A Dreaded Homecoming

Submitted by elliott on Sat, 01/26/2019 - 19:12

 

“Statement: insufficient is action of winning battle. Statement: insufficient is action of winning war. Statement: sufficient is action of winning present conflict and successive conflict in single operation.”

-Ord Navy Admiral Dolpappoladod, after the sterilization of a rebel dagacha colony in the Ord Dagacha Uprising

 

Returning from the facilities, Bugbear dusted off his shirt, changing the texture and pattern to something both comfortable and consummately professional. Just as he sat at the table designated for the meeting, the delegates from Ky-Six-Iar-Twenty-Five-Lesq arrived, almost barreling into a bushel of patrons who were chatting each other up inside the antique manual doors.

The large placard hanging just inside the entrance went unread, though the cause was likely unfamiliarity with the written text instead of plain disregard. The New Mongol adjusted his seat to read the sign, stylized script in the major languages of Bequast, Rhaagm, and Yrdky. Physically rather than virtually engraved, the unusual depth of the characters reflected the severity of their author:

Welcome to the Hammer and Scapula!

Rule the first: observe kindness toward all patrons and staff.

Rule the second: pay tabs within two hands; you will get one four-days-left reminder.

Rule the third: discord is permissible, violence is not.

Rule the fourth: the establishment will reckon violations at its own discretion.

Rule the fifth: there have been, and shall be, no more than five rules.

His attention was tugged to the uncouth foreigners again by an irked growl from a seated hooded diner. The humble forms of the delegates paid the figure no heed as they pattered away from the entrance.

Dlg’s backs uphold me, thought Francis “Bugbear” Pickering. It’s a good thing I do this for no monetary reward, because no monetary reward would suffice.

Following a lengthy string of small election-season Ganymede conventions at the Hammer and Scapula, Bugbear found himself getting tapped for hosting more and more major events, and of greater and greater import. Negotiating opening diplomatic terms with a relatively advanced facet’s representatives was a moderately sudden jump up what he thought of as, mentally spelled out with flaming letters a kilometer high, the GRAND SCALE OF IMPORTANCE. But he was nothing if not capable of adapting.

The delegates had no grasp of social niceties, he observed. Their ignorance was their own fault in some small measure, perhaps, but seeing as they had been contacted by a coordinator from a Rhaagm Immigration Ministry Office’s staff, they ought to have gotten a basic run-through on expected behaviors. Instead, the quartet of creatures swerved and slid around the establishment’s other customers by the narrowest of margins, chattering loudly and quickly enough among themselves that Bugbear’s new linguistic kernel addition had trouble keeping up. He massaged his brow when they caught sight of him and animatedly crossed over to his table, clambering onto the lowered seats and assuming a sort of waiting air. They managed to get their upper portions onto the table by using their tails for leverage, and more or less flopping their heads onto the tabletop. Their many tiny artificial eyes ran over everything: the bar, the other visitors, his prosthetic left eye and face plate.

List of things that have gone right: guests recognized their host without needing to be reminded of his appearance, he thought with harried yet genuine amusement.

The delegates were all from the same species; their own demonym was difficult to pronounce and convoluted to spell in Rhaagmini - the other races which interacted with them called them pwekeits mosuopwe, which was merely inconveniently long. In their natural shape, they were crustacean-like creatures about five to seven centimeters in length. However, their civilization was not just space-faring, but also interplanar, as their home facet, abbreviated to Ky-Six-Iar-Twenty-Five-Lesq, was composed of five or six thousand closely bundled realms with similar or identical habitable states. Since the average size of a sentient creature on their facet was close to seventy percent of that of a human, and they were given to dealing with other species on a very frequent basis, they often used larger mechanical bodies to better prevent accidental (or purposeful) injury.

The artificial shells in question resembled a cross between a wingless squawk and a lobster, half as long as Bugbear was tall, with awkwardly large rectangular panels mounted on their backs. Said panels displayed animated graphics that seemed to correspond to the creatures’ emotive or verbal communications. The rest of the creatures’ vehicles were entirely covered in square shapes like ceramic tile, with coloration either beyond natural human visual detection or a dull red or blue.

Bugbear was about to start with introductions when the first creature to his left began bouncing up and down, nearly vibrating, as a tornado of colors throbbed on its back panel. It also began chattering at him.

“Pleasedtomeetyou! Hopewewillhavegoodrelationshenceforth! Understandusyes?”

The New Mongol gazed at the leaning-over form, and reran the onslaught of speech at a slower pace to himself.

“I can understand you, - and it would be wonderful to build a working bond between your civilization and ours.” Bugbear stopped, smiling faintly, contemplating the cadence of the newcomers’ speech on his tongue and mesh’s speakers. Some fricatives and stony grunts beyond his vocal ability were interspersed, but it also had many consonant and vowel constructions that fell squarely into the domain used by Rhaagmini and Yrdkish, and Bequastish to a lesser extent - if one never took to a cartoonish Údanese nasal emphasis, at least. It was a language that standard human physiology could speak understandably, albeit with a heavy accent from substitutions in pronunciation.

“Anyway, please bear with me - you speak much more quickly than I expected, so it might take a moment to process your language. Call me Francis - I usually use a different name, but you would have a hard time reproducing it. I’m a New Mongol human, and was born and grew up right here in Rhaagm.”

“Differentname? Particulartoyourspecies?” The chattering came from the pwekeits mosuopwe across from him and on his right. It turned the upper portion of its frame, edging slightly forward on the table. Its voice had a thinner, more whistle-laden character. A female, perhaps, if the first speaker was male, or maybe the converse.

“Not particular to my species, really; I often answer to Rabgrbozid, which is a term for a scary thing used to frighten little children in stories.”

The creatures made sounds at each other that his kernel contextually interpreted as laughter. They then tried out the word on each other, and to their credit they found considerably greater success than he’d expected. But after close to a solid minute of “Rarrzed” and similar exclamations approximating the Rhaagmini phrase of his nickname, he decided it was time to rein things in.

“Alright, that’s pretty close. Now, to what names do you answer? Calling you all ‘delegate’ is both ambiguous and somewhat annoying to my thinking.”

“One!”

“Two!”

“Tw-”

“Three!”

“Th… allofyouaredeviants. Four.”

Bugbear blinked. The tendency of pwekeits mosuopwe to use numeric designations for themselves had been explained by his briefing on the race. Given the very broad context of his introductory dissertation, though, he’d assumed that the “names” thus accepted by each member were static, and unique in the scope of the entire race’s individuals.

The human berated himself for letting his quasi-academic leanings take charge of his thoughts again, and stabbed the table with a broad blue finger.

“Very well, One, Two, Three, and Four. Can I get you anything to eat or drink?” He leaned back a little. “I’ve been made aware of what your people can ingest… generally, at least… but that’s little to do with preference.”

“Bread!”

“Ohyesbread!”

“Deliciousdeliciousbreadiswonderful!”

Bugbear, following a short conference to ensure he had grasped their wants and their definition of the foodstuff, managed to supply the delegates with delicious, delicious bread. Said consumable commodity was assembled to specification and presented by Qha Dum Cas, closest-residing nonresident employee at the Hammer and Scapula and its only hudenot staff. She was also the first hudenot Bugbear had ever met with part-demon heritage, but her outward manner showed not a millimeter of malice or harmful intent. The girl had a demeanor that seemed to calm people, in fact, and the bunch of delegates chattered at each other about her strange bundles of stringy fibrous flesh tendrils with a tourist’s interest.

“Tell me what else you might need, Boss!” Qha Dum Cas made a flowing dip after dropping off the silver filigree tray, her body-head showing a slightly human smile that kept her many teeth hidden. Her Rhaagmini was lilting and a bit warbly, like a master classical musician with a broken limb doing their best to weave a full concerto, and damn the consequences.

“Nothing for now - if I need you I’ll holler. Go and trade gossip with the aaneds over yonder if you want; they’re in the greenware business, says a little eidolon.” Said aaneds were boisterous and slightly intoxicated, shouting their imprimatur at a holojector display of some professional gamer circuit he didn’t recognize. One of them wore a Tillasg Biologicals badge on her lapel, and based on the volume of her Monolith traffic she had a substantial number of networking augmentations, probably either wearables or cutaneous etchings.

With a happy trill, Qha Dum Cas slid over in their direction, slapping her forithka coworker Kedk on the belly as she passed, coiling through the relatively sparse crowd of clientele. When he saw her rise on her tendrils, Bugbear snorted and reallocated his attention to the delegates.

“Alright, my friends. Let’s begin. You are aware of why you were contacted by a Rhaagm emissary, correct?”

“Tradeanddiplomaticrelations!” Two had a bit of a giddy air as it wiggled jerkily against the table. In front of it was a perfect double-fist-size hemisphere of bread minus an ovoid chunk. Two’s chassis had a brush of crumbs across the toothy section just above the eyes, and it was holding a small portion of the loaf in its mantid claws.

“After a fashion.” Bugbear avoided any affirmative gestures, as they would be either confusing or misunderstood, or perhaps ignored. “You are well-used to conducting business between planes of your existence, and maintaining appearances with regard to foreign powers on an interplanar basis. Rhaagm is not just another plane. Where you come from, the set of all planes you might theoretically access, is part of what we call a facet. There are too many of these so-called facets to simply number them in a traditional manner, assuming they are fewer than uncountably infinite.”

“Notpossible. Mustbeupperboundedascountablyinfinite.”

Bugbear thought that might have been Four - the individual he’d pinned as being possibly female (or male) - though One was close enough to its neighbor, as well as similar enough in vocals, to confuse identification. He showed his empty palms, kicking himself milliseconds later as the display did not carry any particular meaning when picked up by his kernel’s context module.

“I know little enough about the minutiae in the mathematics, but that’s a direct quote from a very smart guy named Toothskin. Anyway, getting off-topic. Rhaagm would like to establish a relationship with your facet on the grounds that you are used to dealing with interplanar socioeconomics and politicking. I am-”

Bugbear found himself wondering whether he had contracted a diluted case of sievemind and whether he might soon forget his very name, as he suddenly patted down his pockets - but since he hadn’t performed any thaumaturgical work that day, he figured he’d just gone a bit too long without encountering things of a food persuasion himself. Like many people, he would never bother with eidetic records of his pockets’ contents (intended or actual) because it took maybe two to three seconds to check his memories, and said pockets. Even so, his eyelid began twitching. After a moment he found the laminated seal of his immigration office, and placed the dirty-white circle on the table. Tapping the center of the embossed trefoil knot sigil, he continued.

“I am authorized by the Rhaagm Immigration Ministry Office of this district, and through ‘em indirectly by the Council of Books, to broker an initial deal for seeding material. You give us information, we give you goods. The terms are thus: for every gigabyte of entropy you provide from a biological-random origin, or any source which produces data with comparable or lesser compressibility, you will be provided in turn with a little more than four megagrams of an element of your choosing.” He hid a small smile. “We’ll even measure by weight in terms of your gravity, rather than ours, so you’ll get about half again as much from the exchange.”

“Thoughexceedinglyrespectablethisofferisoneofquantityratherthankind.” One chirruped with a forward wave of its limbs expressing longing. “Wehadhopedforqualitativelyuniqueopportunitieswithyourpeople.”

“Well, that can be arranged, if the initial deal remains a successful venture for several years. The usual follow-up is to upgrade to an exchange in more qualitative markets: we offer various technologies and scientific advancements, and ask in turn for weightier specie. That tends to be a combination of limited permissions to exploit certain unused assets of your home and either a grant of deep space or - in rare instances - unpopulated globes, for construction, experimentation, and colonization.”

Bugbear had no sooner finished speaking than Three almost climbed up onto the table. Its back display was at an incline where its contents were invisible, but the shifting colors made an unfocused aurora across the chair’s curved backrest. One of the frontmost legs of the chassis had speared its remaining allotment of delicious, delicious bread like a fish-spearing implement might spear a fish.

“Youwouldgaugeyourstoreofknowledgeasequivalenttoentireworlds?”

Bugbear felt his brow contract toward the bridge of his nose. The delegate’s stance was assessed by his kernel to imply aggression. Bugbear felt thoroughly unimpressed by his kernel’s inability to distinguish between useful information and obvious information.

He really did not want to have to deal violations of the third rule just yet.

“Calmly, friend. Note that I said ‘in rare instances’ and ‘unpopulated globes,’ and that was for a reason.” The New Mongol rested his arms heavily on the table, leaning close enough to Three that he saw how the layers of lenses in his guest’s artificial eyes each caught the light at ever so slightly different angles. “Trust me when I say that stage of an economic partnership with our city doesn’t usually roll around for a long, long time. When it does, you’ll get the opportunity to think about the topic extensively and weigh your options.”

When Three moved back into its seat with a leery air, Bugbear ran his thumb over his face plate. The alloy had an ephemeral spongy softness, and a nearly greasy slickness to its surface, and for reasons he did not readily grasp this translated into a comforting effect when he rubbed its texture.

The delegates were throwing out signs that many subtle and belligerent emotions had been aroused. As good a place to plant a progress marker as any, and dodge stirring up potential unrest, he decided. He wondered what exactly the coordinator who had connected with the facetary guests had told them about the program. They wanted a deal, and they wanted it sealed yesterday. Mayhaps he could arrange a slightly adjusted offer on their behalf.

For today, though, let hospitality ease the troubles away. He gave a slight bow and a flimsy but genuine smile.

“Since you’ll be staying in Rhaagm for a little while, let me show you to your quarters, friends. And please, don’t worry about price - it’s on the house.”

He left a short order for Qha Dum Cas to assemble some more grain products for the pwekeits mosuopwe tenants. Personally showing them up the stairs to their lodgings on the first floor above street level, he explained a bit of the Hammer and Scapula’s design and history. The quasi-arthropod aliens made interested sounds at various times as they skittered along behind or beside him. Gradually they fell back into the slightly overbearing and overloud character he’d seen when they first entered the tavern.

They wanted to know everything about the ten-centimeter-tall salt sprite lodger, just leaving her proportionally sized quarters through one of an array of ankle-high doors as they passed. He said little about her, as she liked her privacy a great deal. A brief explanation about the varied natures and origins of the literal billions of sprite classifications helped to placate the interrogative tide for a moment.

They wanted to know about the sanitary implements of their temporary lodgings once inside their sprawling, heavily furnished standard-size room. Bugbear’s organic eye studiously avoided looking at anything in particular while he explained the use of the sanitizer, the multi-configuration commode, and other apparatus with more… specific uses. When Two asked to know the purpose of a very long implement meant for wetroi clients and occasionally a jioj or two, the human immediately diverted the subject.

They wanted to know, or at least Two did after “being nearly run down,” about a certain executioner. The pwekeits mosuopwe had stated a mission to search for more delicious, delicious bread, in spite of the promise that one of the Hammer and Scapula’s staff would ferry more up to the room in due time. Just as the door to the room opened and the delegate nearly rushed out onto the landing that circled the tavern’s second level, the human recognized the heavy tromping steps of a very familiar pair of hooves.

The alien’s insectile vehicle was grabbed and yanked back from the threshold, and Bugbear was a little surprised by its weight. Then he remembered their gravity was roughly two thirds Rhaagm’s standard value, and that they’d been given negative-mass beads to help them survive in something like comfort.

“What*NONSENSE*wasthatdisgustingstupidfuzzything?” Two’s exclamation split with an almost numbing gush of static-laced background noise during the louder part of the phrase. It wiggled in Bugbear’s grip, back display showing a throbbing accordion of charcoal and crimson stripes, and ventured more cautiously through the door when freed. The language kernel provided courtesy of immigration services was apparently distributed with profanity filters active by default in its autoconfig.

He really was distracted. The New Mongol flipped the setting switch with a jot of annoyance.

Grounding his hair-trigger emotional response on the subject of people criticizing certain other people, Bugbear requested that the remaining three delegates stay put, which they seemed content to honor. He stepped out of the room, across the broad strip of landing, and stood beside Two, looking down at the patterns of squares covering the body of its vehicle. It watched the executioner named Sun-Beneath-Skin reach the stairs, take them four at a time, and nearly bowl over Llemer, one of the Hammer and Scapula’s two udod aodod employees.

The human was about to answer when he realized that there was no exact translation for the word “wife” in his guests’ tongue. A marginal increase in frustration made his response emerge more icy than it might have otherwise been.

“That disgusting stupid fuzzy thing,” he said with a hard edge, “is my beloved, and you’d do well to insult her only where she can hear you and defend her own character. Otherwise, I assure you that you’ll be headed straight home, without so much as a single crumb.”

The long flat frame of the delegate bent back to look up at him, and if he had to guess he’d say the glance held a sludge of apprehension and fear. Bugbear held his stare a heartbeat more, then resumed watching the executioner. Her earless horned head was whipping about, solid black eyes searching for something. The layered white and red robe she wore bound taut with several buckles and belts was flapping in a few places as she paced along the diagonal of the large main room. Following her progress was hardly difficult given her three meter height, and that her horns and shod hooves added another half meter or so to that measure. The off-white coat of soft quills contrasted strikingly with her broad dark nose, and the expression she wore was easy to read because of it.

“With that said,” Bugbear thought aloud while puzzling over Sun’s frantic behavior, “she’s not quite herself, rushing around like that. She’ll apologize, I’m sure, if you ask it of her. Come along,” he said, scooping air behind him in a relatively easy-to-intuit “follow me” sign, “and let’s see if we can’t get you your delicious, delicious bread sooner than expected while downstairs.”

“Sincererepentanceforinsultsrendered,” Two muttered as it scuttled close in his wake.

“Well, I’d be lying if I said I was happy, as such, but you didn’t know. To mutilate an ancient saying of my species, ‘misunderstand me once, shame on me; misunderstand me twice, shame on you.’ Just don’t make a habit of it.”

The very second Two offered an affirmation, the New Mongol got a message from Qha Dum Cas. It came via the uncoordinated multi-participant standard Monolith mail utility, with an urgent header packet. Bugbear felt that he and the hudenot were on sufficiently good terms to make a direct channel link unpresumptuous. However, in most cases Bugbear preferred - and preferred to teach his employees - to first attempt methods which did not permit, or implicitly demand, continuous active participation. He opened the message, and the half-demon hudenot’s bytevoice came through with emphatic severity but without any flustered or disorderly worry.

{Hey, Boss! Big Boss is on ground level looking for you. Get in touch with her if you could, yeah? Or respond to this message so I can tell her you will be around shortly. It sounds very important, and she says you two need to talk privately.}

Bugbear took another step, considered, and then composed and sent a response to both Sun and Qha Dum Cas. He smiled like he frequently did at the half-joking pet name some of the staff had taken to using for the other part of the Hammer and Scapula’s executive couple.

{Hang on, coming right now with one of the facetary delegates in tow. Assuming there is any more of their favorite grain product available, I would appreciate a fresh supply for their room. If not I will fetch some more when time permits. We need to maintain our exceptional service, after all.}

He was about halfway down the stairs, Two descending in a kind of controlled slide, when he heard the relieved whinny. Sun was moving his direction in something between a brisk walk and a trot, her hooves finding plenty of traction on the brown and gold tiling. The sunlight coming through the wall-high windows facing the street caught the ornamental jewelry dripping down her horns. Were it not for her expression Bugbear might have slowed for a breath or two to admire how much she looked like that storybook day they’d gotten married.

Unfortunately, her expression was close to the dictionary definition of troubled.

“Bugbear!” Her low rumble tended to lie in a unique swatch of frequencies amidst the regular hustle of the tavern. Even if his own voice got lost in the chaos, he’d always be able to hear her.

He sidestepped an aaned couple as he touched down on the ground floor and met her next to the bottom stair, out of the way to allow exeunt to the next level. Two huddled by his shoes, and he kept his footing light enough that he could be sure the delegate wouldn’t run into his heel by accident.

“What’s up, sweetheart?” The human tipped his head slightly as the taller woman drew close. Compared with the pwekeits mosuopwe language, Rhaagmini was a jaunt through a childhood candy forest: sweet and eternally familiar even after years of slogging through other linguistic climes.

“Have you checked the forum on our site’s landin’ page?”

Bugbear’s eye widened. Sun could never hope to hide it from him, no matter how hard she tried. That was a dash of confusion and a kilo of buttery anxiety right there.

“Got the feed passing important messages straight along,” he replied. “Why?”

The executioner fidgeted.

“Did you get the postin’ from half an hour ago?”

Bugbear paused.

“Errr… no, I didn’t. Let me… check…” He felt the fleshy parts of his face pass through disbelief, then watered-down skepticism, followed by awe, uncertainty, and resignation. The reason for his not receiving a notification on the forum’s most recent public entry probably had something to do with the fact it was written rather than spoken. Differences in media had funny effects on the family of expert systems that did the tavern’s virtual bookkeeping, and could screw with prioritization at times.

The static text entry was curt. It read:

Good Sir Francis Pickering and Madam Sun-Beneath-Skin,

I hope it would not inconvenience you overmuch if I and a couple of associates met with you at your establishment today. Circumstances permitting, within the hour would be ideal. You will be adequately compensated for your time.

A footer to the posting held a small ciphertext block. Bugbear had, with minor trepidation of the soul at his now-justified suspicion, already decrypted it using the primary public key of no less than the Jon himself. It read:

Please respond with a missive to the following dedicated address, and please use the same key as utilized in decrypting this segment. Time is sensitive. If you are amenable, a representative is standing by to help with arrangements.

Sincerely, Jonathan of Rhaagm, formerly Gaim Fellepkos

Below that was a string representation of a resource locator. At first, Bugbear didn’t know why it looked malformed, but then he looked at the original footer again, and realized the locator hadn’t been encrypted.

“You read the encrypted portion, I presume?” He realized after the question was out just how it might be taken. Almost immediately his hindsight marked the leap of pseudo-logic that led him to connect an unknown, unspecified cipher in an arbitrary location with the single most famous living biological person in all Rhaagm as both stupendous and lucky. Even so, the act of asking might be viewed as condescending if she had as well, and if she hadn’t then-

“Yes, I did.”

His wife’s lips curled in what would be a human frown, but actually represented a smile in both executioners and aaneds. In her whole posture was an implicit message along the lines of “I know what you’re thinking and you don’t need to fret over it.” As usual she was indeed smarter than him.

“What do you think we should do, then? I’m of the opinion we should agree to talk; it’s not like these kinds of get-togethers are common.” He shrugged his resignation.

“I think so, too. It seems like somethin’ of a civic duty, almost. And besides,” Sun added with shyness bordering on what would have manifested as fawning in a human female, “it’s not everyone who can claim to host people as interestin’ as… well…” She trailed off. “The people we’ll have visitin’.”

“Alright. I’ll draft something and you look over it, make whatever changes you feel are appropriate.” He raised his voice to the howl he used to frighten off kids and kill small animals at a distance. Directing his sonic weapon over the heads of the dining, laughing, chatting crowd, which abruptly went almost silent, he addressed the hudenot just sliding through the swing door to the kitchen and other back rooms. “QHA DUM CAS! GONNA BE BUSY, MORE BREAD IF YOU PLEASE!”

He was rewarded with a bundle of tendrils reemerging, knotting themselves in an approximation of a salute, and vanishing after their owner through the doorway.

Twenty nine steps later (twenty one for executioner legs), Sun and Bugbear had a missive written, revised, and sent, and were waiting at one of the tables nearest the tavern’s glass front door. Bugbear was gingerly drawing a meager sip from a ceramic jug of alcoholically enriched ayrag every so often while they talked.

He knew that the swill he enjoyed served as a sedative and soporific in executioner biology. For a personal poison, Sun’s kin preferred menthol to achieve drunkenness, or - weirdly enough - butane if they simply wanted flavor without the effects. A minor curiosity, it turned out, of the ways the species processed and produced certain esters. Even so, he held up the jug, tapping its bottom.

Before he spoke a word, the executioner gestured negation, and established a direct channel connection with her husband. {I am fine, Bugbear. No need to doze off in the middle of discussion with our guests. Also, the thought of drinking milk from creatures with… hooves… is less than appealing.} She paused for a comparative eternity measured against the instant overclocking-assisted timeframe of cerv-mesh communication, and made a slightly disappointed noise. {I wish you would stop wasting perfectly good slicker eggs in brewing the stuff.}

{Sorry, dear.} He smiled faintly, pausing himself to sip a bit more of the ayrag recipe his family had passed down more than thirty two generations. {All that aside, what do you think this is about? The Court, as far as I know, has no reason to take an interest in us or the business.}

{I cannot but speculate either. If I had to guess, it may concern your Ky-Six-Iar-Twenty-Five-Lesq delegates. We will find out shortly enough, probably.}

{Hopefully it has nothing to do with them. They are insular and unreceptive to Rhaagm’s expectations of them, if my intuition is accurate, but I hope they may be successfully integrated in time. I support the Court in most regards, but they rarely make things easier with their involvement. Sorry,} he corrected, {I should have said they rarely make things less complicated with their involvement.}

He felt an itchy memory trying to get his attention, and made a little outline with his hands.

{Oh - by the way, one of the delegates was nearly introduced to the undersides of your feet when you were rushing downstairs a few minutes ago. They are currently residing in one of the standard suites, but the one who was following me just now was wondering if you might be able to reconcile.}

{Do you mean that creature right next to you?}

Bugbear turned to his right. A stubby fregnost child was being carried by its father or other relation, keening and flailing ineffectually with all four arms and tail. He recognized both man and child, though he’d be recycling mass if he could place name to face. A fiber or two of green fur drifted floorward as they made a retreat past variously sympathetic clients.

Bugbear turned to his left. Two was rearing back with the kind of gentle arc described by human endoskeletal spinal columns, gazing up at him speculatively no more than a step away from his chair. A glare over at Sun so fleeting it was nearly imaginary, then it continued staring at the human. “Doesyoursilenceserveanypurpose?” Its trill was cuttingly inquisitive, and its body noise gave a sense that it expected him to evade or deceive for some reason.

“Ah,” said he, “it does, in a way.” He cloned the kernel he’d been supplied by the immigration people and sent it to his wife. A picosecond or so later she’d uncompressed it, ran its unit and integration tests, and allowed it permission to suggest appropriate vocalizations where feasible and simulate them through her mesh otherwise.

“I was talking with my beloved about a few matters.” He introduced them to each other, less of an uncivilized lack of manners than it might have otherwise been, as one of those involved fell squarely into the category of “outlander.”

“Hello, Two,” Sun said, using her speakers primarily. “I believe I may have come close to steppin’ on you.” She tilted her head back briefly, baring her throat marginally as her horns’ metal adornments sprinkled motes of light across the room. “If so, deepest sorrows for your pain. I hope amends might be made.” She folded her hands together, watching the shorter entity as a nanny might.

“Onesupposesitprovesexcusable.” Two made a broken, metallic sound like gears caught on a foreign body. “Thoughknowledgeofwhatsubjectholdssuchhighimporttonearlycausecivilianmurderwouldbegreatlyappreciated.”

Bugbear wiped a mote of something out of his artificial eye. He met Sun’s gaze, and saw consensus there.

“We’re going to be entertaining a very prestigious guest soon, and we were asking ourselves why he would visit us. Apparently the subject is a matter of overarching consequence.”

“Ah.” Two made a hiccup sound, then bent in the middle to look around Bugbear’s seat. Its head cocked, legs scuttling in reverse as it put a meter or so between itself and the seated human.

“A very consequential subject by all accounts.” The voice was a bubbling sucking snarl under a synthesized voice constructed to suggest a male homo sapiens adult, but Bugbear wasn’t fooled. After all, that voice was heard more often than any other on the topic of citywide law and order, and the upkeep thereof.

The New Mongol turned, and there was Oegetno Eighteen-and-a-half Ireced Why, the Pursuant of Rhaagm, letting the tavern door swing closed behind it. The dsaha stood a good bit shorter than most humans, blue and verdigris hooded robe covering most of its features except the gills and lucent pads on its otherwise smooth gray face, its three-point-star hooves, and the ends of its phalange covered arms. To an idle observer, it would not strike one as particularly dangerous. In fairness, it lay quite far below Crippled False on the totem pole, and probably many of the other entities which called the Tower of Rhaagm home as well.

“Oh my Dlg,” squeaked the human in a terribly breathless falsetto, a schoolchild’s nervousness before an idolized celebrity. It was thunderous in the Hammer and Scapula’s instant crypt silence, a silence which tended to follow the Pursuant in the manner of a paintbrush following an artist’s whim. In point of fact, almost all the clientele directed their attention quite emphatically away from the dsaha. Bugbear might have expected his guest’s appearance to chase off any of the crowd capable of feeling nervous, but the reaction was more along the lines of a school of stipps huddling together, hoping the fallflat overhead would fail to notice them and pass on by.

“I have a request,” said the Pursuant, with no indication that it would draw its pistol, or - heaven forbid - reach for the control globes of the warsash wrapped about its person.

Like any of the regalia of the Jon’s Court, the Pursuant’s warsash had numerous layers of significance and tradition. One such demanded that its wielder to make physical contact with the Ichabod’s Alloy globes when using the implement to flex and alter the coefficients and attributes of the universe around them. While this demand was borne of tradition rather than actual law, Bugbear felt certain that the Pursuant would grasp its sash of office before reducing the object of its ire to so much dust - at least as certain as he was that the dsaha would never simply show up to a public venue in the nude.

He wasn’t entirely sure if a warning of the creature’s wish to do him harm was a good thing.

The most recognizable dsaha anywhere drew clear of the tavern’s entryway, closing the distance between itself and Bugbear’s table. “There is a context hub on the premises with extrafacetary anchoring capability.”

It wasn’t a question.

“In the name of my duties, I request that location be utilized to further convene. If that is unacceptably inconveniencing, a variety of allowable compensations may be discussed following the conclusion of our errand.”

Oegetno’s gills flapped faintly with its intonations, native tongue underlying its translated speech. It was anyone’s guess whether it felt that strongly about the dictate of common manners to vocalize when it had zero chance of speaking Rhaagmini innately, hoped to cause disturbance in its listeners, or simply enjoyed causing internal debate on the matter in persons inclined to that type of behavior. Alternatively, cultivating a persona with such ambiguity of motive could be ascribed to character quirks of the dsaha race.

Bugbear looked at Sun-Beneath-Skin, and asked her opinion without resorting to explicit vocalizations or nonverbal communiques. Within moments they came to unspoken accord. “That won’t be necessary. Hub room’s just upstairs. Please follow, good Pursuant.” Getting up, he quickly contacted Qha Dum Cas again to request that she take care of Two’s needs, then see it back upstairs to its fellows. The hudenot was turning into a nanny, but she wouldn’t mind… probably.

“Two, we’ll be back shortly,” Bugbear told the pwekeits mosuopwe. “Probably. Let the lady with the long tendrils know what she can do to make your stay comfortable, but please remain with your colleagues for a little while after she comes and gets you.” He indicated Oegetno. “We have business to which we must attend.” When the delegate replied in the affirmative, the human promised to be by later before bidding it farewell.

As they ascended to the second floor, the New Mongol affectionately rested his chin against his wife’s left arm for reassurance, and to take some reassurance himself. She let out a small huff of amusement, and took conscious stock of her feet before each step. Her self-awareness, and vestigial embarrassed clumsiness, lit a tiny happy coal of love in his heart.

“You little perverse chimpanzee look-alike,” she muttered under her breath.

“Yes, and I’m your little perverse chimpanzee look-alike.”

“This… isn’t… the time.”

“For you? It’s always the time.”

Huge black marbles didn’t blink as much as flutter. He stood full height again, smiling.

If she had found anyone else to call her own for the rest of her life, he thought, I’d call it a tragedy. Because it was me, I guess it’s a miracle.

The thought bound him up, gave him strength, and put a slim firm brace at his back.

Moments later, in the context hub, the owners of the tavern had found seats on the room’s various couches. The most prestigious dsaha in the city watched them curiously from a stool designed to seat just about anything with a posterior.

“Have you objection to establishing a full nonrelative context against the Tower of Rhaagm?” Oegetno’s bald head transferred its gaze back and forth between them. “It will be paid for from the Jon’s purse. Or, should you prefer, I may formalize a highly limited contract permitting direct folding onto and off of your premises from the Tower’s confines by members of the Court, and their auxiliaries, for the next two hours.”

The human and executioner once again exchanged glances. Bugbear planted a thick palm by his jaw, cracked his neck, and absently replied, “Whichever makes the shortest path to the ‘conclusion of our errand,’ as you so put it.”

A second later, the Pursuant extended a brutally simplified, conservative contract permitting temporary folding traffic to and from the Hammer and Scapula, and a credential stream, to the pair. Bugbear stamped his consent on the first and made a low, disbelieving whistle when he examined the amount of currency transferred by the second. “Are you sure you didn’t accidentally throw in two or three extra figures on this payment?” Sun stiffened when she also read the financial transaction.

“Consider it a gesture of goodwill from the Court, as well as a measure of how much we value cooperative nondisclosure related to the issues addressed today.” The dsaha gave off an aura of sobriety.

Bugbear privately began compiling a list of topics for which nondisclosure would be prerequisite, and those that warranted involvement of the highest echelon of executive power in the city’s politics. The intersection of those sets made for heady and mildly dizzying stuff. He hammered his apprehension down with the reminder that the Jon’s Court had come to them for something, and managed to refine it into the cool interest of seeing to the fulfillment of a client’s needs. “On that note, what errand brings you here today? Forgive my bluntness, but it seems like you have many capable auditors to offer their services.”

The Pursuant abruptly rose, and its lucent pads focused on some point behind the couch seating the tavern’s owners. Bugbear got a notification of a nearby folding, just as he felt that prickling of the spine which did exactly the same thing. His faculties, both organic and integrated, proclaimed that there was a region of complex spacetime behind him which had ceased to emit sound, sight, and smell for an instant. That sudden void of stimulus stuck out in Rhaagm’s eternal atmosphere of activity like a dut in a pohostinlat hive. Then a genteel, warm voice, used to making speeches in media releases and meetings of heads of state, rang out with the consonance of a chorus of steel bells.

“We present to you the Jon, whose leadership has served well this Parsed City-State of Rhaagm for the last six thousand three hundred and seventeen of our years.”

“And may all Rhaagmini yet prosper thereby,” murmured Bugbear and Sun in unison as they sprang from their seats, turning as they recited the response expected of Rhaagmini personally in attendance when the Jon had aught to say in the name of his office.

The speaker, as expected, was the Parrot. She wore her regal cockade with a carriage of dignity that denied she was made any greater by the vestments, or that the vestments were enhanced by her own person. Rather, she and they together formed an entity of unique character, suited precisely to perform a public speaker’s function. For reasons known only to Dlg and themselves, the current Court took extreme measures to shroud the Parrot’s real name in secrecy. She was a mar-luph, the only native sentient species on Moedif, so pundits gemwide had a good base of ethnic names to pore over for guesses - regardless of how racist it might make them seem.

Her tectonic features had markings in rare colorations, some of them in the microwave range, and most of the rest a deep indigo. The markings along with the greenish white of her stony flesh made the searing red plumage of her headpiece, rising to just above Bugbear’s beltline, strike the empty air like a splash of blood. She reminded Bugbear of Toothskin, even without the obvious common factor of species. They shared a middle-distance sort of demeanor, where they never grew intimate with any person or subject, but also maintained a polymath’s universal interest in the world and all inhabiting it just because it was there. Her caste meant she had six equally spaced limbs branching from her center that were neither arm nor leg, but some hybrid of the two, each shoulder joint wrapped in a pale colored cloth that was a weird teal to biological human eyes. While she supported herself on the frontmost, rearmost, and right pair, the mar-luph’s left pair of hand-feet fluidly swept to the side. The movement communicated introduction, deference, the righteousness of a higher cause. It seemed to push off against some invisible wall so the Parrot was more thrust than self-motivated away from the subject of her focus.

Said subject was the Jon himself, the tallest man in any room he occupied despite the top of his head falling well below the New Mongol’s chin. He gazed about the confines of the room, the perfectly reflective scooped silver shield of his veil disclosing nothing above his lower lip until the point where his flaxen hair stabbed outward from his scalp. The human wore the simple uncollared shirt and canvas bootpants of a Rhaagmini business president in a casual environment. Aside from the veil of his office, Jonathan’s skin constituted the only unique aspect of his person. A tessellation of electrum coated his outermost red dermal layer over every centimeter, lending him a shimmering sort of mirage appearance. The words in the thin layer of mutable metal spelled out an infinitely repeating phrase so stylized as to be unreadable, unless one knew what it said: Remember my character; forget my deeds.

The Jon had an honor guard of thirteen mannequins spreading out in the room as Bugbear watched, each precisely the same height as their protectee. Four of them sought the room’s corners, and four more took up places in the cardinal directions. The last collection of five fanned out behind the Jon, facing away at attention, their thin shining forms scarring their principal with spots of light that rebounded off his electrum tattooing in turn.

After three full seconds of just standing there and being intimidating, the Jon’s lower teeth emerged in a grimace.

“Pursuant,” he said in a voice many considered boyish, “might you communicate your people to less obvious posts? At present they are TRULY distracting, and I am sure they violate some regulation or other. Obstruction of path of egress or the like. And, after all, it is a very strange definition of ‘helpless’ one must use in order for a person in my office to qualify.”

The green and blue robes beside and behind Bugbear did not twitch, nor did their wearer make a sound, but the mannequins relocated themselves hastily. The figures all condensed, establishing a solid semicircular inward-focused arc behind Jonathan that looked more like a wall than a collection of bipedal digital personality shells.

The Jon turned his head, perhaps to consider the new placement of his guard, then directed his veiled features toward the staid and composed Parrot, and resignedly remarked, “That will do, in any case. One supposes.”

He turned to the other human and the executioner.

“Let us abandon decorum, please. It is hardly as though this city has a famine of the stuff.”

Bugbear wasn’t sure it was a request at first, but when the Jon followed with no other statement or diffusion of opinion, the New Mongol indicated one of the couches usually occupied by those waiting for a context, flushed with embarrassment. “Of course! Please, have a seat, Jon.”

“Thank you.”

Bugbear waited for the other human to sit, then he and Sun sat themselves in tandem.

“In good conscience as the Jon, I cannot officially disclose the purpose of my visit except for its importance,” the Jon said, crossing his legs and angling his neck so that his hair flowed sideways off of his scalp. He sniffed, his lower lip curling again but with even more upset than he’d previously shown. “Beneath the hat of my status of a Rhaagm citizen, though, it sits as no less than indecent to keep you in ignorance. Parrot, I do not believe it needs to be said, but cease recording, if you please.”

The Jon fidgeted with something at the back of his head, then his rigid woodmetal veil rolled up into itself. Doing so, he revealed the face which graced the background of nearly any official document originating from the Tower for almost four hundred hexadecades. This was not a profile alien to his constituents, but neither was it shown in person unless the Jon wished to temporarily cast aside the role and theater of his leadership.

In contrast to his gentle and youthful voice, the leathery sand-colored skin of the man once named Gaim Fellepkos wore ample evidence of struggles, none of it manufactured or removed over his lifetime. The scars came mostly from his personal efforts at repelling Beasts from his demesne during the most protracted incursions inflicted upon it during his time in office; some were like chemical burns, some like punctures from a beveled point, and a couple defied easy comparison. Bugbear once won a long, debilitating slash thanks to a Beast himself, from his left hip down his crotch and inner thigh. It had come courtesy of eliminating a nasty little scud that had popped up inside his family’s home many years previously during a flood of unstable type nine events, and he’d had the injury purged immediately.

Bugbear’s own face, on the other hand, probably retained its scars for the same sentimental reasons as the leader of Rhaagm’s governance.

Beneath the Jon’s weals, his bright brown eyes and unlined features had a hard and blocky personality which fit his relatively frank bearing identically to expectation - at times. In the throes of political struggle, he could be as ruthless and convoluted as needed. The eyes which stared from that visage bespoke no unkindness, brooked no fools, and demanded and gave a totality of attention bordering on the manic. The metallic patterns that marched up his features lent his scars a burden of the spirit, like an art exhibit in which the creator featured the garishly painted cadavers of her grandparents.

“Before we go into any gory detail,” began the Jon, “indulge me a moment. The two of you obviously love each other.” The brick lips reforged themselves into a shallow smile. “Would you embark on a tragic and likely futile quest for the other’s sake?”

“Yes.” Bugbear’s voice was coarse like he’d been shouting for an hour or so without inducing recovery treatment on his larynx.

“Absolutely,” came Sun’s response, and her delay was obviously borne of the need to keep her composure.

“Would you suffer grievous and unusual punishments for the good of your significant other?” The Jon was not glib, but those overlapping stripes marking his flesh twisted in something like irony.

“Gladly.” Sun’s filed claws squeezed Bugbear’s triceps firmly.

Bugbear just smiled, looking at their naked-faced guest.

Jonathan’s eyes collapsed into needles of superdense scrutiny. His nose dipped lower and the shadows of the dimly blue witchlight showed where it was missing small chunks. A voice of ripped metal slashed the air with a broadsword swipe meant to destroy pretext and self-delusion.

“Would you kill for your beloved?”

When Bugbear reflected on his attitude later, he was glad for his self-control. His desired visceral response was to pull his wife to her feet, take her in his arms, and kiss her full on the mouth right there and then. Realizing how juvenile his impulse actually was, and that Sun-Beneath-Skin would probably suffer a blow to her self-confidence should he act so, he next wanted to leap in front of the Jon, berate his obtuseness, maybe shake him until good sense took up residence in his skull.

Instead, Bugbear clenched his teeth so hard they felt a hair’s width from exploding, then bit out a string of words like pearls of depleted uranium.

“Jon, I’m sure you know that before we were married, I went out of my way to ensure this woman never had to be scared of people again. One day, when she said she wasn’t sure if she could or should cope with the world, I started teaching her to fight: warlock skills, firearms, close quarters, information manipulation. We kept at that regimen until she could throw me across the room in any of those disciplines. The time when she managed to knock me out cold as we sparred one afternoon marked a peak of happiness in my life.”

He smiled.

“I’d die for her.”

He didn’t bother looking at Sun; he knew that he would see the sentiment chiseled into her face.

“Exactly what I had hoped you would say,” the Jon noted, baring a toothy smile of his own. The smile shuffled back into obscurity, and he leaned forward. “Please understand that I feel the same way about the people of this city. And this is crucially relevant because, at woeful times in life, choices have to be made which favor the very lives of some citizens above others.” Two hands accented with the shade of red sand at dawn clasped themselves. Jonathan rested his chin upon the compound fist.

“As it should happen, one of the citizens elevated to unwanted attention in my recent thoughts goes by the name of Sebastio Artaxerxes.”

Bugbear didn’t know what he was hearing. A threat? A compliment? Some sort of twisted poetry? He waited for the Jon to continue, but felt his understanding and patience both shrink to starved ribbons.

“This afternoon,” continued the Jon, “a human man named Christopher Leffikan went through re-lifing in a city clinic. That man’s pre-interruption duty was on one of the facetary scouting teams tasked explicitly with combating the efforts of Niall ‘the Nightmare Count’ Bennosuke to find and possess the Maker’s artifact called Caladhbolg. Leffikan’s last update, pushed to central control on a lengthy delay, recorded conclusive evidence of Count’s success, and his demise was a direct effect of the same.”

The Jon’s brows knit.

“What is more, a foretelling was captured and assessed earlier this morning which described, and I quote, ‘the Maker’s prodigal sword visiting the Maker’s promised land.’ Said prophecy - interestingly enough, given by our own Court (and no, you don’t need to know from whom) - rated a confidence level of almost unity and a positive glut of usable compares by no less than four College of Prophecy chapters. The telling specifically named a ‘Pickering’ as well. It also made mention of the ‘sword’s Persian bearer’ - and you are probably passingly familiar with the Earth Standard basis of the name Artaxerxes, yes?”

The Jon’s smile returned with a knife edge.

“The Tower has been a very busy place today, yes indeed.”

Bugbear felt a soapy burning heat flood his arteries.

“What do you want?” His voice rasped and his eye began to itch.

“What I want holds small enough sway on current events. The state requires an open and honest judgment on the character of Sebastio Artaxerxes.” The other human’s posture compressed on the vertical dimension, as though pushed against a wall under the influence of a rolling pin. “We believe that he will reenter the city through this very room’s utilities, on account of his apparent relationship with you. We also believe he poses a significant liability to Rhaagm society, on par with a monumental Beast incursion or even a Ripper instance. If he indeed holds Caladhbolg, then he is at least as dangerous as many of our resident entities classified under ‘quasi-deity.’ Frankly, we must ascertain if it serves the public good to attempt a culling, and I assure both of you this arbitration is not undertaken lightly.”

Bugbear flinched. He heard Sun gasp.

“When I was probing your dedication to each other with quite presumptuous questioning,” the Jon continued, “it was in the name of eliciting sympathy. Not because I desire your moral support, though it will not be discarded if offered. That sympathy will hopefully convey the gravitas of our crossroads.”

“You want us to be willin’ to put him under the axe if need be.”

Sun-Beneath-Skin was monotone in the extreme; anyone who knew executioners would recognize the anger she wrestled below the surface.

“I want your opinion on Artaxerxes’s character to better determine if he needs to be removed in the name of the greater good.” The Jon’s eyes flared, then softened. “Make no mistake, he will be removed should the safety of this city be jeopardized. I hope, sincerely, to avoid that weighing of lives.”

A flickering flash heralded the reappearance of the Jon’s visor. Leaning back against the couch in his resumed role, the man sighed. “I also hope you will forgive me if I ask you both to take an oath by Crippled False before opining on this issue.”

Sun and Bugbear, however unhappily, obliged.

“Describe Sebastio Artaxerxes’s personality,” the Jon directed once they had finished.

“Self-sacrificin’,” Sun answered immediately.

“Austere,” Bugbear followed, slightly embarrassed at the nearness of their responses. Then he added, “The kind who’d take a year to pick a color when buying a new disk, and two seconds to push someone away from a speeding bus.” That seemed to surprise the Jon.

Sun pondered a moment, before saying, “Angry.”

“Elaborate, please,” invited Jonathan, looking at her.

“He changed, after Count went and hurt those people. He didn’t-”

“Sorry,” the visored man interjected, “I was unclear. At whom is Sebastio’s anger directed? Himself? Society? His family?”

Sun, taken aback, put a bit more vitriol into her words than she might have otherwise allowed. “You’ve got it backward. He’s almost never upset with people. It’s actions he mislikes. Though, I guess he’s probably madder’n Hell at Count after all those interruptions; that’s an exception, though.”

“... Interesting.” The Jon gazed at the ceiling. “Mad enough to kill, would you think?”

“Possibly,” said Bugbear. The Jon looked at him, and he looked sideways at his wife. “Sebastio has, to my knowledge, deliberately interrupted exactly one person in his lifetime. If you have access to his permanent records then you know that was under highly extenuating circumstances.” Bugbear made a noncommittal gesture, hoping to hide the uncertainty welling up inside. “If it weren’t a life-or-death scenario already, I don’t think he would have even considered it.” That was the absolute truth, but under his oath he had to continue. “That said, if happenstance should put him in a position to dispense martial justice, from a place of inarguable moral superiority… I think he might enjoy it.”

“As would many, to my own thinking,” replied the Jon. He seemed to catch wind of the magnitude of his hosts’ discomfort. “Even so. One more question, then: if Sebastio Artaxerxes were a trid, holojector, sensory film, or like kind of media production, what genre would you ascribe to him?”

“Are you serious?” Bugbear didn’t even breathe for two or three seconds before his rebuttal, so surprising and apparently unrelated was the inquiry.

One could hear the narrowing of Jonathan’s eyes.

“Mortally.”

Bugbear crushed his desire to deride the statement. After several candidate examinations, he said, “A historical documentary, one about Ast immigrants and how they had to weather the more extreme Aidenist denominations.” He wasn’t quite sure what Sun might say to him about that later, but he hoped it wouldn’t stir up painful genetic recollections.

For her part, Sun sounded almost weepy when she said, “A tragic comedy.”

Jonathan felt the armrest of his couch. He cocked his head, silently considering the pair.

“I find your choice of words reassuring, and put great stock in your evaluation - by knowing what YOU people are like, the Court also gains a more complete picture of the man’s profile. More complete, and across different laterals. Know this: Sebastio is a citizen of this city. He will not face summary punishment the moment he rejoins our community.”

A grim ripple stirred over the trophies littering the Jon’s face.

“But we must take caution in the name of countless civilians. Whatever insights you might have on his character are pearls beyond price.”

Bugbear’s left hand clenched into a fist the size of the Jon’s entire head.

“I’m just a dutiful citizen, and haven’t the right to stand in the way of true justice,” he said calmly. “But know this: if you or anyone else tries to instigate a brawl in this establishment, or any other state of belligerent discord, you will either answer to the institution’s own justice or kill me.” He closed his human eye, the emerald lens of his fake glinting off the witchlights. “The Hammer and Scapula tolerates no violations of our rules.”

The reply was clipped, proper, sincere, and as yielding as redmetal.

“We ever strive for civility.”

The Jon’s head sagged as he expelled jets of air from his nostrils, skin decorations scattering tiny motes of light.

“Now, there is good reason to suspect your friend plans to visit this day and very hour, in this tavern. I ask a final boon: that the Court’s representatives here might persist either until Artaxerxes returns or it becomes ten on-the-clock.” A grandiose indication of resignation, through tone-of-speech as well as corporal tics. “Sadly, at that time I must retire to prepare for dealings with a pack of scavengers who prefer to be named Bookers.”

A hiccup of executioner laughter from Sun, immediately snuffed out with a mortified expression.

“My apologies,” grated the Jon, noticing the look of chastisement the Parrot threw his way, “I have no idea how I so misspoke. I should have said ‘scavengers with the imponderable ability of lengthening the decision-making process.’ If one is to be perfectly honest, though,” he added with the smallest smile ever to grow upon a human face, “this batch does show more willingness to engage in proactive lawmaking, and less in pure reactionary scuffles, than statistically expected.”

The Hammer and Scapula’s owners found no objection to their guests prolonging their stay.

After less than fourteen minutes, an unopened simplex connection anchored into place near one of the context hub’s walls, shortly before Bugbear approved its activation. The New Mongol raised his single hairy brow when he realized the source was from Bequast. The simplex connection - a very special type nine event - was functionally more like a folding than establishing a nonrelative context, but it allowed its users to step from one locale into another in a differentiable fashion. If they wished, simplex travelers could instantly snap from one facetary location to another, but many people preferred a gradual introduction to possibly disparate physics over the immediacy of there-then-not-there.

Through the shimmering barrier of the simplex connection, Bugbear saw two figures walking hand in hand. When they crossed into Rhaagm proper, he was about to ask Sebastio about his new friend when he noticed the Cambrian speaking in archaic Earth Standard French to his companion.

“We are here, Louis,” he was saying. “This is the… er, bar that my friend owns. Now, you need to keep wearing your little button for a while. There are-”

Sebastio Artaxerxes stopped talking to the clearly very young man beside him, and every gaze in the room was arrested. Sebastio’s eyes glued to the Jon, wide enough that by rights they should have fallen out of his head. For nearly everyone else, the subject of the moment was either the huge pair of orange organs in the recently-arrived Rhaagmini’s skull, or the slight youth with the youthful mustache.

The youth in question wore a negative-mass bead, keeping him from getting overcome by Rhaagm’s gravity; being one-and-a-half times that of Earth Standard, he surely wasn’t prepared for the sudden stresses on his legs. It was exactly the sort of thing which might have been solved with a skein. Instead of a skein’s environment-fixing personal assistance (seeing as he had no cerv-mesh to manage semi-porous Ullos containers), he had to rely on more inconvenient methods. As long as the bead remained in place, well, it worked.

Before a breath could fit in edgewise, all heads swiveled when a perfectly synchronized series of claps assaulted the room’s air. Behind the seated Jonathan, thirteen mannequins had rotated, still standing in their semicircle formation, to face Sebastio with an unnerving singleness of purpose.

And with a clenched fist or grasper across the torso, they were each saluting.

“Well, this is the most interesting day I’ve had for at least two hexadecades,” murmured the Jon, probably fixing the members of his guard with a quizzical look behind his veil.

“Excuse me,” said a small but dense voice in French, and the short man who must have been Louis received a great deal of attention. The mustached boy was staring with interested confusion at Sun, his right hand still in Sebastio’s while his left lay flat against his waist near his navel.

Bugbear realized the boy’s conversational partner did not understand French, and quickly passed a clone of another relevant language kernel to his wife. She gratefully accepted, and in as soft a voice as she could manage, asked, “Yes?”

“Excuse me,” said Louis again, looking up at the creature who towered far over him even with her sitting and him standing. “Is you a goat-puppy-snake?”

Sun, after a moment, made a self-conscious attempt to replicate a human smile, succeeding remarkably well for a person without the ability to draw upward the corners of one’s mouth.

“Not exactly, though it is no problem at all if you call me that.” By the cultured air of the reply she could have been a native speaker, and despite the textbook grammar not one nuance of the statement was generated by her mesh.

The unanticipated joviality of the scene shattered when Sebastio growled at Bugbear accusingly.

“What in the Beast-soaked Purple is this?”

His Rhaagmini wavered with something worse than wrath; he sounded betrayed.

Before the New Mongol could even frame an excuse, the Pursuant addressed the Cambrian arrival with molten imperative.

“Sebastio Artaxerxes, it is requested that you remove the vestments enshrouding your right arm,” the dsaha declared. Without anyone having seen the action, the Rhaagmini in blue and green raiments had lowered a tendril to one of the control globes at its warsash.

“Pursuant,” grated Bugbear through a feral smile, “I suggest you either stop threatening another of our guests, in our franchise and home, or you had better kill me now.”

Aiming its body posture just the tiniest bit in his direction, Oegetno’s faintly opaline lucent pads practically stuck to Bugbear’s skin with leechlike suction. Bugbear felt the kind of terror most humans might experience upon being locked in a closed space with an aged container of mustard gas, but showed not an iota of his fear. If he, Sun, and the rest were converted to an equivalent quantity of heat along with the Hammer and Scapula, it would at least be quick.

The Parrot flinched and the Jon’s mouth turned into a disgusted scowl, both looking to their fellow member of the Jon’s Court. Sun, bless her heart, did not as much as blink. Louis seemingly tried to absorb every miniscule detail of his surroundings as well as comprehend the proceedings in this unknown language.

Sebastio stared unintimidated at the Pursuant. The most shocking thing, to Bugbear’s mind, was that the Cambrian seemed to debate assaulting the single most well-armed biologically born person currently in existence. His knees bent, he seemed to be hoisting the more free of his two hands like a bludgeon, slivers of teeth escaping his lips. Then, after seven eternities, Sebastio gently released his grasp on Louis. He began unwinding a cape of some kind which swaddled the length of his right arm.

His right arm which noticeably extended centimeters farther than it had when Bugbear and Sebastio last spoke.

Without flourish or foppishness the cape parted ways with something that the eye was, at first, not prepared to correctly interpret. That collection of angular orange veins emanating from the buried point of the sword surely was not part and parcel of an organ made of flesh. That metal beast’s head couldn’t be opening and closing like a fist. Of course such extensive vanity augments were widely if inconsistently seen throughout society, but rarely in such a gaudy form, and never on the person of Sebastio Artaxerxes.

The dark-skinned man’s harsh and truly novel orange eyes almost churned. He raised the shining surface of his blade-limb, and the shallow twin fullers twisted as the head shape turned and its jaws clamped shut. A clenched hand which, Bugbear realized, clapped against his friend’s own chest in a militia salute not quite mockingly replicating those given by the baker’s dozen of mannequins across the room.

The Cambrian’s scowl had a drop of smile in it as he faced the Pursuant, a ball of fabric compressed in his fleshy hand, and said, “I see my efforts at hindering a criminal have made me one myself.”

“You, sir, are no criminal. You are a danger.” The Jon turned to the Pursuant, and described a choking grasp with his thick fingers, apparently aiming his shot of sentiment at the dsaha. “Oegetno, I believe we can dispose with the posturing. Your demands have been met. No matter how dangerous, this man is a citizen and - to our current knowledge - absent any clandestine intent.” A bifurcated instant elapsed, then Jonathan harshly responded to some unheard discourse. “We will have no exclusive direct channel dialogue at this time. If matters are discussed within this room we will do so verbally and with the involvement of all present.”

Oegetno’s grip tightened around the chrome sphere on its warsash. “With due respect, Jon, he possesses an existence-class weapon. The presence of such an implement in your proximity renders anything short of the maxima of suspicion and preparedness for hostile engagement indefensibly irresponsible.” The dsaha’s head turned a single degree, lucent pads striking with their subtly deeper color. “My interfaces with the city’s mannequins are, as of now, shared. Unless I should be sorely mistaken, Caladhbolg’s resident… entity, if that is a correct designation, will permit its holder to bypass most or all privilege checks on core city utilities, up to and including most assets of the Tower not slaved to your person.”

For what could have been the first time in the man’s leadership, Bugbear thought, Jonathan’s hanging jaw showcased a candid and total bafflement before people outside of his Court. The dumbstruck appearance smoothly transitioned to one of unshaking mettle. “Pursuant, I asked Master Artaxerxes’s associates here for their cooperation to fulfill a series of goals. One, of course, was appropriate placement for dialogue with our subject. Another was the elicitation of earnest character witness. Now, Sebastio will get the chance to speak in his own defense.

“He may earn retribution in future, in which case he shall answer to justice, but he will not be coerced into discretion or chicanery through force or intimidation. If you remain obstinate, I will remove you from the Court’s peerage.”

The man leaned toward the dsaha, and when he continued speaking it was with the voice of a single-purpose-built machine.

“Do not doubt me; I will take the chance inherent to rendering your tools and office temporarily ineffective, even if I have to go and choose your successor later.”

Bugbear abruptly had a vivid image of the locked room shared with a quantity of mustard gas shrinking to form a perfect cube. A perfect cube just sufficient in size that its metaphorical occupant had to curl around the ominous container in order to successfully occupy the claustrophobic enclosure.

Well, he thought, slightly giddy. If blood starts spilling, I know whose side I’ll be taking, Rhaagm citizen or not.

“It shall be as you desire, Jonathan.”

Though it seemed to cost blood, the Pursuant’s reply coincided with a shaky, shivering surrender of the grasp on the control globe. It crossed its tentacle-like grasping limbs behind its torso, returning its gaze to the dark-skinned Cambrian human.

The Jon’s smile slowly burned a small hole through the tension like a winter sun through fog.

“Excellent. Now let us put violence out of our minds for the moment.” The man’s smile became both forlorn and contemplative, and he considered the form of Louis. “And for the moment, let us converse in French, where possible. Our other guest probably wishes to understand the minutes of our discussion - certainly, he has a vested interest in the outcome.”

All did not magically become well, but as Sebastio sighed and blinked those strange new eyes, Bugbear felt an itch along the spine of his spirit subside.

After all, the Hammer and Scapula’s charter had revolved around one simple thing: the discourse of negotiations and diplomacy.

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