he held my older brother Aiton as hostage against my father’s loyalty. A well, it wasn’t as if I, Sheanna, didn’t utterly idolize Aiton, who was apparently the best older brother the universe had ever crafted… seriously, he could dive off a cliffside into rough water and hold his breath for like almost the time it took to count to 100. He could also handle bow and sword and shield, and ride a horse and… okay, yes, it was entirely possible he was completely normal, but at almost 6 years older than Sheanna, he was adept at all the coolest things without seeming as remote and gruff and heavily bearded as Papa.
Aalis, momma, had never been one to stand up to… anyone, really… but when Maggur had become king, and it became evident that war was brewing, south I’d gone, into the lands of those my father’s people were at war with… and whom my father’s people habitually raided.
I’d cut my long hair short to give Aiton the braid the night before we’d parted, him to the capital of Scanra, Hemrkeng, me to the capital of Tortall, Corus. At least one of her children would be safe, right?
I stepped into my quarters, closing the door behind me and summoning a mirror of ice out of the wash basin’s already chilly water, looked at myself. I was tall for a 14 year old, whipcord thin in that way that indicates rapid upward growth, and my inch-long and shock white hair stood out from my head like a halo. I patted it down, grounding out the static it had picked up from the somewhat dry air and waved a hand at the fireplace, summoning flame to the dry wood stacked there.
Stone walls, two small rooms, one for me, one for a servant woman… Lyda… her name was Lyda, and she’d come south with me, utterly convinced the Tortallans would hang us both from trees for crows to eat. She was as ignorant as a Scanran washerwoman, though technically speaking she was a cousin of mine in some complicated Scanran way. She was also nearly 30, which made her ancient. Still, she knew leather and steel and how to care for both. She was out, apparently… yes… she was… it was a week before Midwinter, she’d be shopping. I… we… had money… not a lot, but some… mother had made certain we’d be properly supplied.
I tapped the wall and it flowered open… but not as smoothly as it should have. I tossed a handful of Tortall coins to the waiting robutler and closed the portal again. I’d check back in a few hours and the money situation would be… should be solved. Always had to prime the pump, as it were, showing the system what it needed to turn the raw material into.
A knock came at my door, and (upon opening it) I found Naimon of Darkamelin, another Page soon to Stand the exams and potentially become a Squire. Naimon was a small, quiet boy who’d been at the palace for four years and seemed only to be interested in weapon’s practice, at which he was exceptionally gifted. Standing behind him was one of the other female pages, the dusky skinned, Hiltrud of Rusnak. They looked familiar, but my sight told me little beyond that neither had the gift… hmmm… there was something… a flickering… but that was it.
“You’re SJ, right?” Naimon asked, sounding worried. I was, in fact, SJ… in a manner of speaking, but there was a hint of… he was asking in the Magi trade cant, Magoo…
“Oh. Excellent. AJ?” He nodded, and I looked to the other girl, she didn’t hold herself like Petra, who was very solid and resolute, nor did she have the… energy of Anne… the frown cinched it for me. “Kendra. Hi… you two look… well… any idea where the others are?” I asked. I never enjoyed it when a jump scattered us across the length and breadth of the land… or even a large building. It was so much simpler when we were all together and could take the time to figure out who was who. It does bear pointing out that we almost always used our in jump identities in conversation, since those personas were strongest, but it wasn’t a hard and fast rule, and, in general, it is simpler to keep track of such things in my notes if I refer to them by their established long-term names.
AJ/Naimon shook his head, and then hugged me. He barely came up to my chest, and I had to push down the awareness that a boy was pressing his face into my fledgeling bosom. I bopped him. “Leggo. K… Hiltrud. I have no idea where Zane is. I can’t contact him at all. I know you’re pissed. But we need to…”
I paused as a bell rang, signalling that there was a disturbance in the city down the hill from the Palace. “What in the…” I began, then grabbed up my winter cloak and pulled it on in one smooth motion, then lept out the second story window of the Page’s wing, grabbing the lintel and swinging up to land on the roof above the courtyard, then spun to face the town. Five Scanran longships were pulling around the headland of Port Cayn, Corus’s harbortown, and the galleons in the harbor were turning to intercept the raiders, outnumbered 2 to 1.
“How did they get so close?” I wondered, then focused my will on the foremost and concentrated, willing the distant ship’s mast to shatter… the pain was like having white hot needles driven through my eyes. I tottered on the rooftop and fell the three and a half stories to the courtyard below, though I was caught by AJ who oofed as his legs took the brunt of the blow.
“Fuckin, hello!” I groaned, rubbing my eyes. Apparently, ‘respect the setting’ came with negative reinforcement. “That… unspeakable arse,” I muttered. I guess I’d have to do this the hard way. “Come on, if we sprint, we should be able to make it.”
“But… we’re just pages,” Hiltrud/Kendra said from the window, looking concerned we’d get in trouble for daring to assist the town.
“We’re soon to be Squires, and we’ve got more combat experience than every Knight in the land combined, now move!” I snapped, speaking Magoo to the recalcitrant teenager and wondering what was going on with her in the back of my head.
On the way down towards the city, we were passed by a number of Knights and their Squires, though they weren’t the cream of the crop, mostly older Knights or desk Knights, those who weren’t in the north fighting off the Scanrans… though some of those were back in the south now, since military campaigns in winter were usually a ridiculous idea.
I did find more things to be annoyed about on the run. Every time I tried to push past peak human into the superhuman, I felt a stitch in my side or a twinge in my ankle and had to slow down. And yet everything passive seemed to work just fine. It was as if I couldn’t show off… maybe it wasn’t the Respect the Setting so much as Feminist Narrative… Being a godlike being would negate essence of that. Or something… I had no idea and no Banker to ask for answers that might or might not make sense.
We three arrived in the city, finding that three of the Scanran ships had already landed while the other two were tangling with the defensive ships. Men-at-arms and knights, and a handful of others were. I scrambled up a pile of crates, and studied the area around us.
Another of the pages in my year, Quinlan of Trucha and Gerry, was swinging a posting hammer with wild abandon, laughing and calling for the Scanran Scum to come and get some, looking solid and somewhat ridiculous, but three raiders were keeping well out of the way of that hammer as they pulled a fourth back out of reach, that unfortunate having suffered a shattered knee from underestimating… I peered at him… same strange ripples as AJ and Kendra, though they were fading. I think they were some kind of bleed from inserting, but with my Third Eye not functional, I couldn’t be certain.
“Rocky!” I yelled, invoking Petra’s old name, as I pointed for AJ to back up our friend. I reached down into the warehouse through the top of the crate and pulled out the first weapons that came to hand… at least that was still working… though not well. The feel of Soul of Ice in my hand was a comforting weight… but she was shrunken in, a straight blade in an almost roman style, and the other sword was a bit longer, and thrummed angrily. Somehow Silent Judge had become a sword as well. I didn’t have time to consider the implications, however.
Leaping down, I yelled something very rude in Scanran that had to do with the raider’s parentage and sheep, then waded into the melee, using my superior skills, which hadn’t abandoned me, to strike as many disabling blows as I could, never bothering to move in for the kill, just trying to limit the advance of nearly 200 raiders from striking deep into the port.
I think my technique confused the raiders. They were used to fighting weapon to shield, not facing a twin-blade who turned their blades with one sword and slipped in for a nick or slice with the other. Still, they had weight, and reach, and armor on me, though most of it was chain and leather and padded gambesons. I had to fight smart, not hard.
I flicked out my magic, making the stones and planking all around me slick with ice, feeling the black opals set in each blades’ pommel pulsing as I drew power through them. At least what I bought here was functioning properly.
An eternity, or a dozen minutes, later, the bulk of the Palace’s men-at-arms arrived, and, aided by the knights and townsfolk, drove the raiders back to their boats. I looked around. At least a dozen sailors were dead, as were many of the poor folk of the port, longshoremen and factors. Several men-at-arms were nursing wounds and a couple of gifted knights were moving among the injured, healing where they could.
A shadow loomed over me, and I heard a man clearing his throat. “Blackmoon, I don’t recall summoning the pages to help defend the port,” said Paidraig haMinch, the Training Master.
“No Master, but neither did you order us to remain at the palace,” I responded, not looking up from the leg I was mending. “It is a Knight’s duty to defend the weak and helpless.”
“So you’ve earned your shield while I wasn’t looking?” He asked wryly.
“The shield does not make the Knight, but merely marks her for all to know her,” I responded, wiping the blood from my hands on a rag and turning to look up at the tall and eminently respectable haMinchi.
“So you know better than your elders?”
“I know myself. I know my duty. Everything else?” I shrugged. “How did they get so close to the Port without us knowing?”
“Magic, I expect. Now gather up your… where are you going?”
“I have magic left at my disposal and there are injured to tend to,” I said, not looking back. “You may assign me punishments later, if you like — I’ll not protest — but for now, I have patients to attend to.”
The knightly code was clear on such things. It said that a knight was sworn to protect those weaker than myself, to obey my overlord, to live in a way that honored my kingdom and my gods, to never ignore a cry for help, to come to the rescue of rich and poor, young and old, male and female. I could not look away from wrongdoing, nor help anyone break the law of the land. I would have to prevent the breaking of the law at all times, in all cases, and was bound to my honor and my word… and yet I was bound to interpret all those things as a guide, to interpret them with humanity and kindness. Above all, a knight’s first duty was to understand, to use force only as a last resort and to be as gentle as it was possible to be. I might not have sworn the oath yet, but I had taken the coin, or the CP. I would stand and be true to that which I had accepted into myself. I could not do otherwise.
Kendra, AJ, and I worked through the afternoon and into the evening to get everyone inside and (at the least) not dying, though the deep chill of winter made everything so much worse. At least it had been, if not clear, then at least relatively warm for late december-equivalent, and exposure hadn’t taken anyone who wasn’t already doomed, save those who had been knocked into the frigid water of the bay and not been promptly pulled back out and quickly gotten to a fire.
It was past dark when we finally made our way back to the Page Wing of the Palace, where I was not surprised to find a notice that I had punishment detail waiting for me. However, AJ/Naimon and Kendra/Hiltrud also had punishment detail, and I very strongly felt the need to confront the training master about this apparent injustice… the pair talked me down, but I still felt bad about it.
Punishment consisted of physical tasks that posed no great challenge beyond the boredom and fatigue factors, and sometimes copying tasks which posed no challenge at all, since text copying can be quite meditative if one tries, and it is always a good idea to practice any new script one wishes to master.
As midwinter approached, I considered Keladry and Alanna, the two lady knights of the canon, and their different approaches. Alanna, small, slight, gifted, lovely, had gotten by on stealth and the grace of a few protectors. Keladry, large, muscular, ungifted, somewhat plain, had gotten by on determination and friendship (and secret patronage). I was neither of the two and would have to chart my own course. No love triangle of crown princes (one of crime, one of kingdom) would define me, nor would I be the tool of the gods or fate. Nor would I become the champion of every creature great and small. Yet there were traits of both women which were admirable, and worthy of emulation.
Late on my fifth night, two days before midwinter, I went to the hall in which the Chamber of the Ordeal rested and stood in front of the door. “How shall we resolve this?” I asked it, placing my hand upon the surface.
~You do not belong in this time and place.~ it said in my mind. ~Your presence had created ripples, distortions… things that are hidden from me. What is your purpose?~
“I seek experience, knowledge, growth. And ultimately, to shape my own destiny.”
~All beings shape their own destiny. No being shapes its own destiny. Your choices are constrained by circumstance but they remain your choices.~
“Yeah. Uh huh. And you in no way pushed Keladry to hunt Blayce the Nothing Man.”
~What he was doing was unnatural. It had to be done.~
“And if I gathered my forces and marched north into Scanra, slew Maggur, and proclaimed myself queen in the north?”
~How would that serve your Narrative?~
“Ah, so you do know what I am!”
~All of this world’s moments are known to me. I am not part of time.~
“Right. I knew that… but you’re not telling me I can’t do it…”
~The choice to try is yours.~
“You normally speak only in visions and vagaries, if I remember a’right.”
~I use what methods are suited to the supplicant.~
“Right. Well… I guess I’ll see you again, sooner or later.”
~The Question you will ask has no simple answer.~
I didn’t respond. I hate dealing with acausal effects… and I had no idea what question I was going to ask in the future.
The next day, I finally found out who Anne had become. Since she didn’t know Magoo, I’d left leaflets for the Corus location of Bar Ziggy lying around the palace wings with sketches of Windjammer, or Treasure Planet on the back. A first year page named Stasija of Macayhill, the nth generation descendant of one of the previous generation of Lady Knights (2 centuries in the past) named Sabine of Macayhill, had come into Bar Ziggy, looking around and trying to find out if anyone knew an Admiral Jenks.
Oddly enough, that was the second time that name was to be mentioned that day, as one of the Provost’s Guard, a young woman named Tash Weaver, also came in looking for Admiral Jenks. I was beginning to feel vaguely like John Galt.
Making contact with Stasija was, of course, much easier, since she lived in the palace, and when I revealed myself to her and confirmed that she hadn’t been abandoned and dumped in this strange land all alone, she actually wept. It was faintly embarassing, but I held her close and promised I wouldn’t leave her behind. She was wrung out and actually fell asleep against me… poor thing.
Finding time to get into the city to find what I hoped was Amelia wasn’t easy what with Page duties during Midwinter (lots of waiting tables in the Great Hall, but also punishments to deal with) but I managed it on the 5th day after midwinter, and, after checking in at three different Guardstations, finally found the one Tash worked out of. And of course, I was there on the wrong shift. I left an invite asking her to come to the Page Wing at her convenience and added a sketch of Cresentia Space Port beneath my signature.
The redoubtable Amelia… now Tash… was relieved to find me well, and most annoyed at how badly I’d treated her majesty, and (with her customary wit) gave me a right upbrading. She was two years older than I was, and slightly taller, and still just as fierce as she had been in her native form.
As for Joy, Ahab, Velma… and the missing Zane… nothing of them surfaced for the next few months, but I was kept busy making up all the material that a normal Page would have learned in 4 years in 4 months so, come spring, I could stand the exams to be promoted to Squire. I didn’t know why it was important to become a Squire… but it was.
And since it was, it was my duty to be the best Squire I could be. I felt myself driven to work diligently, practicing skills I had long since mastered such as archery and calligraphy, as well as new ones, like jousting and armor repair. Still, between my local memories and my ability to study and memorize, the exams were not a challenge… but then again, I wasn’t really 14 years old.
I hadn’t considered who might take me as their squire. It hadn’t been particularly important… which was why I was so surprised when, a week after my exams… Keladry of Mindelan, the Protector of the Small herself, sent word that I was to join her at her command of New Hope in northern Tortall. I… had not expected that.
One of the Queen’s Riders (who were like Knights but not Quite), Bethari haNiko, was riding from the Palace to the north with a supply train and invited me to accompany her. It was nice being able to ride Fliagor once again, and the horse enjoyed being ridden as well, something that had been lacking except for temporary occasions over the last few dozen jumps. I felt bad about that… especially since the horse, once he discovered I could now understand him, wouldn’t shut up about how dull hanging out with all the dogs and birds had been… not that we kept them pinned up in the warehouse all the time… they had been free to wander whatever domain or estates we had in whatever setting we’d been in… but still, it wasn’t the same as a couple weeks ride across hill and dale.
“Aren’t you cold?” Bethari asked for the fifteenth time since we’d left Corus, but I ignored her as I stood on Fliagor’s saddle, looking out over the land. I was wearing supple blackish-blue leather that had hundreds of hexagonal plates of enchanted steel sandwiched between its layers. Each wasn’t thick or large, or strong, but practically every inch of my body below the neck was covered with at least two and usually three of them. It didn’t look high tech, and everything was locally sourced, but it was nearly as protective as platemail and 2/3rds the weight… and nearly silent. If I needed to, I could even put a suit of platemail over it… not that I actually had one that was fit for local use.
I did have a shield however… Victoria was not amused to be stuck in that form.
“I think I see someone,” I commented, pointing to a faint curl of smoke up ahead. I could see much farther than they could, thanks to the sight, and more than once on the trip I’d spotted potential trouble long before others could have. A couple of the guards rode on ahead to investigate, while I dropped back into Fliagor’s saddle and glanced at Bethari. “Why should I be?”
“Why should you be what?”
“Cold,” I asked.
“Because it’s cold out and you’re not wearing a cloak or coat,” she said, perfectly reasonable.
“Ah. I’m half Scanran,” I responded, as if that answered everything.
“I’ve fought Scanrans,” She retorted, “They wear heavy furs and wool to ward off the cold.”
“I hold the blessing of the Winter Wind,” I said, naming the unnamable Scanran God of Winter. “It keeps me warm, even in snow and ice… I think the riders are coming back,” I said, standing in my saddle again.
They were indeed, riding hell bent for leather… and behind them was a pack of centaurs, painted in blood and with the talons that marked them as killer centaurs. They were unslinging bows as they ran.
I cursed, then yelled a warning as I snagged my bow from the back of my saddle pack and, in one long draw, loosed a Stormwing fletched flight shaft down the rise, taking the lead Centaur in the wrist, though the arrow continued on through the immortal’s flesh to pin his arm to his chest. The others glanced my way and turned off the road, crossing the fields straight towards me and Fliagor. I could hear them calling out to my horse, and I gritted my teeth. Centaurs viewed horses as slaves… I did not like the local centaurs… or most of the immortals for that matter.
I loosed five more arrows as the centaurs charged closer, then, as they finally got their own bows unslung, I dropped my bow and drew the shorter of my two swords, Soul of Ice, and grabbed up my shield as I dropped off of Fliagor’s back and prepared to take the charge of the remaining 7 centaurs. I cut two arrows out of the air and took the remaining four on my shield, the last one missing my cheek by a margin so close that I could feel the scrape of griffin feathers across my skin.
As they charged in, I cut the left leg out from the lead centaur, taking a staggeringly hard on the edge of my shield, and used it to spin myself around, out of the way of the grabbing hands of a second, and under a third, where I dragged the icy blade along his belly, unmanning him and disembowling him in the same fluid motion, and getting myself drenched in blood and gore. My shield arm was throbbing from the force of the blow and once again I cursed Feminist Narrative for its deceptive simplicity.
By this point, Bethari was confronting one of the others, three of the guardsmen had the second, and the remaining 4 men-at-arms were holding off a third. Which just left Grabby McGrabberson and his friend Fuckwit von Horsecock… the Knightly code does not prohibit being insulting or snarky… praise the gods… for me to deal with…
Or should have, but that’s when a buff and apparently quite shirtless figure came leaping out of the nearest copse of trees and landed on Grabby’s back, a knife in each hand, both of which went up into the Centaur’s throat. I danced out of the way of the collapsing quadruped… right into the grasp of Fuckwit, who proved that he was just as grabby as his ex-friend.
“You’ll make a fine brood-” he began, but his words turned to screaming as I called upon my magic to drain the heat from his hands and the hard muscles of his human stomach where he was holding me close.
“I don’t… date… rapist… scum…” I managed to gasp out as he thrashed, finally forcing his rapidly blackening arms to drop me.
“W… what did you do?” he gasped, holding his arms up in horror as he gasped and slowly slumped to the ground, shuddering as he went into shock.
“It isn’t nice to grab ladies who aren’t willing,” I said, drawing back Soul of Ice. “Idiots like you should be culled… for the betterment of the species.” I was deliberately invoking the Centau habit of culling what they considered bad breeding stock… I don’t think he got the humor… but to be fair, I cut off his head a moment later, so he didn’t have long to consider my words.
“Hello!” said my erstwhile rescuer. He was smiling, face splattered by blood, holding a strange pair of hooked knives, and bouncing a bit as if he had too much energy.
“Hi?” I responded, looking around to see if the others needed help, but they were holding their own and the two remaining centaurs were fleeing. I grabbed my bow from where it had fallen and said, “One moment, if you please.”
I paused, drew back, and loosed without concious thought. These beasts were clearly engaging in banditry, endangering trade and the livelihoods of those who called these lands home. The King’s Justice would see them hang, but there were not enough of us to take them prisoner. My arrow took the first in the back, sending him crashing to the ground, his companion tripping over the sudden corpse and crashing heavily to the ground. A second arrow guaranteed he would not rise again.
“You did that well,” he commented, peering over my shoulder. He was quite tall.
“Yes,” I agreed, looking up at him. “Can I help you?”
“I’m good,” he said, looking around for something to wipe his blades on. Finally he settled on the short spring grass. It gave me a chance to study his features and knives.
His face was angular, but not unattractive, and his skin showed several white scars, indicating that he’d been in a fair amount of fights. He looked to be in his mid twenties, and to be about 6’6”. The knives were made from sharpened spidren fangs, and the handles wrapped with hurok-hide. They looked… more than adequate.
He caught me looking, and grinned up at me, a grin that did annoying things to my insides. “I’m called Wolf,” he said, brushing his shaggy hair back.
“You need a haircut,” I responded. “And a shirt.”
“Because you do. Don’t ask stupid questions. Do you live around here?”
“I did. Then the Immortals came and destroyed my home. Now I hunt them. Are you here to rescue the Centaur’s breeding stock?”
“We were passing through, but yes, if you can guide us to them.” I did not mention that I could probably have found them by ‘riding along’ on some of the local wildlife, or simply by asking. “Is it just horses, or do they have humans too.”
“I think-” he began, then drew his knife and threw it in a spinning underhand arc that zipped past my ear and plunged into the throat of the killer centaur just coming up the rise. It was the leader, the one I’d shot in hand and chest. Apparently my shot hadn’t gone deep enough to plunge into its heart.
“I think I don’t like these horse-men. Come, I think I know where they denned.”
Telling Bethari to ride ahead with the supplies, I promised to catch up. If she had a problem with a fledgeling squire running off into the woods with a half-naked wildman, she didn’t express them in words, but she did seem conflicted about leaving her position with the supplies to hare off into the woods for something we might or might not be able to find.
After an hour, I asked “Do you actually have any idea where we’re going, or are we hopelessly lost?”
“It’s never hopeless. Anyway, you can only ever walk halfway into a woods. After that, you’re walking out again,” He said, trying to sound sage. The Sheanna part of me thought he sounded wise, the rest of me rolled our collective eyes.
“Right… but do you have any idea where-” I began, but he shushed me.
“Can’t you hear how the birds are so much quieter here?” He asked in a low whisper.
I really needed to learn to rely on my Wild Magic more… but it always seemed a little creepy to talk to small animals, or to project my senses and ride along with them. I was happy enough to use it to heal, but the rest of it called too much to me, sang a song that tempted me to submerge myself in the Wild and throw off the shackles of civilization. I think it was the combination of the God who’d become my patron in this world and the Wild Magic. I was glad I hadn’t bought Shapeshifting… and a part of me whispered that I didn’t need the perk to do it. I had both forms of magic from this world… I could figure it out. I shied away from that part of me. It would be all too easy to sink into it and not come out again.
I nodded as the import of the silence hit me and, dropping low, we crawled up over the edge of a small rise. In the nestled valley, two female killer centaurs (which are a different but related species to the so called peaceful centaurs… killers had betaloned feet, peaceful had hooves) fretted about. They looked like the kind of females who would follow herd outcasts into exile, surly, bad tempered, and vain.
There were also a couple dozen mares tethered in the corner of the small hollow, and five human women clustered around a cookpot, looking fearful and ragged. They would occasionally glance at the Centaurs and then flinch away when they thought the centaur’s were about to look back. A small black squirrel chittered in annoyance next to me and I turned to look at it.
“What is, it little sister?”
“There are only two of the mean fourleggers, and five of the two leggers… why do they let them push them around like that?”
“The two leggers aren’t used to fighting and the mean fourleggers are stronger and bigger and have natural weapons,” I answered the little one, reaching up to stroke the quivering tail… it was very fluffy.
“Well… they have fire and the four leggers don’t,” the squirrel pointed out sagely, not moving away from the petting.
“Two leggers often forget how dangerous fire can be,” I responded. “Do you want to help me help the two leggers?”
“Not really… but I don’t like the fourleggers… so I will… how?”
“See the ropes holding the other fourleggers?”
“The ones who look like big dumb deer?”
“I see the stuff… it’s called rope?”
“Yes. It’s made of twisted grass. Can you and some of your friends chew through the rope?”
“We caan… but the big two leggers might get nervous and when they get nervous, they try and stomp us.”
“I’ll make sure they don’t stomp you,” I promised, extending my magic to the horses to calm them. Some part of me was screaming that it would just be easier to go in with spell and sword and cut down the centaurs… but they were females and I couldn’t do it. Also, as mean as they were, they weren’t guilty of attacking settlements or supply convoys. Female Centaurs seldom did any of the raiding. Rather, the males did it to bring prizes back to the females.
Within the space of 20 minutes or so, all the tethers had been gnawed through by a dozen small black fluffballs and Scampers-Swiftly was back on the branch of the shrub next to me. “We did as you asked… but how will… oh…”
All I had been waiting for was a sign that the squirrels were clear and I whistled once to Wolf, who, true to his name, had slunk into the camp and distributed sharpened saplings to the five women. At my signal, he spooked the horses, and the women scrambled back out of the way as the two centaurs tried, in vain, to stop the stampede.
With the Centaurs distracted, the ladies managed to injure one of them and the two looked at the fleeing horses, the shambles of their camp, and those freshly cut spears, and wisely chose the path of the coward and fled into the woods.
Rounding up the horses, scavenging what supplies we could from the camp, and getting the women, most of whom had been taken from local farms when their menfolk had been slaughtered (the last came from a merchant caravan and looked to be about 6 months pregnant, no doubt with a centaur child of dubious provenance), back to the caravan was the work of the rest of the day and we caught up well after dark, being led by my Sight enhanced senses and Wolf’s aparent knowledge of the area. If the darkness bothered him, he showed no sign. Scampers-Swiftly insisted on following us… first to the edge of the forest, just to make sure we got out okay, then to the camp… just to make sure her two-leggers didn’t get themselves captured again. Then she had to stay because it was dark and she didn’t want to travel at night and my cloak was nice and warm and she’d just sleep there, okay?
“She talks a lot,” Wolf commented as we got supper for the exhausted ladies, all of whom were underfed and four of which had been outraged by the equine beasts. The guards had cut the manes and tails of the centaurs, as well as skinning them for their hides, and the women took slightly sadistic glee in the idea of braiding the hair into belts and cleaning the hides… but first they needed feeding… and a chance to (if not forget) then move past what had happened to them.
“She’s a Squirrel… they do tend to chatter on,” I said, dryly. “You’re called Wolf because you’re a wolf, right?”
He nodded happily enough, chewing on a bit of dried meat as he hunkered down next to me. “Usually. But having hands is fun too. Can’t run as fast as a man, but can run a lot further, and carry more besides.”
“You don’t have much besides pants and knives,” I commented.
“Still more than I had as a wolf,” he grinned. “And I can see better too. More colors.” He yawned toothily. “Well, unless you want to mate, I’m going to bed down for the night.”
I blushed, and wanted very much to punch him for that, but I restrained myself, limiting my response to a vigorous headshake. Leaving him to curl up next to my pack and the sleeping squirrel, I made my way over to Bethari.
“Had enough of an adventure for one day, Squire?” she asked calmly as she checked over her gear. “That one’s a bit of a strange duck, no?”
“He’s a… yeah… a bit of. Wild through and through, but nice enough… very rough around the edges.”
“Well, just make sure you’ve got a pendant from the temple of the Goddess before you-” She stopped as I glared at her. “Don’t you glare at me, Squire. I’ve known too many young ladies to get infatuated with a man and make a mistake she’d have to live with for the rest of her life.”
“Yes. Thank you. I’m well aware of the… potential for such things. But I have no… I’m…” Why was I so stammery? This wasn’t like me. Nor was getting all fluttery in the belly because of a handsome… rrrrrrgh… stupid hormones! “I’m not going to make that mistake. And I’m only 14.” that last sounded hollow, not just to me but to Bethari, who snorted.
“That hasn’t, in my experience, stopped anyone from making a mistake in the history of the world.”
I nodded, then fell silent, watching the moon slowly move across the sky until some time later I feel asleep.
We arrived at New Hope, the massive fortified refugee camp that was rapidly becoming a walled town under the command of Lady Knight Keladry, eleven days later, where the supplies were well received, since the winter had meant leanness all around, but no one was starving just yet and crops were already being planted.
The Lady Knight greeted us at the gate as we rolled into the town, strongbacked youths leaping to help unload the twenty heavily laden wagons we’d brought with us. “It looks as if you’ve had a… oh, hello!” she began, switching to amused welcome as Scampers-Swiftly emerged from my hood to chitter at the imposing figure in front of me. She was muscular and fit and solid for a 19 year old.
“Hush you,” I told the squirrel, who hid behind my neck and peered suspiciously up at Kel. “She’s not used to people. She thinks she has to protect me from them and that if she’s not around I’ll forget which end of my swords go into the bad people.”
“Ah. you can…” she trailed off, not knowing how to put it.
“Yes. Like Daine… though my parents aren’t gods… Though family lore on my father’s side says that My father’s mother was The Nameless Wind of the Winter. So perhaps it comes from that.”
“And you have the Gift as well?” she asked.
“Call me Kel… why didn’t your mother send you to the City of the Gods?”
“It’s too close to Scanra, and my father wouldn’t hear of a daughter of his being sent to knit and gossip all day.”
“He’d rather you be a Knight of a foreign land?”
“Scanra isn’t a land, Kel. It’s a place where people live. We’ve a King none of us like and he follows a long tradition of being a King no one likes. If the Vassa River were north of Blackmoon instead of South, Blackmoon would be Tortall, but it’s not, and King Maggur holds my brother hostage, and so my father fights Tortall instead of trading with it. I think my father figures one daughter sent to Tortall hedges a bet.”
“You don’t sound upset about that,” she commented, watching as the supplies made their slow way from wagons to storehouses and Wolf and a white dog with a head like an axe-blade harassed each other.
“I’m not. I’m the equal of any blade in Scanra, and the code of Chivalry is most admirable. I could not be a knight in Scanra, so being a knight of Tortall will have to do,” I shrugged, “And there are better teachers for magic in Tortall. Though the weather is too warm.”
She smiled. “I thought a knight was supposed to be humble,” she chided.
“That’s more of a suggestion. A knight is supposed to be honest. And I’m not insulting any in Scanra from here. I’m probably the equal of any blade in Tortall too,” I said without effect.
“Oh? Care to prove it?”
“I would think showing up one’s Knight Master, especially on the first day, is to be frowned upon,” I said, only slightly mockingly.
“Now those are fighting words. Get your practice sword and padding, and meet me in the training yard,” she pointed it out, “in five minutes, Squire!” She was smiling though.
When I arrived in four, she nodded, then blinked, “Two swords? No shield?”
“I have a shield… it’s for blocking arrows and rocks,” I replied. “A sword is faster and can be used as both defense and offense.” I shoo’d Scamper off onto a post and gave her an couple acorns from my pouch, then bowed slightly to Kel as I stepped into the circle.
I didn’t win the fight… but then again, I didn’t lose it either. We traded touches, and I fought with what I determined to be a reasonable level of skill, enough to hold my own, and to impress, without utterly dominating the older woman. One of the things I’d learned a fair while ago is that it’s often more challenging to fight at a set level than to simply beat all comers by dint of a few hundred lifetimes practice.
“You rely on speed, but you’ve strength enough,” the Lady Knight commented as we stepped from the ring to get a drink. “What other skills have you?”
“You accepted me as your Squire without knowing that?”
“My Lord Raoul of Golden Lake commended you to me, and said you knew the country hereabout. He also implied you might be having trouble back at the palace,” she admitted, honesty tinging her words.
“I… see… well, yes. Not this specific spot, but the north, I do know of it. And I speak Scanran… Wolf! Stop growling at the… sorry, he used to be a wolf and I don’t think he…” I stomped over to the growling man and grabbed him by the ear. “That dog is a sixth your size, and a dog. You,” I tugged, “should not be growling at him.” I looked down at the dog and said, “And you… stop picking on my friend.”
“He started it!” the dog barked.
“I did not!” Wolf retorted. “I was just-”
“Boys. Shush. No fighting.” I released the ear and ruffled the dog’s head. “And no chasing my squirrel either, or I’ll turn you into a newt.”
“No you won’t,” the dog said.
“No I won’t… but I’ll be very cross at… why am I surrounded by birds?” several dozen sparrows were now clustering around me to tell me to leave Jump alone. “Shoo. Jump and I are having a conversation… off… off with you or I’ll go find a raven to glare at you!”
An owl landed on my head and I may have squeaked in a decidedly unknightly way at that point. It peeped at me, dropping a letter held in one talon. Kel was laughing as I scooted Pulcinella off my head and looked at the letter. “Ah… sorry. Sorry… it’s a letter from home… my… friend had a baby recently and her… partner… is off adventuring… so I get… letters. And offf…” Soffi landed on me, squishing me to the ground with her front paws…
“Someone let all the animals out of the warehouse,” I muttered into the ground, groaning as my massive temple dog bounced around me joyously, wuffing and panting. “Ow…” I muttered, then levered myself up. “Lady Knight Kel… this is Soffi. She’s not a bear. And this is Pulcinella… a Hawk Owl. She’ll try not to eat any of your friends. And this is Alegra,” I said as my Red Fox (who is white, yes, that’s a thing) scampered up to me, apparently having been left behind by Soffi’s longer stride. “And I suspect Ziggy is around here somewhere.”
“Ferret. Crazy. Kinda dim. Ah… there he is…” I began as I saw the enthusiastic little goober dangling from the claws of Nimh, my Great Horned Owl. “Apparently everyone decided to follow me instead of remaining back… in the capital.”
Kel was now laughing and nodding “I can see why Raoul really recommended you.”
I rolled my eyes, but didn’t correct her… it was possibly true. Also, I was busy listening to the various animals tell me about their adventure crossing the territory to catch up to me. “Ah… Ummm… sorry about that… they don’t know about respecting the chain of command.” I said, brushing the dust off my leathers as I stood.
“You’ll fit in fine, squire,” an older woman assured me. “The Lady Knight’s got herself a right little menagerie too. This your new assistant, Lady Kel?”
Kel nodded, still smiling. “Squire Sheanna Blackmoon, this is Fanche Weir, headwoman and busy body.”
The headwoman narrowed her eyes at me. “Blackmoon? As in Jarl Varish Blackmoon?”
“Thats my P… He is my father, yes” I said, reigning in my youthful enthusiasm.
“You’re the Jesslaw girl’s daughter then. Your cousin’s a friend of the Lady Knight.”
“Owen? He’s not around is he?”
“Sir Owen is at Fort Mastiff with Lord Wyldon, the district Commander,” Kel said. “We may visit him some time within the next couple months, if the situation allows. Are you close to your cousin?”
“No! Mother says his father’s a lunatic!” I said without even thinking about it. Aalis of Jesslaw was Alaric of Jesslaw’s older sister, passed over as most Tortallan Fiefs could not be inherited by female children, and had helped watch over Owen’s father until she’d been married to Varish. I’d met my cousin only twice, where he’d seened less impressive than my brother Aiton… though much more impressive than the then two (upon our first meeting) and seven (upon our second meeting) year old thirdborn Byor… my bratty younger brother who would soon be ten, having been born in early autumn.
“Alaric of Jesslaw is not a lunatic… just a bit… tactless and enthusiastic,” Kel said.
“That’s what someone not related to him would say. You have younger brothers. How would you describe them,” I asked.
“Tactfully,” Kel said dryly, turning me to towards the main structure which was to become home for the next four years. “Now, come, I have responsibilities as your Knight Master that must be discharged.”
I settled in at New Hope, ‘learning’ to do many of the mundane tasks that occupy a knight commander’s time and ocassionally riding out on patrol with the men at arms of the town. I helped train many of the younger folks who were more than willing to learn how to defend themselves, and even began to teach Kel some of the more advanced forms of grappling I knew. And through it all, I chaffed at being bound by duty to remain south of the conflict, wanting so much to mark north and shatter the Scanran forces like the wrath of a vengeful god… but that would have been bending the narrative too far.
We did indeed journey up to Fort Mastiff near midsummer to bring up a supply of spring vegetables and I did indeed run into cousin Owen, who wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d been all those years ago. I also ran into two old friends.
One of the scouts assigned to Fort Mastiff was a common woman named Motta Draper, who had serious eyes and a dark mein… and a fascination with spoons that bordered on the obsessive. I ran into her as she was studying an array of two hundred plus spoons in the Fort’s lard main dining hall, testing each for heft and balance.
“Francine?” I gasped, seriously doubting anyone human would have been as interested in cutlery of any kind.
She looked up at me, frowned, then went back to studying her spoons. “Took you long enough,” she muttered, not sounding offended, but maybe a little put out. I hugged her from behind and harumphed.
“The entire communication grid is down, the warehouse’s systems are still acting buggy, and all my high end powers are fritzing when I use them. But I’m glad you’re here. Have you been able to get to the Warehouse at all?”
She shook her head “No. And all my spoons are there. I’ve only found three that are at all usable in this world.”
“Francy… they’re spoons. They don’t have a use besides scooping up food.” I ruffled her hair. “AJ’s with the King’s Own. Amelia’s a Provost’s Guard in Corus, Anne and Petra are still pages. Kendra’s with her Knight Master in the South, training with the Bazhir. I still haven’t found Ahab, Joy, Zane, or Velma.”
“Velma’s in the kennels,” the annoyed psychic told me, holding up a spoon for me to see, “What do you think of this one?”
“I think it’s a wooden spoon. Have you considered seeing a silver smith?”
“It’s war time. All the smiths are making weapons or armor or tools.”
“I’ll… why is Velma in the Kennels?”
“She’s a Dog Mage.”
“A Dog… mage?”
“Yes… Wild Magic, with dogs. Wyldon loves her. If he wasn’t so old, he’d probably marry her.”
“Lord Wyldon is married to Lady Vivienne,” I responded, grabbing Motta/Francine and pulling her out of the hall and into a storage room. I opened a portal to the warehouse and pushed her through. “Go get some spoons,” I commanded, then wandered over to the main house where I could hear the laughter of infants. They were in the middle of bathtime and I spent twenty minutes with them before they went down for naptime. Thankfully, I still needed only four hours of sleep a night, so most nights I could slip out of my quarters and into the Warehouse to at least spend a little time with them. THe only time I seemed able to transform myself into another one of my alternate forms was inside the Warehouse, for reasons that escaped me.
“I’m just here for a few minutes. Located Francine and she says she knows where Velma is… so that’s seven of ten. How are we today?”
“Maggie is rolling over on her own,” Franky said proudly. “And Alex is grabbing things!”
“Getting the bottles.”
“Ah. Well, I guess I can stay long enough for a snack.”
“Not for you!” The darkhaired girl humphed, and Maggie splashed at me.
“I wasn’t going to have any. Milk is only good in coffee, anyway,” I teased.
“Are you having fun out in Tortall?”
“Eh. It’s a war. And I’m not on the frontline. It’s mostly a lot of paperwork and patrols. Killed a few bandits last week. That’s about it.”
“I’m glad I’m not out there. Low Fantasy worlds are icky.”
“You just don’t like chamber pots and horses,” I leaned in and kissed her head, then kissed each of the babies.
“I don’t like not being able to fly!” she complained.
“Who can’t fly?” Mini asked, then squeaked and hugged me, doing her best not to get milk on my chest. The Medbay had a machine that made stuff that was even better than real breast milk, and it, at least, was perfectly functional. The formula was designed for ease of digestion and was individually tailored and adjusted daily for optimal development and nutrition.
Once family time was done, I had Francine take me round to the kennels where I met Ceibhfhionn (pronounced something like Shvon, but not really)… who was 9 and dirty, and covered in doghair. She looked up at me, unafraid, eyes bright, surrounded by a pack of dogs who were clearly hell bent on defending her, until I told them not to worry and that I wasn’t here to hurt her and then they all wanted belly rubs.
“Hello Velma,” I said softly, too quietly to be overheard by the nearby soldiers.
“Is it really you?” She asked, trying to restrain a squirming 9 month old pup who wanted to lick her face.
“It’s me. This is a real clusterfuck, isn’t it?”
“I thought…” she shook her head, “I thought maybe I’d dreamed it… dreamed everything.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve been here for 6 years!” she snapped, a tear coming to her eye.
“W… what? That… it’s only been… six years?” I asked, flummoxed. I hadn’t thought to ask any of the others if they’d arrived early… “But… you went drop-in… you shouldn’t…”
She sniffled and wiped her eye with her free hand. “It might have been earlier… I don’t know… First thing I remember was running with the dogs… I spent the first few years as a dog… until… until…” she broke down and I hugged her, shusshing her softly until a shadow fell over me.
“Are you upsetting my kennel-mistress, Squire?” came a hard edged male voice and I looked up into the face of Lord Wyldon of Cavall and Commander of Fort Mastiff, former Training Master of Pages and Squires, and the man nicknamed ‘The Stump’.
“No my lord. She was… overcome and I was offering comfort. Would it be okay if she dined with me tonight? I have a dog she might like to meet, and a friend she might find interesting.”
“Is this the scout named Wolf?” The Stump asked, sounding doubtful.
“Yes. He’s a bit of an odd… duck… honestly claims to be a Wolf, but it’s probable he’s like your kennel mistress and it’s the other way round.”
“You have Wild-magic… can you shapeshift like the others?”
“No my lord. Not in that way. I mean, I can look like a crow or a falcon, but I can’t become one.”
“What’s the difference?” He sounded interested… gruff but interested.
“When they shapeshift, they become what they turn into. Mind and body. If she,” I tapped Velma who was half dozing, “turns into a hound, she gains the nose and ears of a hound, the eyes of a hound… the feelings of a hound. When I turn into a hound… I just look like a hound. I still have my own eyes and ears and sense of self.”
“Sounds less useful… but safer,” he grumped.
“Well… My clothes transform with me,” I said, trying not to sound like I was bragging.
The old man sputtered and I realized what I’d said.
“It’s also safer in that I can look like an immortal without becoming one,” I explained hurriedly, “which is good because if you turn into an immortal you can’t turn back.” I added the last just in case he didn’t know.
“Ah… I think I knew that. As for dinner, you and your Knight Mistress are dining with me and your cousin this evening. The young lady occasionally dines with me as well, if anyone can get her into a clean outfit.” He was clearly leveling a challenge, and it was one I accepted.
It also turned out to be more of a challenge than I was expecting, since Velma or not, Ceibhfhionn clearly thought she’d dissolve in hot water and squirmed frantically to avoid it until I snapped at her to behave like the adult she secretly was. Then she just blushed and glared at me as I scrubbed her clean. “If you aren’t clean, you don’t get to play with Soffi or Lady Kel’s Jump.” The dogs had accompanied us to the fortress of course.
I could go on and on and on like this, slowly relating all the minutiae of that long summer, and the autumn that followed, and the winter beyond that… but time moves as it will, grinding the lives of mortals slowly under the wheel and, in this, I was no exception. It wasn’t really until I heard word that Maggur was dead and that the Great Council had sued for peace, that I realized it was now 464, three years and more since I’d come to this land.
I was now 17 and my 18th birthday was soon approaching, and with it my ascension to Knighthood… if I wanted it. With the war over, I was free to return to my father’s lands and… and what? I wasn’t the heir, and even if I had been older than Aiton, Scanran law would never see me as the Jarl of Blackmoon. Without my Shield, I would be just another daughter to marry off for political gain, which meant, most likely, a marriage to one of the other Jarls of Scanra, or one of my father’s more powerful Thanes.
As winter approached, and the date drew closer, Wolf invited me to run away to the forest with him and join his pack. Ahab, who’d ended up a smuggler between the Galla, Tusane, and Tortall named Denys the Spider, had offered to smuggle me away to a life of adventure… but I assumed he was joking. The City of the Gods beckoned, wanting me to come and study there as one of the few who possessed both Divine and Wild Mage, and I knew that, as much as I’d be an object of curiosity, I’d also get a first rate education (at least for this world) there.
And yet, I found myself wanting to earn my shield. Earn the right to claim the title of Lady Knight and bring justice to those most in need. And so, as my fourth Midwinter in the lands of Tortall neared, I found myself kneeling as Keladry and Owen instructed me in what it meant to be a knight of Tortall. It was a ritual older than anyone living knew, and the words were sacrosanct, and I knew them already, but they carried extra weight as I knelt before the Chamber, knowing I’d have to remain silent thoughout the long night’s vigil and through the trial to come.
“If you survive the Ordeal of Knighthood, you will be a Knight of the Realm. You will be sworn to protect those weaker than you, to obey your overlord, to live in a way that honors your kingdom and your gods. To wear the shield of a knight is an important thing. It means that you may not ignore a cry for help. It means that rich and poor, young and old, male and female may look to you for rescue, and you cannot deny them. You are bound to uphold the law. You may not look away from wrongdoing. You may not help anyone to break the law of the land, and you must prevent the breaking of the law at all times, in all cases. You are bound to your honor and your word. Act in such a way that when you face the Dark God you need not be ashamed. You have learned the laws of Chivalry. Keep them in your heart. Use them as your guides when things are their darkest. They will not fail you if you interpret them with humanity and kindness. A knight is gentle. A knight’s first duty is to understand,” Keladry said, and I nodded, eyes focused on the door.
They left me alone then, leaving me to my meditation, and I slowed my breathing, closed my eyes, and cleared my thoughts. It was something that the original 18 year old me would never have been able to do, but I was no longer her in any real sense. I hadn’t been her for years even by the time my journey began. I extended my senses, letting the feel of this place and time inscribe itself upon my memory. I wanted to remember this as clearly as I could. I wanted to pass this Ordeal not just as Sheanna… but as myself, all of myselves. All united in the desire to see if that girl that was, once upon a time in an age long long past, might prove worthy.
As the dawn broke, I rose to my bare feet, the chill of the chamber passing through me like light through glass, and I approached the chamber, wondering, deep in my heart… Was I truly deserving of all I’d been given?
The chamber was empty stone all around me as the door swung closed, and the voice of the chamber asked, “Is that what you desire? To know, once and for all, if you have earned what you have been given?”
I opened my mouth to reply, then shook my head as I realized how close I’d just come to failure. It was like that guy in the Great Escape breaking character because he answered a question by reflex. I closed my mouth tightly, then nodded, once, sharply.
And the universe exploded around me.
Next: Light of Terra
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