ANOTHER ANCIENT LOLITA or My Fairy Queen Can’t Be this Cute
Previously: Another Greater Mystery
Themesong: King and Lionheart by Of Monsters and Men
So, there I was, following an animate teddy bear… the only one of its kind I’d seen in this world… teddy bear I mean, not animate toys, those I’d seen several of in the markets, though none on the scale of this bear. It was also not the typical fluffy teddy of Rooseveltian lore, but rather smoother, with the lighter areas made of what looked to be crushed velvet and the the darker brown areas made of corduroy. It even had a bit red and pink bow tied around its neck, like an off-center hybrid of a bow-tie and an ascot.
Bemused, I let the strange not-quite-creature lead me to a room in the palace not too far from the ballroom, a room with a lever handle on the door. Why, you ask, do I point this out? Well, almost all the doors in the palace of Mismede were sliding doors, the kind that recessed into the wall. Those that weren’t typically had the same door latches one would have found in most pre-industrial lands, i.e. vertical grip handles with a small pressure latch one activates with one’s thumb. Of course, this made sense. Doorknobs require springs… well, at least the ones that turn. If you’re ever in a preindustrial building that has them, odds are that they don’t turn, and are merely for gripping.
Either way, the reason for the lever handle became clear almost immediately, since the bear-thing didn’t have any way of gripping anything. Instead, it leapt up and placed both of its digitless ‘paws’ on the handle. Almost immediately, it began to slip downward, but its weight was just enough to trigger the retraction of the latch, and the door popped open a couple centimeters as the bear slid down the smooth brass and landed on the ground with a fwump. ~Huh… only way a door does that is when it has a spring catch… or it could be balanced to that exact position?~
The balance supposition was disproved almost instantly as the bear struggled back to its feet and pressed its arms against the door, making it swing open on silent hinges. At a guess, the bear might have weighed five kilos and, on the smooth marble of the palace floor, it had approximately the same leverage as an adult human standing barefoot on ice… and yet the pressure was enough to open the door. That meant the door was perfectly balanced… and the hinges had to be very close to frictionless.
Once the door was open enough to reveal that the room beyond was lit only by moonlight, the bear paused, looking back at me. Its face still totally expressionless, it did its best ‘come hither’ motion, looking like a very adorable butler.
Intrigued, I followed, stepping into the room, and looking around. Nice room. Very tasteful… very not in keeping with the local fashion. The room looked like something out of a baroque fairy tale, all antique furnishings of inlaid wood and stuffed velvet. Belfast’s furniture was very nice, but far more gothic, with very little in the way of padding and mostly plane wood. The local fashion of Mismede was, as one would have expected, mostly cushions and metalwork, or lacquered wood. Most of the palace benches were stone with mosiacs. The room was also quite spacious, with none of the wall-hangings and layered rugs and curtains to make it feel more intimate.
It was also not empty. A girl in a very pretty goth-loli outfit was sitting in a slightly overstuffed chair by the window… and judging by the gossamer wings fluttering slightly in the moonlight, she was a fairy. She was also adorable, with the cutest boots and one of those lacy headdresses one associates with maids, but in black, just like the rest of her outfit.
She opened her mouth to ask me something, but I was already invading her personal space, peering into her eyes with less than a centimeter between the tips of our noses. When confronted with the bear, I’d activated my third-eye to see if it was a living creature or a creation… and hadn’t turned it off. Hell, the cute thing could have been leading me into a trap of some kind… but no, this adorable not-child, while deeply inquisitive and calculating, was not a lure or a deception of any kind.
Indeed, she was, if not innocent, then astonishingly free of regrets or misdeeds. Now, if she’d been as young as she’d looked (perhaps ten or eleven) that might not have been remarkable… but my eyes told me that she was over six hundred years old… and like my companions, she had a strange soul feature that quickly faded away as I stared at her. A strange, ghostly green vapor swirled around her… that made five… or was it six?… seven? Despite the indelibility of my memory, these strange fragments of something… something not of this world… they were all but impossible to keep in my thoughts. Elze and Linze had elder eyes… Yae was brushed by etherial winds… had I seen that in someone else? Yumina was touched by a golden light, as if of dawn breaking… and had there been another?
I shook my head in frustration as the green vapor faded, and reached out my finger to tap the pin that held the fairy-queen’s (for that was who this was… she wore the mantle of leadership about her like an intangible but palpable cloak) neckerchief in place. It was a horned ankh… the symbol of, “Mercury… alchemy… trade, sports, travel… and trickery,” I said, then grinned. “Aren’t you the adorable little matriarch?” I bowed ever so slightly, hand to my breast.
She pouted a little, trying to hide her surprise at my strange actions. “Who told!?” She glared at the bear, “Paula! Were you naughty?”
The bear shook its head emphatically, which was excellent programming for what was clearly a golem, since it lacked a mind or soul.
“I have sight beyond sight, little queen,” I said, knowing somehow that there was no point in hiding the extent of my powers from this doll-like figure.
“Mystic Eyes of Soul Perception?” she asked, perking up. “But your eyes are the same color!”
I tapped her nose. “Not quite, though my companion, the Princess Yumina… she has such eyes. Mine is the Third Eye of Sudden Enlightenment and Intuitive Illumination.” It was technically true, though a grandiose way of describing exactly what ‘satori’ meant. “I can see into the heart and mind of any living being, and judge if they be righteous or false, virtuous or base, courageous or cowardly.” I didn’t mention that it also allowed me to hypnotize others or invade the memories of those asleep. I seldom used the first, and the second would be oversharing.
She blinked, tilting her head to regard me. “All that, and a Dragonslayer as well? You are very accomplished for one so young!”
“I am far older than you are, oh cute one. By leaps and bounds and the strides of titans,” I said gently, ruffling her hair. “Be not deceived by my youthful appearance. Though this Jouya wears the form of a callow youth of but three and ten, I have seen more than a thousand times that across more than two score lifetimes.”
Frowning, she humphed. “That’s normally my line!” she complained, then sighed. “I don’t know why I believe you… it sounds ridiculous… but I do. And here I thought six-hundred and twelve was good.”
I laughed and gave her a hug, then kissed her forehead. “It is plenty, and yes, quite good. I have many advantages that you don’t, and few of my lives have been anywhere near that long… Both times I was Skadi was older than that… and as Sulhel who was Sariel I lived nearly that long, but most of my many lives have been far shorter.” A strange scrap of memory… a name… Solace? Who was that? I didn’t know… but something told me that her life should be mentioned… had I been someone with that name?
So distracted was I by that unmemory that I almost missed the intense blush that suffused the cheeks of this darling girl-queen. I guess I must have annoyed her with my bragging. Quickly, to distract her from her ire, I asked, “Do fairies age slowly?”
Her blush deepened, and she glanced down at her utterly flat chest. “Errr… no… that’s not the case,” she hedged, her ire having transitioned to embarrassment and I wanted to hug her again as she sighed helplessly. “Most of the time we reach the appearance of a human in their late adolescence or young adulthood… but it came early for me… that’s all there is to it,” she muttered, not meeting my gaze.
I was about to comfort her when Paula, the bear-golem, clambered up onto the chair the fairy had been sitting in and patted her head.
“I cannot sense soul nor mind in your… familiar,” I said. “So I must assume she is in the way of a golem or automaton?” The fairy nodded. “But her programming includes comfort routines?” I asked, surprised.
“How did you know the name of my Null Magic? Was it this eye of yours?”
I blinked, then laughed. “Oh no. I was unaware that [PROGRAM] was a Null spell… how does it work?”
Looking pleased, she hopped back up onto her chair, leaning back on the bear who hugged her affectionately. “It allows me to give certain orders to inorganic objects and make them act accordingly.” She pointed at a chair across the room and said, “Begin [PROGRAM]! Motion: Dance a Pavane! Active Condition: Someone is Clapping Rhythmically! End [PROGRAM]!” As she spoke, a magic circle formed under the chair and magic symbols floated up out of the glowing seal and sank into the wood. Once the circle had faded, she gave me a look as if to say, “Well?”
Intrigued, I began clapping out a 1/4ths time meter, and, indeed, the chair began to dance to the slow beat. Amused, I began singing Gabriel Faure’s Opus 50, using the French lyrics, which sing about the girls who fill our hearts, how we long for them to pay attention to us…. “C’est Lindor, c’est Tircis et c’est tous nos vainqueurs!
C’est Myrtille, c’est Lydé! Les reines de nos coeurs!
Comme ils sont provocants! Comme ils sont fiers toujours!
Comme on ose régner sur nos sorts et nos jours!
Faites attention! Observez la mesure!
Ô la mortelle injure! La cadence est moins lente!
Et la chute plus sûre! Nous rabattrons bien leur caquets!
Nous serons bientôt leurs laquais!
Qu’ils sont laids! Chers minois!
Qu’ils sont fols! (Airs coquets!)
Et c’est toujours de même, et c’est ainsi toujours!
On s’adore! On se hait! On maudit ses amours!
Adieu Myrtille, Eglé, Chloé, démons moqueurs!
Adieu donc et bons jours aux tyrans de nos coeurs!
Et bons jours!”
Well, it’s also kind of mean and spiteful… calling them ‘The Queens of our Hearts’ in the second line and then ‘The Tyrants of our Hearts’ in the second to last… but it sounds lovely, or does when you’ve got a piano or orchestra to provide accompaniment. I doubted it sounded so lovely with just my clapping.
Still, the not-so-young lady seemed amused, as she clapped and gave me a little bow once I was done. “That was lovely. It seemed so… winsome… was it about true love?”
I laughed. “No. More like the foolishness of youthful infatuation. But the two can certainly feel the same, can’t they?”
She nodded in agreement.
“So… are there limits to what you can program?” I asked, sitting down in the now quiescent chair. “Can you make Paula speak simply by ordering her to?”
“Oh. No,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “It allows only for simple movements. There has to be the capability. So, say I had a small light model of a bird? I could make it fly… perhaps… if it was a good enough model. It’s not that great a power, to be honest. I’ve simply been enchanting Paula for centuries, so she has a lot of stacked commands.”
“Centuries? Really? She doesn’t look that old… do you keep rebuilding her?” I asked.
“No no,” the fairy said. “I am a fairy. We are known for having quite the aptitude for Null magic. Most of us can use at least one and usually two or three of them. I have four, myself, at present,” she bragged.
“And one of them keeps Paula from aging?” I asked.
“Not quite,” she corrected. “It’s called [PROTECT] and it keeps her from getting dirty, deteriorating, or getting gnawed on by bugs, among other annoyances… also keeps her smelling nice and clean!” Both bear and lolita preened at that.
“Huh… still, how marvelous… I’m sorry. I just realized that I haven’t asked you your name,” I smiled to show my embarrassment. “If you would favor me with it?”
She giggled, then straightened up and said, “Of course! I am Careen Emmanuel Desiree Mar Fae… that means Matriarch of the Faerie People.”
I mmm’d, trying not to giggle myself. “Careen? You will forgive me if I don’t call you that… the whole thing is a bit of a mouthful, and ‘careen’ in my native tongue means to heel over.”
“Heel?” she asked, “as in a boot?”
“Ah… no… sorry… I guess there’s no word in your language for that… I’m not surprised, since it doesn’t look like you have deep sea vessels. Heel is when a ship leans over, as when when you pull it up on the shore or when the waves hit it hard enough.” I examined what I’d said when she giggled again.
“You can call me Riin… if you like,” she said. “I don’t stand on ceremony.”
“Riin?” I asked… ah, Careen… but also I’d used the english ‘lean’ instead of the local word for leaning… I searched my memory, and realized that there were a dozen different words that all meant some part of what the english word meant, and my translation software, for lack of a better term, had been unable to figure out which was the more appropriate between ‘boruk’ (to put weight on), ‘makjuud’ (to bend), ‘fek’ (to incline), ‘snars’ (to deviate), or ‘mestibal’ (to rely on for support). Oy.
“Yes,” she agreed, “I like the sound of that. Leeeeen.” She drew it out this time, and the way she formed the initial consonant was almost a trill.
“Riin?” I asked, “or Leen?” I clarified.
“Oh, either works,” she waved her hand away airly… a gesture that Paula mimicked.
“Fair enough… do you mind if I give it a try?” I asked.
“Try?” she asked, “I… I guess?”
I nodded, then drew a coin from my pocket and held it out on the palm of my hand. “Begin [PROGRAM]! Motion: Flip into the air, spinning a random number of times between twenty and fifty-one times! Starting Condition: When Someone snaps their fingers and you’re lying flat on a surface! End [PROGRAM]!” I said, then tossed the coin onto the floor as soon as the glow faded, then gave Riin the same look she’d given me.
Looking astonished, she hesitated a moment, then snapped her fingers, a clean, crisp sound. The coin snapped upwards, flipping end over end, then clattered to the floor, spinning on edge for several long moments before it destabilized and spun to a stop, the face of the king of Belfast showing. “How?” she asked, flabbergasted.
“Apparently, because I understand the language of magic, I can replicate any spell that I know the name of and have a basic idea of how it works,” I shrugged… only to be stared at by both queen and bear. “If I might ask… what program did you use to get Paula to escort me to you?”
“Oh…” Riin said, shaking herself out of her half-glower. “I told her to bring any interesting humans to me. She didn’t fail me… you’re an even better find than Charlotte was!” she clapped her hands happily.
I blinked at that. “That wouldn’t be the Court Magicienne of Belfast Charlotte, would it?”
“It would!” she laughed, kicking her feet that didn’t quite reach the ground. “That’s right! You’re a regular at the court there, what with being bodyguard to the Princess?”
“Well… yeah… I’m guessing that means you’re the teacher who used [TRANSFER] on her all the time until she collapsed?”
She humphed, “You say that as if it’s a bad thing!”
“Not at all. She remembers you fondly,” I lied, “And I’m not Yumina’s bodyguard… technically I’m her betrothed, I guess?” I shrugged, “But… you can just give a vague command descriptor of ‘interesting’? And it works?” I was having some basic trouble with that. “How does she know what you’d find interesting?”
Riin shrugged, leaning forward towards me. “I have noooo idea,” she confided. “But she does… Must be like other spells; intention matters as much as desire and power. But tell me more… what other elements can you use, oh prince to be of Belfast.”
I frowned, “Prince? I’m a girl… see? Booobs?” I pointed to them. I wasn’t thaaat flat. “Do boys dress like this around here?” I asked.
Riin eyed me up and down, then nodded, eyes bright. “Some of them do… the prettier ones… but I didn’t mean to imply that you were a boy, merely that you would be the prince to the princess’s princess? And you didn’t answer my question,” she pointed out.
“True… and fair enough. I can use every element. Like I said, if I know the name of the spell and what it does, I can cast it.”
“Oh my!” Riin said, clapping her hands together… which caused my chair to give a little hop-step. “Oh drat,” she said. “I forgot to cancel that. Cancel Last [PROGRAM]!” The circle that surrounded the chair was red instead of blue this time. “But how wonderful as well… you shall be my newest disciple!”
Why was I not surprised? Well, because so far four other girls… ladies… all very nice and very different, each marked with an astrological planet symbol, had ended up in my close circuit. Only Sue, who was clearly too young to be galavanting around… she was only ten!… had not decided to join Team Jouya. Still, I was not taking orders from this little would-be tyrant. “Mmm… I don’t really think I need a master… mistress… instructor. I’m doing pretty well on teaching myself… plus, I’m going back to Belfast when this is over, and you have your people to lead here,” I said. “Though I am grateful for the offer, of course. It was most gracious… now,” I stood, bowing again, “If you will excuse me… I should get back to the party before my friends begin to wonder if I’ve been abducted… or worse, that I’ve absconded with myself. They’d be most cross if they found me hiding, especially with someone as cute as you.”
She could only splutter in embarassed confusion as I left the room. Ha! Who’s clueless about social stuff now!
Putting the fairy-lolita out of my thoughts was relatively easy. She’d no doubt show up to try and get me to pay attention to her and potentially try to boss me around at some point in the future, but for the time being, I had enough on my plate. Still, the possibilities of what I’d just learned from her… combined with what I already knew… that made for some very interesting ideas that so occupied my thoughts that I’m afraid I might have been a little rude to my friends.. Or at least come across as distracted for the rest of the evening.
I waved the others off when they invited me to come with them to the baths, and instead busied myself with sketching and making notes at the desk in the suite King Jamukha had graciously offered us. One by one, the girls came by to remind me that it was bedtime, but again, I was too in the zone and assured them that I’d avail myself of the apparently very soft beds and smooth sheets on offer another night. Each of the girls had their own reactions to my dismissal of their concerns over my health.
“If you don’t want something, you… you should just say so, you should,” was Yae’s comment, before she humphed and stomped off. I thought I had said I didn’t plan on sleeping… maybe I’d told one of the others?
“But the beds are soooo comfy and niiiiice,” was Elze’s comment, but when I just promised to check them out later, she too left, though more with a sigh at my inattention. I made a note to add bed linens and pillows to my growing shopping list.
“I… I could give you a massage, if you like?” Linze offered, which was tempting, but I told her that I was pretty relaxed as it was and I had some details I wanted to work out. I guess I didn’t thank her for her kindness or something, because she slammed the door when she left. Maybe the Grand Bazaar has scented massage oils? I made another note to check.
The princess merely leaned against my back, watching me make my sketches and notes for several long minutes, quietly breathing into my ear. “Are you certain you wouldn’t like a little lie down? We don’t even have to sleep. Maybe just relax a bit? It’s been such a long trip, and my parents are so far away…” She sighed longingly.
I reached back to pat her back, and said, “I can imagine. I’m sorry the trip has been hard… Once we head back, you can take a week off from adventuring to visit your parents. We’ll probably want to work on projects back at Skadisvil (that’s what I’d named the house… Skadi’s Hvila… Skadi’s Rest), so you’ll be able to catch up with your mom and dad.”
Apparently, acknowledging that she was homesick was the wrong thing to do, because she hit me with a pillow and stole Byakko, who’d been lying on the desk, batting at the feather quills I was keeping spinning in the air as a test of just how well I could multitask and handle constant low-level mana-drain. Just fine was the answer… at least to the second question. The first, being how one kept teenagers from being moody? That one has baffled the greatest sages of countless worlds for ages past reckoning.
Anyway, once the new day dawned, and thanks to my phone’s ability to locate shops and stalls that sold pretty much anything that I could think of as long as it was available, I had both a shopping list and a map to guide me. That just meant that I needed permission from the local leadership to do some serious shopping.
Chancellor Glatz was more than willing to help me, trading me a medal that would allow me to enter and exit the various districts of the capital (as well as the halls of the capitol) without being hassled by the guards or being asked to pay entry fees… such as there was on the various bazaars… the city had four. All he asked in return was a portrait… I could make a decent living just doing those… mmmm…. There was a thought percolating… I made another note, adding a couple more items to my repertoire.
As I was leaving the Palace, I was intercepted by Yumina, Linze, and Arma, all of whom had been planning on going for a walk, but seeing me about to head off, they’d decided that getting out of the palace sounded more interesting.
“Shopping?” Arma asked, “What for?”
“Oh. I was thinking of making some things… and selling some of my games to the local merchants,” I explained, being deliberately vague. I’d also planned on getting some presents for the girls, but with Yumina and Linze there, I couldn’t exactly say so. “Also, the Elders of Eld have asked me to negotiate sale of some of the dragon parts and delivery of supplies that they can’t get from Langley, since we were heading to the capital.” They’d actually insisted that I take a percentage as a broker, pointing out that anyone else they asked certainly would. They’d wanted me to take fifty percent, in fact… but I’d talked them down to sixteen… well, one sixth part, since the local currency was based on a base twelve numerical system… well… a base sixty actually, but that was divided into five groups of twelve, because being sensible doesn’t fit with Fantasylandia!!!
“Oh!” the little fox girl enthused, “Papa can help with that!” And she dragged us to her father’s palatial city house, which was so big largely because of the attached (and heavily guarded) warehouse.
Olba Strand traded in everything from spices to wood, from wool to artwork. He routinely sent his agents to all parts of the Kingdom to collect local valuables from his trade partners and bring them back. In the hours since I’d talked to him last, he’d apparently learned from Olga of my planned network of Carvanserais and become an instant and ardent convert, offering his support in financing the things… in exchange for administration rights on the hostels and other services offered. Wonderful, I’d created Mismede’s first franchiser.
“You’ll have to discuss that with the Chancellor… but I recommend that a consortium of, say, six merchantile houses be formed, with each caravanserai being administered by a trio of reps from three of those houses,” I suggested.
His round foxy face showed his confusion at that. “Whatever for? And why should I split the profits with my competators?” He puffed himself up, and I could tell from the state of his tail how agitated he was by the idea.
“For three incredibly good reasons,” I said, sipping the quite excellent local coffee. “First, you’ll be splitting the costs as well, and the costs are going to be astronomic. Roads… good roads, are expensive, and walls don’t pay for themselves. You’ll have to hire a lot of guards and supplies, and the out of pock… out of purse costs would bankrupt you before you could get even a quarter of the network up and running.” I held up a hand to forstall a protest.
“Yes, you could proceed slowly, recouping your losses in stages, but then you’d be showing off the effectiveness of the process and others would copy you, so you’d end up with competition anyway,” I pointed out.
He grunted, leaning back in his chair, “Good point… but couldn’t I just get support from the crown for the soldiers and funds needed? That would keep others out of the market, surely?”
I nodded. “It would… it would also make you a huge target. And that’s reason two. Look, wealth makes you a target to both your fellow merchants and the less savory elements of society. With that in mind, you need allies. Now, as long as you’re a merchant and not a noble, there’s a chance you can get the local tribal leaders on your side, the nobility of your land… but if you become a major political player in their regions, they’re going to feel pressured to keep you at arms length rather than viewing you as an ally. These Caravanserai are going to need to be military outposts, which means the administration of them is going to have to be partly military, and towns are going to grow up around any military base along a trade route… that’s inevitable. This project is going to totally revise the political landscape of your nation.”
“I… see… and the consortium will stop this jealousy?”
“Not fully,” I said. “It’s a stop gap. First, by splitting each location between three or four competators, and the entire network across six or eight, it means that there are more profits in the system spread across more houses. That means that there are more targets for distrust, more power factions, more competition. Look at it this way,” I paused to smile, “If there’s only one inn at a location… is it the best inn there, or the worst?”
He opened his mouth, then snapped it closed. A grin slowly spread across his face and he tapped his nose. “Ah. When you’re the only one to praise, you’re also the only one to criticize!”
I laughed, then nodded, “Indeed. And that’s the third reason. Sure, splitting profits is a pain, but when you are the only name in the game, you’re a big target. Eventually your power nationwide would threaten the state itself. Better to have more names in the game… and allow others to buy in for a large but fair price. Allow local merchants to buy-in at individual caravanserai locations for a reasonable amount and the locals won’t complain about foreign powers monopolizing trade as much. Sure, they’ll get more of the local custom, but their names won’t carry recognition of the more national consortium partners. And your consortium will negotiate with the crown as a block to pay rent to the military… or however you structure land rights here. Might want to have prices be somewhat fixed to keep gouging down. The entire point is to facilitate trade. Set up each house at a price point and establish a brand.”
He tilted his head, as did his daughter… it was much cuter on her. “Brand?” everyone asked at once.
“Ah. Right. Look, do you have a restaurant that you like? One you trust and would recommend to others?” They all nodded. “It’s name and reputation form an intangible quality called a Brand. It’s a mark by which they are known. Now imagine that you own, say, a dozen inns, spread across a dozen towns on a single trade route. Imagine that a traveller, say a caravan master or a trade factor, travels from the capital to four of those towns. If he’s stayed at a One Night Stand in Tilson before, and had a good experience there… is he, when he arrives in Norfork, more likely to stay at the Red Roof Inn, which is a local place he’s never stayed at, or the Norfork One Night Stand?”
One could almost hear the ding as cashregister and lightbulb both triggered inside Olba’s mind, and even the Princess instantly understood… not that she’s dim, but she has very little experience with merchants or commerce… she’d never been shopping before she joined us. Ever. Princesses don’t shop… everything they have is bought for them or made bespoke. “Ah ha!” he said, rubbing his hands together, “And what was the other thing you said… price-point?”
“Ah… yes… how much does a meal cost?”
They all shrugged. “As much as the ingredients cost plus labor,” Arma suggested, being a merchant’s daughter.
“Whatever the cafe charges?” Yumina asked, being a princess.
“Depends on what you order,” Linze said, being logical.
“I see,” Olba said, trying to follow my outlandish ideas. “I think. You’re saying that a Brand needs a… a reputation for reliable prices for reliable service rendered? Am I right?”
“Got it in one,” I agreed. “Yes. If your target is the Caravan Master or a Trade Factor, people with funds but a mind for expenses, you want to have a middling cost for services… and value for money. If your target is Caravan Guards, or most travellers… people on a budget…” I explained.
Arma bounced in her seat and grinned, “I know! I know… you want low cost paired with simple but serviceable beds and food!”
I patted her head, “Exactly. And for people with money who expect comfort? People who will be willing to travel more thanks to your new roads and safe walls?”
Yumina grinned, “Ah! Like Sue!”
She clearly wanted a head pat too, so I gave her one. “Yes. that’s exactly it. Three or four price points, thus you have competition, but tangential instead of direct. If the mid-grade pushes its prices too high, they run into the territory where for a bit more, the factors will opt to go high end and the masters will pay a bit less and suffer the hardship. If the low-grade gets too sloppy, people will pay more or camp in their wagons. If the high end doesn’t offer value for cost, the mid grade gets the funds or the nobles take a different route next time. YOu need these kinds of checks and balances.”
We eventually said goodbye to Arma’s father and headed back into the town. I’d gotten him to agree to send a caravan to Eld with the goods they wanted, on the promise of being paid back in dragon meat and scales and bones. Apparently some of the internal organs were incredibly valuable, especially the dragon’s mouth and throat, which could be made into protective gear.
Olba had provided us with a small pony and a wagon to match, both sized to navigate the small lanes of the bazaars, as well as a supply of the local currency that amounted to roughly twenty-five thousand dollars in purchasing power. I say roughly because haggling was very much in the way of things in Berge… a worrisome state, but one to be expected. It, like many scarcity economies functioned on a very flexible payment schedule, one that was barely more than a step above barter. Indeed, there was a fair amount of that happening too.
“So? What are we looking for?” Linze asked.
“Processed structural metals, precious metals, alchemical reagents, as many sapphires as I can find… some nice feathers, a few fine boxes, some oils, many spices, some sand, leather, rubber, and charcoal,” I said, rambling off the list in generalities.
“That’s a lot!” Arma giggled. “What are you making?”
“What’s rubber?” Yumina asked.
“Sapphires?” Linze queried, “And Sand?”
“Patience… Patience…” I said, laughing. In searching for goods, I’d been astounded to find that the locals did, in fact, have a plant that produced small quantities natural polybutadiene in addition to one that produced much higher quantities of latex. The latex was used almost entirely to make waterproof fabrics, while the poly, normally a synthetic form of rubber, was used to make padding and balls and pumps. The alchemical reagents I needed were flash powder, sulfur (quite a lot of it), kaolinite clay (as much as I could find), dried and powdered bone, and the gemstone fluorite.
The sand I needed was silica, which Berge had in good quantity, as evidenced by the many glass-makers in the area. It turned out that many of the dragon-kin were in that business, for two practical reasons. Dragons don’t, as it happens, produce much of value besides themselves. They are decent miners, of course, but tend to hoard the precious materials they recover… or eat them… so they seldom had that for trade. What they did have was dragon poop. Dragon poop is excellent fertilizer. Really outstanding shit, if you’ll excuse the pun. So good, in fact, that most dragons would very much give it away to keep their caves from being overrun by mushrooms… well, give it away to their allies, the dragon-kin. Of course, it had to be treated… but that messy process had two very useful byproducts.
Since the first step to processing it was to water it down to make it consistent, the water (which was evaporated off before transport in most cases) washed out the large quantities of two major contaminants that would have eventually ruined any plot of land that used it for two long… Silica… the most common solid element in the crust of most planets… and Aluminum… the second most common… almost invariably transformed into Kaolin by the magnificent workings of a dragon’s digestive system. Kaolin is Aluminium, Silicon, and Oxygen… and has so many incredible uses… what the locals used it for was paint, ceramics, and to settle upset stomachs. Kaolin is also known as White Clay.
So, thankfully, I was able to secure quite a lot of sulfur (another thing that was extracted from dragon poo, since it was water soluble and skimmed off the top), sand, and clay, all of which I used [GATE] to move from a discrete alleyway to the basement storerooms of Skadisvil, along with several dozen pounds of fluorite crystals… I was going to invent toothpaste (that’s what the bone powder (a source of hydroxyapatite, which in nano-form can remineralize tooth enamel) and kaolin (a good abrasive) were for. Sure, I didn’t need it, and strangely, neither did my current companions, but others did… like the household servants (especially the ninjamaids who followed Yumina around. Good girls, but they liked sugar too much.)
Anyway, once I managed to secure enough enough steel (sword blanks mostly), copper, bronze, rubber, and sapphires for my purposes, I used [GATE] once more to take us all to a forest clearing I was familiar with. It had a large rock outcropping on the windward side, so it was unusually still. Once we arrived, I formed some stone benches for the others to sit on (with cushions brought from home), and a table to hold my supplies.
“So? Are you finally going to show us what you’re making?” Yumina asked, trying to sound as if she wasn’t dying of curiosity.
“In a moment,” I promised, before making two strange stone ovens, one approximately sixty percent bigger than the other but otherwise identical, and both designed to be heated using fire magic. “Okay… I think I’m ready. You’ll have to bear with me while I make the parts… it’s a little complex.” The first thing I did was take the rubber, over sixty kilos of the stuff, and several sword-blanks, then cast [MODEL] on the mass, forming it into two massive donuts, each heavily reinforced with an interlaced matrix formed steel wire. The larger donut was more than a meter tall and both were thirty-eight centimeters wide, and the outside surface of the cylinders were covered in strange diamondoid shapes with deep channels between them. The holes were big enough that they were little more than eight centimeters thick, though that thickness rapidly tapered down to three way from the top and bottom.
“What are those?” Arma asked. “They look like… like… well.”
Linze looked at them, then asked, “Are those barrels or something?”
“Can’t be,” Yumina said, “They’re too short. Baskets maybe.”
“They’re wheels,” I corrected. “Well, they are going to be the outside of the wheel… they’re called tires… or will be… once they’ve cooked.”
“Cooked?” the trio (and Byakko asked). The tiger was sitting in the middle of the smaller tire and sniffing it.
“Yes. Not for eating though,” I levitated the larger one over to the matching oven, which was exactly big enough to accept it, then repeated the process with the smaller one. “If you treat rubber with sulfur and heat, you get vulcanized rubber. Now, I’m going to cheat like crazy, because what I have here,” I held up one of the pots of sulfur powder I had bought, “Is raw sulfur. It’s also not particularly pure, but like the steel and rubber, I’ll be using [EDIT] to remove anything that isn’t chemically… that is a contaminant. Normally, using pure sulfur for vulcanization doesn’t work so well, resulting in brittle rubber… but that’s what some of these other chemicals… reagents are for.” I motioned to the other pots.
“Now I want all four of you to sit there… and hold my clothing… just in case this explodes…” I said, stripping off and pulling a simple cotton shift out of my storage ring. “Whatever happens, don’t come near me until I say you can or Linze blows away any vapors.”
I cast a [WIND-WALL] between them and me, then began making this world’s first batch of a Maegi vulcanizing agent that would produce long-chain links and bond the rubber to the steel, just right for a heavy duty and extra durable tire. Thankfully, my hybridization of magic and chemistry didn’t explode, and soon the tires were cooking away at relatively low heat.
“Okay… that’s all done. It’ll be a few hours before they’re ready… yes?” I asked.
Arma was bouncing up and down, but Yumina was raising her hand as if she was a student in class. I nodded to the princess and she asked, “When you Bulcan Thighs the Tybers… does it turn them into wheels?”
Linze giggled. “It’s not Bulcan Thighs! It’s Full Cansize.”
Arma shook her head, ears flicking. “It’s Vulgan Eyes… Vulgans are big lake monsters with big black eyes.”
Sensing on oncoming argument, I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Vul. Can. Ize. Vulcan is an ancient god of fire and the forge… where the word ‘Volcano’ comes from in my original language… and ize is a word suffix that means a process related to something, in this case Vulcan, meaning to heat with sulfur, since volcanoes, like hot springs, are usually rich in sulfur… and for the same reason.” I looked them over, “Understand?”
They looked at each other, then shook their heads as one… even Byakko got in on the act. I sighed, setting aside the latex gloves I’d made to handle the chemicals and the safety goggles I’d made out of the clearest sapphires I’d been able to create with [MODEL] and [EDIT] pulling out as many impurities as I could… but the process had been annoying in the extreme… and the next part would be even more annoying. One by one, I [FUZE]d processed sapphires together, crafting a rough plate of them some two cm thick and thirty to cm on a side. As I did so, I explained how vulcanization made the tires longer lasting, stronger, and gave them better grip… then explained what exactly a tire was (a protection for the hard frame of a wheel), what grip was (the part of the wheel that drags at the surface, pulling it forward), and a dozen other terms that the girls and tiger had.
“Are you making a window?” Yumina asked. “Because that’s an expensive window.”
“Not quite… no. I haven’t figured out how to make the window… I need something super strong and transparent… I still have to think on what I can make without plastics… but this?” I pointed to the plate, then cast [EDIT] and [MODEL] on it again, giving it one more impurity pass, as I shaped it into a sphere eight centimeters across. It was a great rhombicosidodecahedron, a sixty-two sided archimedean solid, with thirty square faces, twenty hexagonal faces, and twelve decagonal faces. It was also a deep burning blue so pure it almost hurt the eyes, and yet the girls could not help but gape at the gigantic jewel as the sunlight of the still early morning sun struck it.
“Sooo pretty!” Arma half-whined. The others could only nod. The five and a half kilo sapphire was undoubtedly the largest gemstone they’d ever seen and would be literally worth a kingdom’s ransom.
“So…,” I asked, looking at the remaining three kilos of sapphires… did I mention how much I love Fantasylandia’s market places? None of the gems had been high quality when I’d bought them. Full of inclusions and rough, they’d still cost me over a quarter of my entire nest egg. “Do you think I should make more?”
The others nodded, clustering around to watch as I repeated the process, crafting a single 4cm by 2cm emerald cut and dozens of one and two cm circle cut gems. The advantage I had over traditional gem crafters is that I could buy unpolished uncut gems with bits of stuff encased in the crystalline matrix. My [MODEL] allowed me to waste none of the gem, and my [EDIT] allowed me to pull out anything that wasn’t chemically part of the crystal. I had to waste no time polishing or shaping or cutting, a process that, with something as hard as sapphires pretty much took sapphires or diamonds at this level of technology.
While the girls fussed over the gems, I turned back to my metal, purifying and shaping and working the entire thing until all the pieces had been laid out. There were hundreds of them, most of them either [COAT]ed in brass or reinforced with dragon-scale. The biggest piece was nearly five-hundred kilos of reinforced structural steel.
“What… is that?” Linze asked, looking at the strange thing as I was crafting the hubs for my massive tires.
“That, darling, is… or soon will be, the finest conveyance in the land…” And then I began putting the pieces together. TK or magic that replicates it is invaluable, but there is no substitute for getting hands on, and while I had to resort to magic for the bigger and heavier parts, I was more than happy to have help fitting everything together, from the pipes to the housing for the massive gemstone which would serve as the heart of this improbable machine. After a break to get some early brunch and bring Yae and Elze from the palace where they’d spent the morning training with the palace guards, we finished before two in the afternoon.
“It only has two wheels, it does,” Yae pointed out. “How does it not fall over?”
“I used a new spell I learned called Program. I just commanded it to stand up unless I command it to move by use of these handles,” I climbed aboard, then twisted the handles as I used [TRANSFER] to dump a metric boatload of magical energy into the crystalline heart of the machine.
With a growl louder than Byakko could manage, Belfast’s first motorcycle roared to life, scaring the girls and sending birds screaming from trees for half a kilometer in every direction. Of course, there wasn’t an internal combustion engine inside the thing, but I’d designed it to make a frightful noise so as to warn people I was coming… the sound could be turned off.
“It’s mechanical steed?” Elze asked, yelling over the rumble.
I turned the sound down to a low rumble and nodded. “Yes. It is called a Autocycle, but this particular autocycle is named ‘Vulcan’, or will be as soon as I finish what goes there,” I pointed to a cylindrical bay on the side of the main fusilage. There was another matching bay on the other side. They were located right behind where the headlamps (reinforced 2cm yellow and pale blue sapphires with togglable light enchantments) were socketed. “And I still need a windscreen, so right now the top speed is limited… but once I can find something strong enough, I’ll make a complete canopy. Sooo… who wants the first ride?”
“Ride?” they gasped as one.
“Yup… seat’s designed for two large adults… could fit four of us pretty easily, but I’d want to install a brace bar for a second pair… let’s try one rider at a time… so?” I flashed them a challenging grin, “Which one of you is brave enough to ride with me… you’ll have to promise to hold on tight… I haven’t made any helmets yet.”
Once the first ride had been given (Yumina), the others had clammored for their own turns, which I’d been happy enough to provide. I’d used gate to travel to the largely empty stretch of road where Sue had nearly been kidnapped and taken each of my friends on a circuit of about a kilometer and a half in each direction.
“That’s is an amazing invention,” Arma said, patting the front of it fondly. “But it doesn’t seem very practical.”
“Not practical!” I humphed, grinning at her. “Why do you say that?”
“A wagon can carry much more goods than it, and a carriage more people… and out of the rain too if they have a cover,” the little fox girl pointed out and the others nodded in agreement.
“Truuu…” I said, “but can a wagon do this?” I raised my hand and yelled “By the POWER OF STARSCREAM!”
For a moment, nothing happened, and then the bike shimmered and began to change. Thanks to a combination of [MODEL] and [PROGRAM], it reshaped itself in seconds, parts shifting their configuration until a knight clad entirely in dragon-scale and brass stood there, cape and shoulders formed from the smaller wheel and shield formed from the larger. It wasn’t a true transformer, because the parts had actually changed shape… but it was better. It’s eyes glowed as it roared “I HAVE THE POWAR!” as it thrust its empty hand skyward. That hand wouldn’t be empty for long… I had plans… but they required time and experimentation.
“That… that can’t carry goods!” Arma squeaked, hiding behind Yumina who was in turn hiding behind Yae. Linze had taken shelter behind her sister.
“Well, not as many, but it can certainly unload a wagon if you tell it to… well… if you have authority to order it around. I’ll have to do more programming… right now all it can do is walk around. I’m going to have to give it about fifteen thousand commands to make it very useful in combat… but that’s for later.”
About three in the afternoon, we got back to Berge. I’d left Vulcan in the basement at home, but brought with me the refined gemstones, which I took to Olba and asked him if he’d sell them for me, taking a commission on the sale. Instead, after his eyes had finished bugging out, he’d agreed to buy them all outright and paid me a sum large enough to more than make up for the earlier advance on my commission from Eld and everything I’d spent that day three times over. I think the girls were a little bummed they couldn’t keep the shinies, but I promised I’d get some more, then teased them that their beauty would only be lessened by overly large and gaudy trinkets.
That ended up turning their faces crimson, which was worth it… though their faces ended up being even redder when, at a late lunch, Arma introduced them to the local delicacy called ‘cully’… it was curry… and spicy. Really good, but for people who’d lived their entire lives on Japanese (Yae’s Eshen), French (Yumina’s Belfast), or Irish (Linze & Elze’s Refreese) cooking, it was far more spice than they’d ever dreamed possible.
While we were eating, Byakko commented that we were being observed.
“I know,” I whispered into the tiger’s fluffy ear. I didn’t bother with the mind to mind speech we could use, since I was speaking too quietly and the others were chattering happily about what they wanted to buy before we headed home… mostly beaten metal goods and rugs, though some jewelry and clothing. My quartette had been vaguely horrified to learn that I’d already bought quite a large supply of the cully spices… I hadn’t realized that’s what they were, I’d just bought several pouches of pretty much every spice in the market just to try later. “It’s Yumina’s bodyguards… I should give them a fright… you stay here and watch the girls.”
I excused myself, then stepped into an alleyway and, with a faint grunt of effort, ran up the side of the building. I hadn’t had to wallrun or roofhop in ages, but I was still an accomplished martial artist with ages of experience since my days in the RanmaVerse. Within moments, I was behind the pair.
They were unaware of my presence, and each was wearing black robes with hoods and white masks. Very ninja… such nin. I reached over their heads and snatched their masks beofre they could even react. “Hiyah,” I chirped as they spun around to face me. I was holding one of the masks to cover my face, but my coat is pretty unique. “Sooo, what do you call yourselves? I mean besides Lapis and Cecile?”
They gasped, blushing furiously. “You… you knew?” Lapis asked.
“Of course I knew. The princess isn’t the only one who can read people,” I said.
“Noooo,” whined Cecile. “You didn’t tell her, did yoooou?” That habit of stretching her words was kind of annoying.
“No. I didn’t,” I assured the duo. “And I don’t plan on it. I’d be astounded if the king allowed his only daughter and heir to wander about with only a group of underage adventurers. I assume there are more of you?”
Lapis nodded. “We are called Espion, and all those assigned to the Princess are young ladies like ourselves… are you mad?”
“Not really, but you need better training. I’ve heard you moving about multiple times and you aren’t very good at erasing your presence. Once I build a dojo at Skadisvil, I expect you and your fellows to present yourself for… call it remediation,” I said, frowning. I tossed the masks back, then, as they were catching them, drew my brand new dragon-claw shortswords and slid forward.
The duo froze, gulping as they felt the incredibly sharp edges of those curved blades just touch the skin over their outer carotid arteries. “Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
They nodded milimetrically.
“Good. Because believe me when I say that it is highly doubtful that your entire organization could take me if you came at me while I was asleep. But that said, I approve of your spying on the princess… she needs protection and I can’t be everywhere… though if someone hurts her…” I spun in place, cutting across the wall behind me, very neatly slicing the palmetto bug that had just landed there lengthwise. “They’ll regret it… just not very long. The same goes for anyone I consider a friend.” I sheathed my blades, then tossed several knives at the ninja-maids’ feet.
“What are… are those our weapons?” Lapis asked as Cecile patted herself down. They hadn’t even noticed when I’d lifted them… hurray for fast fingers and [APPORT].
“Yup… I also stole your panties,” I said, chuckling as I walked away. The knife that had struck the Black Dragon was among the number I’d left for them, though it was wrapped in a simple [MODEL]ed wood sheath. The panties were not.
Over the next few days, the Kings of Belfast and Mismede, as well as their chief advisors (Chancellor Glatz and Duke Orlinde) gathered in summit thanks to my [GATE] Mirrors. I went wandering to escape the boredom a couple times, but every time I managed to escape the council chamber, there was the little fairy queen and her bear, watching me and smiling. It was a bit creepy, but not too much, and strangely endearing how hard she was trying.
Eventually the treaty was hammered out, agreed to, signed and sealed, and both sides were, miraculously, happy with the results. Well, almost. Jamukha bemoaned the fact that his elder daughter, Tia, was only nine-years old and thus too young to betroth to such a fine young lady as myself. When the Tristwin suggested a son, Jamukha pointed out that his son, Alba, was only five. I just glowered at the duo.
“Ha… ha…. Ha… I think I have enough fiances as it is,” I pointed out, thinking that Yumina was a handful all on her own. The monarches just shared one of those impenetrable adult looks and nodded.
I supplied Glatz with a message mirror (a smaller Gate enchanted mirror) linked to one in an office at the royal palace in Belfast, and Olba with a pair of them; one linked to my house in the capital and the other linked to the Blitz residence… just in case, you know, Olga and Lyon wanted to write each other letters.
As it turned out, Lyon and the other Belfastian knights would be staying on for a while until a formal ambassador could be dispatched… good will and all that… so they wouldn’t need the mirrors for the time being, but eventually they might come in handy… or Lyon might send his father a letter explaining his continued absence. Either way.
Soon enough, we said our goodbyes and, after stopping for one last round of shopping (and to send the ninja-maids back before us), I took one last look at Berge and opened a [GATE] back to my garden in Alphis. I was somewhat surprised not to see a lolita and bear waving goodbye. Ah well, maybe I’d visit them sometime.
To Be Continued in Part Six! (When I actually write it)
Next: Another Rousing Adventure? or If I’m Not Me, Are You? (Naruto P.1)
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