Going Outside Requirements Analysis

Submitted by elliott on Tue, 04/09/2019 - 21:46

 

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“Those attacked by a Beast of the Purple will suffer sorely until cauterized or amputated. Wounds rot and destroy those who receive them without fail if untreated. An atemporal force, or power, always plagues those who so perish. If they have a stored copy of their gestalt elsewhere in existence, it will become distorted and marred. If they are a distributed intelligence, able to shuttle themselves to different hardware before their mechanical form expires or part of a collective such as a culture-mind or hive-mind, that expiry will catch up to them regardless in the fullness of time. If they are undead, they shall subside even so. The very few exceptions to these trends almost exclusively contain deities of one kind or another. The unexaggerated danger that these Beasts thus pose to all things which might be called thinking is the reason for our institution’s founding.”

-Excerpt from The Primer of the Rhaagm Minuteman

 

It is an unspoken axiom across all intelligent creatures’ societies that unexpected overnighting guests usually stick to the adhesive surfaces of mind and memory quite effectively. This is doubly the case when the guests in question have an utterly alien view of the world around them. Trebly the case might be if a guest’s capacity for homicide is known, and that capacity is great.

For these reasons and many more, the Lady married to Sebastio Artaxerxes had had several sleepless nights of late. More surprising, in fact, was that it managed to reach that Land of Nod at all. Surprising, perhaps, if one didn’t know the trust it had in the man whose eternal sleepless vigil had been devoted to observations of and very rare talks with the creature known as Seven.

A special kind of surprise is reserved for the particulars of finding an unexpected overnighting guest in their natural (or otherwise) habitat, outside of the thoroughly artificial habitat of one’s own home.

Adz stopped on the smooth gold-paved promenade, contemplating the vista laid out before it. It didn’t quite know what to make of the last several hands. Three Onedays had passed since it and its beloved Lord had met with Kallahassee and Magdod, some of the very few people still interested in an academic sense in the part-human part-Beast dregs even now wandering the Purple. Oh, there were more than enough with interests stemming from an exterminator’s mindset, but those who wanted to apply that knowledge to the Purple in a greater sense had little traction in comparison.

That only made it all the stranger to see a trifecta of Beasts hovering around and staring at a greenware rosebush in the nearby public orchard-garden.

A stalker, a schlrikt, and a dallier were all waiting for it to do something. Ah, no; the respective labels for their kinds, according to the strange entities, were “brunt-fellows,” “reaching-fellows,” and “sewing-fellows.” Already, Pennat Gate was making fascinating inroads to some burgeoning society of Purple denizens like the bush-watchers. They had been waiting since just after dawn, and three hours later none showed any inclination to leave. They weren’t interested in the slightly panicky crowd accreting around them, or the couple of unconcerned finches that waved around the nearby oak. In all honesty, the protective holographic cordon on the scene seemed to be more for their benefit than that of the civilians.

According to its forebears, Naosin Osa had had maybe a millionth of the intrigue now part of the designer’s everyday life.

Adz probably wouldn’t have stopped to gawk unless the soiree was on the way to its next appointment with Earl Footstone and Earl Stuttgart. Probably, but the sheer clogging mass of some hundred people foisting themselves upon the Beasts - and wasn’t that a strange thought - would probably have forced it to detour anyway. In any case, it lingered, taking note of the most unwelcome and least beloved celebrities seen in possibly the whole history of the estate.

The schlrikt, about two hundred eighty centimeters tall, was in fact the one which had introduced itself as Seven. It had left the living quarters of Adz and its Lord with close-following supervision early that morning, and evidently gotten into no significant trouble since. Lanky and smooth, the creature’s squidlike head had six massive fangs erupting from the front of its face, hiding its round fishy mouth. Its dot-pupilled gaze had a lambent stillness that could have convinced the unlearned it was some ebon statue. Sets of partially-bared claws, keen as the sharpest cleaver ever honed when they extended with that distinctive sound which lent the breed its name, suggested otherwise. The extremely occasional twitches it made offered contrary proof.

Three Times One Minus Four, the dallier, had an utterly fluid outline. It possessed the malleability of any ragathencider, but a far lower viscosity - like oil mixed with ink, a living puddle slightly larger than the bush it examined. Unlike the others, it had no constant features of any description except for small gnomon teeth which slewed around its form, and a single perfectly spherical golden orb-eye. The creature never truly stilled, and tendrils of its composition reached out periodically to approach the bush, then perform an intricate dance that never actually touched the leaves. Each such display was unlike the previous. Unlike the others, Three seemed to be gleaning something new about the bush’s operating system’s function over the course of time, though very slowly. In fact, it seemed to be the only one of the triad to actually pay attention in any meaningful way to the rubberneckers.

Neither of the other two had much to say about the third Beast. It was even flatter and longer than the others of its kind, putting it roughly on par with Seven’s dimensions if it placed itself prone. A mess of mismatched onyx body parts crawled over each other: front legs from some gout-ridden lizard, hind legs like so much bone, torso in the shape of a coffin, forward-facing eyes almost falling off either side of a knife-thin top jaw, a mandible as square as any pane of glass. The only thing so far learned about the creature was a designation of “Four” that may or may not have actually qualified as a name.

They were the first Beasts to have joined the increasingly mixed family into which Adz’s home estate had been transforming for years - not as pets, but residents. Honorary residents, and the edges of that honorary nature were too many to count, but residents nevertheless. They had proven themselves entities of rational if erratic sapience. Adz itself had proposed the change in the name of acclimating the still-gobsmacked populace to the idea of Beasts who didn’t necessarily warrant automatic and total destruction.

Given the variations of “This is the worst idea since Fallow Srid tried to censor the legacy of the Olds” writ across the watching ranks, the idea had the same sort of backhanded merit found in Sebastio Artaxerxes and Tuoamas Pennat sharing the opal throne.

Unfortunately, many still questioned the idea of possibly importing Beasts as civilians. I want to live at this Pennat Gate place, too, and now they might turn me away because some massive childlike but frightening thing took up my seat in utopia - is that fair? Should I be asked to try and secure a place for myself in this overcrowded world, when the institute priding itself on being a sanctuary for the homeless is giving out my ticket in the name of politics? The Beasts didn’t really seem to understand any of it, but Artaxerxes and Pennat had levered their collective reputation quite heavily on being a free republic. If any nation in existence would offer a fair deal for the things which no longer went bump in the night, potential future displacement of citizens or no, it would be the one which Adz called home.

Another harbinger of the unhinged pace of changes strode over to Adz, pushing aside those few people whose tails and legs and suchlike had the poor luck to exist between her and her destination. Since the Fountainist commander Hwolu Satna’s bravely-fought demise in the opening salvos of the Western Sunrise, the vestments of leadership in his gypsy police caravan had passed by popular support to the gnoll named Gorar. Now, any and all cohorts of Fountainists had permission to stay in Pennat Gate as long as they desired, rather than being forcibly ejected to travel elsewhere at the end of the year. That disrupted the regular pollination schedule embraced by many Yrdkish: Fountainists pick up and drop off customs, subtle changes become embraced by their local domestic peacekeeping counterparts in the Sledgecraft Guild and martial nobility, changes trickle down to the hoi polloi, Fountainists move on, repeat. The idea was to keep a portion of the greatest talent from getting too attached to one loyalty, and competitively pursue better ideas and inspirations on the topics of warfighting and peacekeeping.

Lord Artaxerxes wasn’t the only one who thought that was a good idea which should simply no longer be a required observance. However, he was the first to advise his estate’s leadership to make vociferous alterations in policy on everything from contractor relations to traditions so old they transcended ritual and became sacrament.

Accordingly, the troupe of Fountainists now effectively in residence at Pennat Gate since six years past had developed a decidedly friendlier relationship with the locals. This wasn’t the first venue where the gnoll and her people had been the predominant cooks in the kitchen of safety. The Beasts had already exhibited a devil-may-care attitude of going where they wanted and investigating what they wanted. When the handful of Beasts had decided that they wanted to go on an unplanned walk that morning, the Fountainists took babysitting duty upon themselves, and had been actively plotting ways to keep the peace in the sight of as many suspicious personages as possible. Gorar actually seemed to enjoy the unplanned way they went about nearly everything. From what Adz had heard, the woman’s own life had been pretty much as unplanned as a life could be, from birth to whimsical decision to join the Fountainists. The real surprise was that she’d decided to uphold the order of law and establishment in the first place.

As it glanced around the garden’s splendid greenware beds, Adz marked a handful of other people wearing the infrared-and-peridot sashes of Fountainists leapt out from the noise, keeping an eye on the mob for subversive elements and the elementals bent on controlling said elements. Of course, udod aodod couldn’t naturally see color - another of the things they evidently shared with the newly uplifted Beast clade - but Adz’s species had been undergoing radical artificial changes ever since the immortal Eihks Richard had brought them into the extrafacetary fold.

“GOOD DAY, LADY!” greeted Gorar as she came alongside. Adz’s ears twitched, but it didn’t rebuke the gnoll for something she didn’t even seem to realize she did.

One thing about Gorar: if she ever tried to apply herself as an agent of espionage, she would probably manage very nicely until the first time she needed to whisper something. Every person in a hundred meters with working auditory sense analogues, and a few of those that didn’t, could triangulate that not-quite-scream without a problem.

“Commander,” replied Adz, giving the gnoll a pleasant look as her crazed grin turned happy instead of mad. “How fare the special guests? Any trouble?”

“SO FAR THEY HAVE AVOIDED STUPIDITY!” Gorar reported. “PEOPLE HAVE BEHAVED THEMSELVES! JUST CONCERNED AND CURIOUS!”

A reasonable enough response to the upheaval of late.

“Well, make sure things stay calm as best you c-”

 

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Adz cut off as a sharp sequence of gasps came to its attention. One of the onlookers had gotten it in their head to investigate the midnight forms of the bush appreciators. He had drawn close, and in doing so drawn the interest of Three. Now, Three had moved in and wrapped parts of itself around the nobly-dressed forithka. Its single leering eye scanned the gelatinous flesh of the noble from a distance of perhaps eight or nine microns.

“Bleeding scattered flesh,” breathed Adz.

“Statement: preferred is assistance!” said the forithka with very admirable control. He sounded a bit put out and not at all like he was literally in the grasp of something that could render him as permanently dead as Aiden with the application of a few teeth.

“Curious person,” said Three in bubbling clicking Rhaagmini, “why is there clearness of flesh?” It flowed around the noble rather than turning him in place, gauging what it was that it held. It pushed its eye about, either looking at or trying to see through the translucent meat of the forithka’s arms.

For the love of God, do something!” flashed across the bush’s length in such rapid order it was almost impossible to detect unless one were looking right at it. The resident eidolon or eidolons obviously felt at the breaking point when surrounded by potentially violent creatures that could kill digital personalities just as easily as meat-locked ones.

In less than two seconds, there were at least a dozen different kinds of armament being brandished in the direction of the creature, the other creature, the other other creatures, and the shrubbery. Adz had learned from the past hexadecade to activate its overclocking at the slightest provocation. Compared to human reaction times, it wasn’t anything worth mentioning. Compared to unaugmented and unmedicated members of its own kind, it had fast twitch abilities lying eight or nine standard deviations from the mean.

The suite of defensive facilities it had inherited as a Lady of an estate was second to very few. Those very few included such people as the nine armsmen responsible for the safety of an estate’s Lord, and the newer ranks of their fellows recently instituted for the benefit of Tuoamas Pennat and Adz. However, Adz had a great deal of mass-energy to expend if it so desired, and the ability to set up tuning fields of virtually arbitrary size with no appreciable delay. After the fragmentary instant in which it debated the best use for its talents, it selected a hermetic chamber function. The utility had a single purpose: to banish a quantity of complex spacetime and its contents to a time-out until the enactor otherwise saw fit.

In the evolution of the scene, though, Adz was saved the trouble by two intervening forces. As a result, its overclocking was dialed back to five-subjective-seconds-per-objective-second from one-subjective-hour-per-objective-second while it watched.

The first was a Sledgecrafter in the hard press of the crowd, either assisting in maintaining public order or just happening to be in the area. The woman abused her folding privileges to move adjacent to the bush and its critics. Then she threw down a broad diagonalization jitter that would have been right at home in the repertoire of a Rhaagm auditor.

Expanding the affected personal-defense region to encompass the Beasts and the forithka noble as well as herself, the Sledgecrafter basically constructed a small sandbox in which the Rochambeau sequence describing the rules of her local reality lay in flux. Granted, the fluctuation was limited to within a very small neighborhood of Pennat Gate’s normal functional physics, but by causing the dictates of temperature and pressure and inertial conservation to change up and down a few percent, several billion times a second, any force crossing the barrier found itself effectively neutered. A single chem-pistol bullet from the crowd crossed the threshold of the blurry field of space, but didn’t reappear on the other side. Several of the audience voiced their displeasure, and the instigator of the shot got the brunt of an Eighth Step Duchess’s glare. The Duchess in question obviously had a relationship of some kind with the forithka being inconvenienced.

The second was Gorar herself.

She had leapt from the level gilded path up the big step to the garden with every hair on her body standing out straight. From whatever subspecies of gnoll she might hail, they obviously had a very pronounced ability to posture, and the effect was like a beige and chocolate star giving off ropy flares en masse. A very cranky star gifted with sufficient decibels to be considered lethal at ten paces. It might have been the sheer bellows power of her lungs that immediately cleared a lane from her to the diagonalization jitter site, but it could also have been the heavy tactical barb-launcher she’d decompressed from her personal effects.

“THE NEXT PERSON TO EMPLOY WEAPONRY OF ANY KIND WILL FACE CHARGES!” she hollered with lips drawn back from her teeth. The barrel that she kept pointing groundward might have inspired someone or other to protest an open display of hypocrisy, if the size of the barrel didn’t argue otherwise. She managed to carry her barb-launcher one-handed without difficulty, despite the fact that it was roughly the size of Adz’s arm, as she trotted toward the vaguely discernable shrubbery, Sledgecrafter, and civilian. The firearm was an exquisite testament to why unintegrated, physical tools of belligerent demolition still found employment in the extrafacetary territories, even in places not as tradition-bound as Yrdky.

To the udod aodod’s eyespots - and the aesthetics of many others as well - the beveled prismatic shape of the tube had a delightfully ugly frankness to its mangled maroon faces. It possessed, in the not-quite words of a great Earth Standard comedic writer, a right end and a wrong end, and those on the wrong end had a very powerful compunction that they wanted to be virtually anywhere else. The designer had in fact felt inspired the first time the Fountainist had happily shown Pennat Gate’s Lady her favorite toy, and its savage profile would probably influence a prospective housing project that was still in the pipeline. In fact, it had set the Lady on looking into the blueprint’s designers.

“Maybe we should listen to the officer who is doing her job?” inquired a dut who was fleeing the scene as rapidly as four tiny legs could push it, eyes all pointing backward without its hobbling gait slowing for an instant. The display was perhaps the most prudent thing Adz had witnessed all day.

“Do you now value your incumbent citizens even less than you have in the past?”

An aaned with the approximate dimensions of a rake was pushing, or trying in vain to push, through the nucleus-dense crowd toward Gorar. His voice and crest were stiff enough to stand upright under their own power, even if relieved of their connection their owner. Adz didn’t fail to notice his thick Gebedetsian accent. Gebedets, longtime ally of Nor’ridge. Interestingly, despite the upper-nobility style of his garb, he didn’t seem too keen on perpetrating any traditional conversational dueling matches. Someone evidently had a point to make, and wanted to make it very fast.

“I lost fifteen ancestors, two siblings, and my daughter in the Sunrise,” the man continued. He seemed intent on whipping up popular support of some kind. “These creatures need to go back where they belong, no matter how intelligent they are supposed to be!”

“GO AND LODGE YOUR COMPLAINTS WITH LORD TUOAMAS PENNAT’S STAFF IF YOU ARE SO WORRIED!” shot back Gorar. The gnoll’s tiny stump of a tail was switching madly back and forth. “THESE ARE RESIDENTS OF THIS ESTATE! IF YOU MAKE ANY THREATENING OVERTURES TOWARD THEM THEN YOU WILL UNDERGO UNPLEASANT CONSEQUENCES!”

“Allah, but she is loud,” said a short person to Adz, from just beside it. The creature was one of the many civilians now part of the estate following its efforts to take in refugees, asylees, and the otherwise disenfranchised in the reign of Sebastio the Effulgent. Race? One with which the udod aodod hadn’t been acquainted, and it had no time to remedy that deficit.

The barrier containing the involved parties simmered down, revealing a Sledgecrafter and a noble. Forithka nervousness manifested in a spectrum of ways, the pinnacle being a sort of rapid teething the air, and the man’s pointed chompers managed to stop just short of vibrating out of his translucent head. The Sledgecrafter had evidently negotiated an exchange with Three for its subject. Adz had to keep itself from laughing when it glimpsed the kernel of a metal bullet being rolled around in the dallier’s grip like a pellet of milk teeth on a dealer’s counter. The Beast had an evident fascination with the flattened and blackened face of the bullet’s rear. A nice touch, that, like with the planning out of a great simulation: take each setback and turn it to mitigating the next setback in part where possible.

“... that there is a difference between being accepting and being fatuously solicitous,” the woman was telling the man in a stern voice. Her grip didn’t quite deform his flesh, but it obviously wasn’t going to be released easily either. “Now, I will have to ask you to go and purchase an upgrade to your practically applicable wisdom somewhere else,” she added as she almost dragged him out through the perimeter.

“Mommy, why is that man sad?” asked a tiny human child in the crush of slowly mellowing onlookers.

Gorar swept a hand out in a “get back” gesture, and she obviously had about half a toothache’s irritation in reserve before she began ushering the crowd away from the spectacle with a fusillade of hurt spikes.

“ENOUGH! NONE OF YOU ARE BEING HARASSED OR FOLLOWED WHEREVER YOU GO! GIVE THESE RESIDENTS THE SAME COURTESY AND LEAVE THE PREMISES!”

The furious aaned either couldn’t make words reach his brain or he was determined to be the single most annoying person in whichever company he found himself. He pushed his way through to the front of the crowd. A very noxious personality made the people in his way try to step aside and admit a thoroughly unpleasant whiner.

“It is astounding, how little the people of Pennat Gate care for the welfare of their children and comrades. It is even more astounding how brave the fractured throne is when-”

“Citizen, you are on the very cusp of ‘too far,’ and breaking that barrier will put you in the care of one of the estate’s First Step dukes. If the martial nobility wants to do horrible things with you, they have every right.”

The gnoll had moved while Adz wasn’t looking. She stood with both feet planted like tent pegs, gun extended like the least subtle pointing finger in the world, less than two meters from the aaned’s position. Her eyes had gone almost circular with rage. What genuinely disturbed the udod aodod, though, was the fact that Gorar’s challenge had been quiet. Not like a person spent after a long debate, or like a whisper of snow in a dry field; like the sound of rope descending around a neck.

Sensing the manyfold-increasing aura of danger around the man, most of the civilians in the vicinity became un-mellowed very quickly. They backed up to a distance relatively safe from magical fallout and ricochets. The exceptions were, of course, a dsaha who watched with a positively feverish intensity, and two assassins who either wanted to participate or just measure themselves against the incoming violence. A wisely cautious Sledgecrafter guided her chastened noble around the scene, passing him off to another of the Fountainists in attendance. The rest of the Fountainists betrayed a variety of agitation. Any thoughts about the Beasts examining the shrubbery, and their right to do so, took a back seat for the time being.

“I dare you to-” began the aaned. He didn’t finish.

Gorar folded behind him, and slapped a cuff around one of his arms. The cuff didn’t do an awful lot by itself; however, it projected an extremely powerful tuning field. In all, it screwed up the ability of its victim to accurately fold, and a not insignificant portion of other things one usually preferred prisoners not do.

“You cannot-” started the man again. His trouble earned him a moderate blow across the back of the neck. He fell to his knees as though he’d been waiting his whole life for the chance to get publicly humiliated and he’d been floored by his dream coming true.

Adz still couldn’t understand how some people actually found that kind of thing enjoyable.

“MOVE ALONG, NOW. YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS GAWKING.”

Gorar had compressed her weapon to an energy state once more, and brushed the air with her hands. The public moved along fairly peacefully. Aside from the fregnost who could have killed his countryman with his exuberant marksmanship (whose complaint about the sinister nature of Beasts was at least quiet), nobody vocalized direct opposition to the presence of the three creatures.

The backward glances and reticence in turning their backs to the Beasts, however, spoke volumes about the slow boil of malcontentment in Pennat Gate’s people. Even so, they left.

“I have sought you again, Friend Adz,” said a grinding Rhaagmini voice just next to the udod aodod, and it saw the schlrikt had managed to approach unnoticed. Its piecemeal conniptive motions were almost as unsettling as the tiny pinprick pupils in its ten-centimeter eyes.

“GET GOING AND SAVE YOUR DIGNITY IF YOU CAN,” demanded Gorar of the downed aaned where he sprawled, urging him to his feet with one of her clawed hands.

“Hello, Seven,” said Adz, also in Rhaagmini. It would have denounced anyone who said so as a lunatic a single month ago, but it actually found little elements of the Beast’s behaviors… well, not comforting; actually, the polar opposite of comforting in many ways. Yet, there was a skeletally basic appeal in the exotic being’s mannerisms that intrigued. Just being around the entity and observing it gave Adz a strange kind of inspiration. The udod aodod had embraced its identity as an editor and co-regent despite its initial misgivings, and its lack of experience as nobility. To learn to become an advisor for its Lord, a person who countered the foolish and nourished the good, it needed various kinds of training weights. It needed failures and it needed successes. It needed the baroque and it needed the oversimplified. The former it had in excess from simply watching the world around it. The latter it found in large part from a Beast, of all places.

The mentality of the estates and their Lords, for ages, had insisted that any effective Lord must focus on their rule and put aside matters of family. That had spurred Sebastio’s union in the first place; a desire to “hand back the reins” to Tuoamas, and keep the previous Lord of the estate in the highest executive position in all but name, unless Sebastio directly order his replacement. Instead, Adz’s influence with the newest Lord of Pennat Gate had actually strengthened public perception of his efficacy in recent years. The strangely specific vision of becoming a sanctuary for facetary aliens and the downtrodden, and the pervasiveness of that goal, had well and truly seeped into the DNA of the estate; the knowledge of the man, his partner, and his spouse that had made that possible carved out a lasting legacy for the Artaxerxes name. If the addition of a Beast to that stew improved the brew’s cohesion, Adz would count it as righteousness.

“You have different cloth,” remarked Seven. Its pointed head stared at the Lady’s torso. If Adz didn’t know better, it would have assumed the creature was trying to ogle the slash of its chest orifice, and either changed out the formal attire for something else or added another layer beneath. In actuality, these new Beasts had no interest in genitalia, social mores, or abstruse philosophising beyond a sterile dut-like curiosity. So strange, their dichotomies. Savage and peaceful. Comprehending and childlike.

Childlike.

That was a thread that the udod aodod felt warranted its attention.

“I do,” said Adz aloud. At the same time, it tried to think its way back around to its original epiphany. Humans, like many other creatures, were blessed with a broad sophistry: nimble, adaptable, well-suited to breadth-first searches. Udod aodod were not, but with some effort they could work in spiraling circles of the mental that approximated the same effect. The Lady did so, with the practiced hand of an advisor whose brain was used to stretching in critical directions.

Childlike, vestigial, unformed, unrefined, raw - no, not quite, continue. Raw, immature, growing, nourishing, biological, unordered… almost. Unordered, slipping, schisming, shaky, scattered, blank, malleable. Malleable. Malleable.

That time when Sebastio leapt up into Seven’s face, choking grasp around its throat, and delivered an ultimatum. The creature’s submission, so obviously feigned. Feigned? When it was the very image of uncompromisable candid simplicity?

“Seven,” said Adz, “take three steps back.”

The schlrikt suddenly lost its body noise, stiffened every joint - or every nexus of its body that acted like a joint, at any rate - and then assumed a trinity of bobbing reverse-advances. Afterward, it just stood in its new position of parade rest for about four seconds, with an unchanging focused gaze that made Adz’s eyespots tremble with unease. It didn’t twitch. It didn’t blink. Assuming it was actually comprised of discrete particulate stuff at some level of magnification, it probably came to a complete atomic standstill. Watching it made Adz feel like every heartbeat and every breath was a cascading chaos that started with the udod aodod’s body and would eventually ripple out to the rest of existence, shaking everything to pieces while the reference point of Seven alone remained unchanged.

Then Seven’s long digits bent into three-finger fists, and the spell was broken.

The Lady’s leg-cables crawled over each other in supremely unsettled restlessness.

 

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“Hello, Lady,” said a fatherly Fountainist from right next to Adz, and his failure to reckon with the ease of startling an udod aodod meant he might have gotten his everything ripped off. It turned; a familiar human, with hands the size of mitts, a face scarred in intricate ceremonially-ordained squares, and a third eye on the bridge of his nose that resembled the others except for a sclera as green as any fregnost’s coat.

“Hello, Mitchell,” responded Adz, glancing down at the man’s much-beloved magus caber. The witchlight-covered pylon floated just behind its owner, just as Mitchell had been following a certain Beast for quite some time. Adz almost asked why he hadn’t bothered to step in during the event, but didn’t - he obviously trusted his commander to be more than simply adequate.

“Hello, Friend Mitchell,” said Seven. That was something else the schlrikt had apparently learned: the idea of salutation and farewell. The udod aodod had recognized the erratic way it employed the knowledge as obviously nonrandom, but it just as obviously didn’t grasp the nuances of when an engagement began or ended.

“I do not suppose you have any reason to do me a favor, Lady, but I request it regardless,” said the Fountainist with a voice like a brass bell.

“I do not suppose so either, unless it is reasonable,” replied Adz with the slightest of leg-scramblings to betray its levity.

Mitchell’s magus caber floated over to his side, and he placed a hand on top of it. The top-mounted witchlights began to cycle faintly in intensity and color. The man leaned on his shoulder, contemplating some point in the range directly between schlrikt and udod aodod.

“Please tell Lord Artaxerxes that we all appreciate the unusual pressures he endures,” he said.

In silence, he extended a connection request, and Adz obliged.

{Please tell Lord Artaxerxes that many hands make light work, and that many hands are apportioned against him. If not now, then soon. Tell him that the greatest danger will almost certainly come from some among his own people.}

Adz felt ever so slightly ill.

{I shall so inform him,} it replied.

“Thank you, dear Lady,” said Mitchell with a smile. “Our Lord is such an important part of who and what we are. He needs to know how much we are aware of that fact - even we who are not properly counted among his estate’s citizens.” His magus caber dipped under his palm, huddling behind him once more as he touched his heart with his other forefinger.

“I do not see the sun, Friend Mitchell,” said Seven. It faced West, sinewy body watching the towering shape of the citadel behind whose recurve gleam hid the child of the sun from days past.

“Of course you do not see the sun,” chuckled Mitchell at the Beast as he turned away, watching his boss carry off a most unwise aaned. “The sun is not meant to be seen.”

Adz made an ambiguously amused sound, and left for its appointment to discuss Beastkind’s introduction with the three closest-residing Lawmasters. Over nearly a score “steps” wherein its leg-cables moved fore and aft in near concert, the clacking of Seven’s claws seemed to intend to follow it to the auditorium. Moments into the experience, the Beast obviously tired of its game, and even without watching, Adz knew the schlrikt had fallen back to entertain some other fancy.

Instead, a new set of footsteps picked up the pace, keeping even with the udod aodod, and coming up on the right side. Adz’s eyespots digested the image of Leanshe Etruphana drawing close. It wasn’t a terribly great challenge, seeing that the Lady’s larger size only really lent a tremendous speed advantage in short bursts. The sight of the autumn elf, the very first would-be slayer of Sebastio Artaxerxes, made a fine-scaled ear twitch in both curiosity and cold distaste.

“Greetings, Lady,” said the shipwright. Her aura had the color of a hearth-fed fire. She didn’t look up at the udod aodod. She simply walked with the purpose of keeping pace.

“Greetings, engineer. As strange as it might sound, the antics of Beasts have become routine of late.”

It is not so much good as an interesting surprise to see you once again.

Adz wasn’t exactly leery, but it certainly wasn’t happy either. Its voice showed that it would grudgingly tolerate the terrible planning in evidence by a failed assassination, especially one with a causality sabotage as the headsman’s ax. It would not tolerate such for long, though, and doubly so given the subject of Leanshe’s infamous antipathy. Others had forgiven her in time; Adz would not.

A connection request came along. The Lady answered it.

{If you are wondering of my purpose, then note that I aim to see this estate remain whole, but under a more traditional leadership.}

The Lady would have fallen over from that candid admission of treachery, once, long ago. Now, it was made of sterner stuff. It looked aside, and noticed the engineer watching behind her, looking at Mitchell as though she knew what had been said between him and Adz. Perhaps guesswork, perhaps prophecy, perhaps coincidence, though that last was unlikely.

Well. If the opponent was going to pull the gloves off, it was high time to go for the verbal jugular with one’s teeth.

{You still hold Lord Artaxerxes responsible for your cousins’ fates,} declared Adz. It wasn’t exactly hard to credit or deduce. Perhaps it should have been just a bit harder to believe the woman had such willingness to undertake such a cause, since the last time had ended with her being put on display for three days minus all of her skin.

Udod aodod didn’t have many social interpersonal taboos as a rule: plenty of understanding and propriety, but little utterly verboten. Hermaphroditism made the entire idea of gender a necessarily foreign topic, after all, not matter how well internalized the concept. Even so, autumn elves’ apathy toward popular views of having relations with one’s close relations, revivification of dead family’s personae, internment of the dead, and a hundred other things occasionally gave Adz pause on even considering the subject. Leanshe had no such inhibitions. For that matter, she’d never shown any kind of shame in the attempted murder of her sovereign.

{There was never any question of responsibility,} the woman replied, voice stony. {If he had not been involved with the operation for which my family had embarked, I know they would not have died heroes’ deaths.}

{So you think it would have been better for an unknown but surely enormous number of people to die, so long as your own kin were not among them?} Adz couldn’t, and didn’t try to, hide an eviscerating disdain at the woman’s morals, differences in phylum or no. The idea was unethical, inefficient, and simply unsustainable as a universal stance.

{Can you claim that you truly believe otherwise?} came the level reply.

The udod aodod gestured, more than passingly annoyed.

{No matter your motives or your current course of action, this is the first opportunity that you have taken to express discontent with your estate’s leadership in a very long time. Why take such an opportunity now, and not earlier? Why not thwart your opposed inclinations under a younger sun?}

The autumn elf’s aura didn’t have a chance to change during the dialogue; the whole interaction took effectively no time at all. If that had not been the case, though, Adz thought it might have begun to turn spotted and whorled, a diseased fruit of light.

{Because until recently, I yet held onto the hope that Lord Artaxerxes would indeed remain Lord only in name… or that, at some time, he might fade back into the role he originally declared for himself. But that man has a morbid terror of even approaching disappointment.}

The engineer stopped, and gave the sense of reorienting her full attention to the designer-turned-politician for the first time. Agitated and tense, Adz waited. And waited. And waited.

{I had the inclination to bide my time. I am not impatient. But there comes a time when one’s actions are dictated by exterior considerations. Gernasot mun Cecilia mun Alice munnin Erliseth the Grand and Lord Harrison O’Casey made their intent to defang this estate clear enough in recent days. I have not the means nor the hypocritical temerity to oppose them.}

{Ah. You have inferred that they mean our estate ill based on local developments?}

Surprisingly enough, no one had approached the armed mine that was the incident with Heggad at Louis Artaxerxes’s latest maypoling event. Surprising in one sense, perhaps. In many others, it was not surprising in the least - no doubt that more than a handful of people had already assembled the puzzle pieces, but didn’t want to commit political suicide by instigating hostilities between Nor’ridge and Pennat Gate. The few people who either wouldn’t have seen the danger of making such a blunder or wouldn’t have cared had other limiters: entities who tried to keep a barrier between themselves and partisan politics weren’t taken seriously, aarls usually recognized that they were unsuited to normal-people politics, wafa had too many other obsessions, and so forth.

Instead of any move toward doublespeak, the autumn elf doubled down on the incredibly compromising admissions.

{No. I was so told by a little eidolon named Heggad.} It wasn’t quite a snarl. {It turns out that when you voice certain misgivings to certain parties about certain things, you should expect to have your misgivings taken at greater-than-face-value. A little indiscretion, and people think you have managed to suddenly lose any semblance of faith with the establishment.}

The not-snarl got harder.

{When Lord O’Casey’s folk decided that meant it was time to lever a gap into Lord Artaxerxes’s armor, it was not with any intention of informing me, and it became clear that their stars and mine had been tied long ago. And, do you know, I would have happily decided against the mandate under moderately different conditions. But upon thinking of the dictates now coming from the throne under which I have served for my entire life… NO. We have seen the addition of Beasts to this estate’s numbers, and I mount the destrier of grand argument. That way lies madness, and so I shall hope for demonstrations of discontent like today’s, and greater. If Lord Artaxerxes is going to continue tightening his grip for fear of failing his sacred vision of a melting pot, he will be opposed.}

Adz felt like it had set out for a months-awaited tenshe, aimed at chasing down a burly fallflat on its favorite Eighth Step preserve, and instead found that a well-meaning someone had helpfully chained the beast to a rock and so “saved” the Lady the experience of tracking and falling into the thoughts of the thing. Despite the less-than-expected nature of the truths tossed at it, the udod aodod found that it really only had one question yet worth asking.

{Why go through the trouble of telling me all of this?}

Leanshe made a little noise.

{You were privy to the Engineering Compact’s commission of a scale model of the estate’s entire circuit for the last two hundred years, as of eighteen years past. As I understand it, you held the central role on that project, one of the better productions I have ever seen from eSsonss Architecture. That was simple in execution, but immaculate in detail. It was also representative of your skill. That sparked an interest in you personally; it showed me that you are a designer worthy of great respect - the kind of respect that deserves more than simple acknowledgement.}

Adz’s eyefibers mentally flattened against its face.

{The level of trust you bestow upon me - that I will not betray this confidence - strikes me as unlikely. I am a constructor. I build. The advice given my husband meant to prune back on plans of action and grand designs is not something I prefer to undertake. But you have outlined a hundred implicit reasons that erasing you will keep a crop of new weeds out next year}

Leanshe didn’t exactly sneer, but she managed to use tone of bytevoice to simultaneously carry conditional contempt, resignation, morbid glee, and something like a plosive-consonant stutter.

{I nearly wish you would try. One of the perks of being the pinnacle of an estate’s intelligence community is that the illustrious Gernasot will find no difficulty in planting false evidence of a big brother attack against me. A single word, and they will emulate a picture of me that is as crazy as Eihks Richard. Oh, I will not be around any longer, but you will also provide pretext for framing Nor’ridge as wrongly-accused.}

... What was that?

As crazy as whom?

As crazy as one of the greatest people to ever live? And if one even thought of attributing that opinion to the debt owed him by Adz’s species…

The Lady weighed and measured the shipwright from a silence so deep, lengthened, and hostile that Leanshe Etruphana, prospective murderer and proven if unhappy traitor, eventually made a small interrogative sound.

{Well. May you be as the skin eater, as you get everything your heart desires.}

When Adz finally left the shipwright behind, it felt not betrayal, but a bleak and unsympathetic pity. It spared very little time or focus for probing the details of such a feeling.

A nation of trillions wouldn’t oversee meetings on its own, after all.

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