A Plumb Line for Tomorrow

Submitted by elliott on Sat, 06/06/2020 - 17:27

 

“Here is a smoking husk of a man who supposed himself an immovable object. It does not matter whether he was correct - the world was moved around him instead.”

-Crippled False, at the judgment of Fallow Srid

 

Oh dear saints and sinners.

The medium of plant-flesh had many useful qualities. A fine balance in terms of practical availability, disposability versus strength, and the capacity to accept and retain a shape when coaxed by the proper tools. It was a time-honored tradition, in whatever form it might take, to put saw and hammer and file to wood, and with its working earn the goodwill and debt of one’s fellows. It was just that - like many such trade skills - it often hinged on touch as a major factor in the product’s quality. Even if you didn’t have sensation in your nerve endings any more, you could get by after a while (and several different magnitudes of failure) through sheer dogged persistence.

It meant that after spending the equivalent of multiple normal careers working on such stuff, little changes could still do unfortunate things to one’s learning curve.

“Hrm,” the lady hemmed and hawed, looking over the block he’d sliced off from a long plank of glued-together staves, then pared down. It had the essence of “cube” about it, fed through an artistic filter. The extremely rough edges begged for a round of sandpapering. He’d done well with the initial carving along the grain of the bamboo; his perpendicular sawwork could be charitably called subpar.

The adhesive-treated bamboo showed a more problematic heterogeneity than a slab of meat, for example. Muscle and fat and gristle in a steak had the benefit of starting out as a singular whole “meat” element, packaged by nature over generations. When you cut through sticks stuck together with hardened sappy stuff, it could cause shearing and splintering far more easily.

But come on - getting acclimated to a new cutting implement’s quirks at the same time as working with a hitherto-unused medium? For someone with no feeling in their fingers or anywhere else, it should have been acceptable… if only barely.

“Yes. We’ll hold off on that for now. If your skill in fetching supplies is any measure, you’ve got a potential for this sort of hands-on work - at least, as far as the selection of the best tools and material goes.”

She sniffed, and stepped to the side to grab up a large bucket or small tub. Her sliding technique managed to bring it closer without slopping the contents out all over the place.

As she went to grab a couple of small tools, she had to wander quite a bit around the room to reach her destination. Three and a half walls hemmed in the workshop. A sill partition and a short swing door were all that separated them from a wide vista of distant bamboo - and a partly-drowsy Ktsn. On the exterior side of that divide, an overhang and some tarp helped discourage the ill effects of the weather. On the interior side, the shop looked like it had already endured several storms recently, loaded up with wooden substrate and craft tools instead of rain.

The ceiling was just low enough that Eihks needed to stoop a little, but that was something he’d come to expect of a lot of human-designed buildings over the years.

“Of course, it might be that you’re something of a buffoon, whose only merit is as a carrier of goods.”

“As you say, ma’am,” he meekly replied as she returned to her position. His practical lexical toolbox was filling out again, from contractions and titles to properly inserting prepositions.

“And none of that!” she scolded. It wasn’t actually anger, but it definitely didn’t fall into the category of facetiousness.

Eihks said nothing.

“I’ll allow that I think you’re more probably skilled than that,” she eventually added. It was a repetition of a sentiment she’d skirted around actually stating: the “capable but of unknown trustworthiness” problem.

However, she didn’t seem particularly worried about the maybe untrustworthy individual she’d allowed into the place where she made her livelihood. A couple of factors contributed.

One was the stuff that he understood was called “living-water” - or “dead-water,” when it was altered to be hardened like the transparent file she used to fix his mistakes. Evidently, Fonlat stood high in the echelons of those with skill in manipulating the magical substrate. Even as he watched, she moved to a water crate and reshaped globules of the substance in volumes of eight or nine liters. One of these she lifted and used to wipe the tabletop clean of shavings. She seemed confident in her ability to use it to suffocate trouble if it came down to fisticuffs.

Another was the thick body of Tassy, lying over in the corner. He hadn’t seen the beastie far from her human except briefly, and the creature’s size made him suspect she made a very good guard-whatever. She still had the toy she’d taken from the shed, but he also suspected she wouldn’t object to using him for a ragdoll if she had the right motivation.

Last, he eyed the dead-water hunting knife the woman kept at her hip. It was the sort of blade that she could use to skewer a pig, or whatever the pig-things in the area were called. The complete lack of self-consciousness in the woman’s bearing while wearing it - barring some serious miscommunications in body language - suggested she knew exactly what to do with it.

“I’m curious where you learned your craft,” the woman muttered, low as though the answer didn’t matter to her. “If I’m not mistaken, your style’s better suited for dealing with solid wood. That’s more of a western thing, but you don’t look like you’re from Fanlil.”

Her lips curved up in the middle as she absorbed the sight of his altitudinous face.

“You’re too polite by half, you don’t smell like fire, and unless I’m mistaken they’d need one and a half Fanlilites to make one of you.”

“I’m from a faraway place without so much bamboo,” he defended, dusting off a slight variant on a narrative whose paths he’d worn smooth over the years. “It is called Rhaagm. We have solid woods in plenty there.”

“‘Rhaagm,’ you say?”

“Yes.”

“Hah.”

She had a talent for jamming incredibly dense packets of emotions into small plosive or fricative containers.

“We’ll have to get you to look at the maps in Ganlitāt’s keeping, and point out which direction you hail from. I’ve probably met someone who’s met someone that has met you.”

Doubtful.

A bit more sizing up of the not-quite-cube, as her attention returned to the here-and-now.

“Unless…” she began, and the faintly visible lines across her forehead deepened.

“Bah! Doesn’t matter.”

She paused to cough a couple of times.

“In any case, I can tell you’re not going to be helping with my normal work anytime soon,” she reconfirmed. “Maybe we’ll let you try your hand with some scrap planks. Eventually.”

An annoyed dust-off of the not-quite-cube. Then, using nothing more than a file that could fit up a nostril, she calmed the splintery chapped faces of his work into a polished smoothness. She grabbed it, and carried it over to a station where sat an array of whittled trinkets and fetishes and carvings. The cube went next to an abstract something-or-other which may have been an interpretive rendering of a human face, if you took that notched stalk to be a mouth and those smaller over-under bits to be eyes.

“In the meantime, I have need of some big strong backs for carrying some loads from the nursery by the market,” she said. “You are at least competent in that area of expertise. Both you and your curious consort.”

Eihks hadn’t detected a nonverbal equivalent of the expression of ambivalence which Rhaagmini and the like achieved with a thumb slid laterally across the forehead - at least not yet - in Fonlat’s culture. He had to settle for, “We try.”

“It appears that you do,” she said, with a sudden straightening of her back.

“I’m well-informed as to local goings-on,” she told him, curt and slightly less than accusatory. “Not just in Tienla-Gaphra, but all over Dōdielnan. Now, there being no tales about such a distinguished rail of a person as yourself - that’s just curious.”

The much shorter woman’s head turned just enough for an eye to whip out from behind her falling tresses, the unsheathing of a finely honed offensive tool.

“But arriving out of nothing, coming from the unknown country of ‘Rhaagm?’ With this one you call Ktsn? Don’t tell me there’s no story there.”

The glance’s razored tip diverted, moving away from the tangible and stabbing out into less concrete thoughts.

“Especially in these times… when I daresay everything is a portent.”

Eihks’s head tilted, his hands folded before him.

“If you don’t mind my asking, are you referring to this rebellion about which I’ve been hearing dribs and drabs?”

“Hearing what and what!? That’s shorthand for what, precisely?”

Ah-ha. Maybe Ms. Daephod has a point about using a lot of idioms.

“Little amounts here and there,” he rephrased, digging up the tidbits he’d collected from yesterday’s lecture. “The leader of the guard and a few other people have expressed concerns that we were rebels. I understand that is supposed to mean siding with somebody named Rollhir against Talphir, yes? I assume that’s the story that you assume is behind our appearance.”

At her look, his lips pursed and he added, “Imagine that I’m unfamiliar with any of your people’s history.”

“No. Queen Talphir, may she enjoy her time with the blessed dead, served Dōdielnan faithfully for fifty seasons. Justice and safety were the watchwords of her reign. She passed her throne to Rollhir as is just for the eldest. Three seasons of rule, and he became outwardly intent on proving himself unworthy of the throne. Stirring up trouble with Nognāt and Fanlil, and even our ages-old allies in Paphreno.”

“But that’s no longer the case, is it?”

“Rollhir forfeited his birthright to his brother Goeyren eight seasons ago, when he fled from his own folly for his foolish life. Hmph. Spoiled child. I am very glad we have King Goeyren instead, regardless of whether he’s less interested in trading with our neighbors. Goeyren the Lean is better than Rollhir the Anything.”

Well, we’ve found the king Ktsn mentioned, I should think - unless that’s supposed to be Rollhir, placed back on the throne. Now if we only knew who the “kingmaker” is supposed to be… or what, for that matter.

The prophetic ability of hers that he’d witnessed thus far was broad in scope, to say the least. He’d gotten little enough exposure to interpretive prediction matchup heuristics in the past, whether at home or in the wild. It didn’t take a genius to see it would be tricky to find an accurate fit of the measurable compares in the first prophesying she’d done in his presence. In fact, there was a single element from the incident in his apartment that couldn’t be nuanced or maliciously and knowingly reframed to the point of uselessness.

That was the statement, “To make the stuff of legend shall two components come together in one effigy.

He hoped and feared to believe that was in reference to himself and Ktsn. He hoped and feared to believe that meant they’d alter the status quo for the better.

However, the most recent prediction named several actors. King. Kingmaker. Strangers. These constituted hallmarks of a far more actionable nature. They made a praxis for linking up demonstrable events with foreseen labels - if the prophesying party were legitimately gifted… and the woman was only Old-touched. The reference to phasic weapons was interesting. He himself didn’t have any use for such things, and hadn’t brought any even in his compressed storage. That probably meant that neither of the Rhaagmini visitors qualified for “kingmaker.”

Hmmm. He’d be thinking on this riddle for a while.

“Not that my asking this makes me a non-rebel individual, but what exactly have these rebels against King Goeyren done?” he asked, as the woodworker came back across the room.

He jumped a bit at the sound of a beat-up fist smacking into a tabletop.

“They’ve become vermin, is what they’ve done!” Fonlat grated.

In the corner, Tassy stirred, only to re-settle when her mistress clicked at her.

“Not a whole lot were truly stupid or disloyal to the nation. The ones who were, though… they started organizing underground support, and making concerted efforts to hinder the kingdom’s justice. Supplies and farms, traders and royal representatives. If those idiots who want Goeyren to abdicate can harass it, they have done. I’m sure a lot of the things they’ve sabotaged or burned in the last half a season probably would have done more good for them intact than they got out of their vandalism. Just twelve days ago, we got a message that Rollhir’s sycophants slaughtered half the draft animals at a little podunk town near the Nognāt border. They left a bloody message in the town square. The livelihoods of the dead only know how many people, gone. For what?”

She sniffed, an ornate wordless contempt.

“‘Give us the rightful king’ indeed!”

Eihks knew that this was the sort of drama that would get his audience salivating for more, and for that reason hesitated before he spoke again.

“Not to provoke, but… is Goeyren the rightful king?” he asked, wincing a bit inside.

It would be a very poor and possibly socially crippling development to get kicked out of the circle of hospitality now. Even so, it was the sort of matter on which he needed perspective - for personal reasons as much as professional ones.

And he wasn’t going to deceive her and act like the question had never percolated through his mind.

To his relieved surprise, she gave a very different kind of sniff, looking up at him.

“Now I know you’re not one of those vermin,” she declared, with strong if imperfect confidence. “Haven’t seen more than a tiny handful of cases where they would have asked that question instead of using knives or mallets to do the talking. Of course, if you were a pro-Rollhir fool, I’m sure you would have succumbed to your fervor and tried to put something major to the torch before now.”

Eihks made a noncommittal noise from the diaphragm, looking in the direction where Ktsn placidly waited.

“And to answer your question, our current ruler is not only the rightful king, he’s the better of two choices by far. Rollhir would almost have been more tolerable if he’d purposely set out to ruin us. But he didn’t - just a petty king whose sense of responsibility was even pettier.”

A wave.

“But enough of that. I need you to get sixty weights of slate, ten weights of wax, ten weights of iron, and fifteen weights of meat. With how strapping you and your familiar have proven yourselves, it should only be… a single trip, or maybe two, I think.”

She scurried over to a desk overflowing with drawers, then began burrowing into its organs and tissues for useful nuggets. Eventually there came the sound of clinking. A bag bulging with thin wafer shapes was the fruit of her labor, and she held it up for Eihks to take.

“I have good credit at all the shops you’ll be visiting to pick up the necessaries, except with Dtonis. Give her this purse. You tell her that anything less than her best quality means I either get good change back or I’ll let Tassy eat the rest of her stock next time I’ve got business around there.”

Yet another mark of her accomplished life: comparatively calligraphic script. Whereas the spoken tongue was a sort of derivative of Loonmith, the written equivalent put him in mind of Akkadian. He’d pick up the knack of easy reading eventually. Until then, he’d hold on to the money and scrap of papyrus, and ask around until someone pointed him in the right direction through the village’s warrens.

“Now get going,” she said. “I need you back in no more than three waters.”

Eihks blinked.

“Pardon?” he croaked.

“Three waters. Don’t be gone all day, there’s good light yet.”

“Yes, but how long is a water?”

“... Tell me, are you having a joke at my expense? Because if you are, I promise you won’t like where it gets you.”

“No, I’m serious! I’ve never heard of that term used as a unit of time!”

Looking up at him, she might have become a statue except for the region around her mouth, which gently massaged the words, “Three waters is three tenths of a full day.”

“Oh.”

Three tenths, and as the local day was close to the duration of a day in Rhaagm, that was three tenths of sixteen hours. Roughly three hundred and seven minutes. He contemplated the size of the village, and calculated rough worst-case and best-case scenarios for traveling around on the designated errands. Should be more than simply easy - assuming he and his partner weren’t waylaid by another udnura in the streets.

“I see. We’ll be back before then.”

He pushed out of the swing door, standing fully upright again as he started around the building. He turned when he didn’t hear an additional set of footsteps coming along behind.

“Ktsn!” he called, and she raised her head. He gestured. She came. They left.

Time to make a small effort toward improving the stability and quality-of-life of the little country of Dōdielnan.

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