continued from interlude... Burning Memories
Zero found that she was more hale than Vors was, in the wake of a Second Breath. He still slept, snored, actually, when she checked on him.
She decided to start the day without Vors. She found a shallow clay bowl and water in it of room temperature. Zero finished wiping herself down with the wet rag. She danced a few steps and shook her hands up towards the wood ceiling beams. She ran through three levels of the Coil of Rao to limber up. Then she eased down and positioned herself on her scout suit where it draped the cot. The cold suit started to warm even as she initiated go, ~Start Encase.~ With a quiet purr the stillsuit unfolded and grabbed her.
~Systems Green. Check cycles. One. Two. Three. Systems Actionable. No sharpgun detected. No geoposition detected. Alert position sent: Scout in Field without full combat rig. No response from CityCentComp. All mods accepted.~
Zero stood and stretched so the probes would settle inside her. ~Yes. Don’t expect to hear from CityCentComp or GeoComp. We’re on extended patrol. Mark.~ The suit gave her greentone to show it understood.
When she did head downstairs in search of food, and Imperials, she found Lorinne.
The head of the expedition looked up at Zero, and nodded. “So, how do you feel?” She waved a hand, bread and something resembling a soup was brought. The sky outside was dark, the tavern held only a few awake Imperial soldiers. She paused a beat. “Quite a contrast, between the experience of Vors, and yourself, would you say?”
Zero settled herself and reached for the bread to start with. She eyed Lorinne. "Yes. Were you expecting me to deny it? My whole life I wondered why I could do things that worried our meds and scientists. Oh, they did not show fear to me, but I knew. My physical test results were always hush-hush after I was about thirteen years old. And I noticed yesterday that Anand was stronger than most men I've met. So I expect my physique is not so unusual for a Dragon Warden?"
"No, and now that you have undergone the Second Breath, your physical and mental skills can, and probably will develop further, according to the lines that you pursue them. If you seek to become stronger, or more mentally capable, or longer lasting, or faster, you will find that is open to you. The fact that you already have unlocked some of your potential before opening a Door or taking a Second Breath is of note, but not unusual. It may mean your upper limits are great indeed." Lorinne smiled. "I suspect you will impress the representatives of the various Houses."
"As far as acknowledging the Second Breath you underwent, Chosen of Mela, no, its important to know these things. As you saw yesterday, they can sometimes be rather violent, and it does mean that rather than finding what your element is and undergoing through the process of that, we can launch you right into how to use your Imprint, your awakened Essence." Lorinne said.
Zero took a long look at Lorinne without saying a word, not sure she even drew a breath. "I see." Zero tried to understand why she was not angry or tense. Certainly the games that would be played here were beyond her knowledge, and it had already started. The Empress made this entire search for Lost Eggs a highest priority and every House knew it.
There was something important to find. Something that might save the Empire. Lorinne told her as much. Glandive suspected too.
Zero finished the bread in her mouth. "So you know my Blessing. Air. Mela. To me, it seems your arrival made things fall into place. Did you watch over me last night, Lady Lorinne? Are you impressed as you say the Houses will be? Are you not a representative of your House Mnemon? Or is your duty right now to the Empress and not your House? I'm looking to understand."
And it was true. The fear and edge that had stalked her since the Imperials appeared was gone. She felt... good.
"My duty, right now, here," Lorinne replied, without hesitation "is as a representative of the Empire, and acting on behalf and on the orders of the Empress. The Empress has commissioned this Lost Eggs project, and although some Houses have sent forces of their own, many of the expeditions sent out are from the Imperial, instead of the House, legions. Such as this one that I command."
"I am always, however, a loyal member of my House." she added. "The Empress strongly suggested that premature persuasion to join our respective Houses before a Lost Egg reaches the Empire is not to be done. She realizes, of course, in her august wisdom and long experience that it is impossible to be entirely objective. However, it is her intent that I do not deliver you to the Empire already persuaded to join my House."
"So when I say I am impressed, I say that as a representative of Mnemon, and recognize other Houses, if and when they learn about you and what you are, will also see your value, strength and talents." She raised a cup of something, saluted Zero with it, took a sip, set it down again. "It would not do to undersell yourself or allow yourself to be so."
"Another thing to remind you." Lorinne added. "The Houses traditionally align around one element, but they are not exclusively so. Do not let Ledaal argue to you that you should join them solely because Mela blessed you, and not, say, Pasiap."
Zero nodded, "Or indeed, Mnenom, which has impressed my world so far." Zero used a near mug of water to return the toast in kind.
"Indeed" Lorinne replied.
Then Zero leaned forward and lowered her voice. "I shall not undersell Ka El, as too much depends on it. But I'd like to be prepared and in that wise, if you could give me any insight, it would be appreciated." Zero paused to consider her approach. "How about flawed, entirely human failings among Wardens? How does the Empire hold the standard for service? Because while the sciences have held my physical performance better than any athlete of my world, I have been under med treatment for war stress."
"We are chosen and exalted by the Dragons." Lorinne replied after a long moment of thought. "It does not excuse or allow us to escape the fact that we are built upon human beings, with human desires, needs, and failings. House Tepet, for example, the survivors of the battle...many of them have scars one cannot see. Scars..." she paused, "like yours, Zero."
"Do they still serve? Yes, of course. They must. They do the best as they are able, and sometimes fall on the Long Road. All of us do, although Doctrine says that as blessed by the Dragons, we are more infallible than ordinary humans. We're not Gods, merely empowered by the Gods. We, and by we I mean the Empire, will expect you to do your best. The responsibility does not pass or is removed because the burdens are greater."
"I would be honest in your interactions with the Houses, though." Lorinne added. "Hiding it, pretending it doesn't exist, downplaying it will only make things difficult, later. Tell of your experiences. Your fight. You have been wounded, but you have also been tempered. The Cathaks and especially the Tepets can relate to that."
The moment stretched after Lorinne finished. Zero nodded to show the answer satisfied. "I shall be honest, but tempered with a lot of forbearance. There are layers to this Universe you have uncloaked for me. I am honored with the trust and alliance you've given. I will deal fairly with the Empress and her Houses. At least with regards to my home and my flaws." Zero smiled and added, "I'm relieved to hear that a warrior culture can still respect those warriors that sleep troubled."
"The warrior who fights and sleeps without trouble." Lorinne said. "Now that is a breed that can be much more frightening than those who see the faces of those they have fought, the cities in which they have done battle, the vistas of battle in which they have raised arms. You are a warrior, you understand this."
Zero kept silent. Lorinne paused a beat and then continued.
"I perhaps should put some fears that you are having to rest. You are a Warden, and the Houses of the Empire will seek to make you part of their House, to join, as I said. I should clarify that if you do not wish a military role in the Empire at all, if you wish to be an explorer, say, that is something you can negotiate. I also suspect." her eyes studied Zero "that you have already considered taking what knowledge you can and returning to Ka El without the overt and direct aid of the Empire."
"The Empire does not seek to colonize your Gossamer World and make you an unwilling janissary." Lorinne said. "If anything, Ka El would be and is considered under your purview, Zero. And Vors, too, now."
Zero showed mild surprise. "You are telling me I can negotiate with an Empire over my individual duties? This is something I never considered. On my world this would be disrespectful enough to tread upon our out-of-date ideas of personal honor. Thank you for telling me. But this other business, Ka El under my purview? Is that a social politeness, or something of your Law here? And what does it mean in practice? Do the wheels of bureaucracy have to come through Vors and I for interactions with my world? Or is it merely that we shall be the consulted experts, when the Empire decides to consult?"
"By and large, your Gossamer World is *yours*," Lorinne emphasized. "Unless the Dwimmerlaik or one of their servitor races starts taking up residence there, you and Vors are the intermediaries that the Empire will have to deal with in terms of trade, commerce and other treaties. In a way, and it is a difficult concept, perhaps, for you to grasp, Zero, that Gossamer World is *yours*. Just as if you found a Gossamer World on the Stair and decided to make it your own personal fiefdom. Now, your House might want to talk to you about such a thing, assuming you were part of a House at that point, and bringing troops from such a world into Imperial Territory has been forbidden since the civil war where a House tried that trick. My advice." Lorinne said. "is not to try and emulate them."
Zero blinked at the shift in tone. Odd? Or telling of something else she had missed? Frell. No matter how forthcoming the Imperials were, it was only scratching the surface of their entire truth. The layers went too deep. She tried logic to feel her way forward, "Certainly it is obvious there would be no point? Your people are more fit, athletic, and have a magic Ka El does not. We number thousands yes, but you outnumber us ten to one and none of our weapons would work..." Zero stopped herself. Wait. The Stillsuit. The engine in the suit. It could be a weapon if she reprogrammed it to fail while here.
That's mad. That's sick.
"Regardless, that is not anything I am planning to do. I do not understand why you would expect it of me." Zero gave Lorinne a long look. "So Vors and I become the ....Council of Two just by being Dragon Blooded. The Empire would favor the desires of two people over the needs of the many? That is singularly archaic, if you'll allow the judgment is not personal. That's is not how things are done in my culture, even if it means..." Zero gestured lightly in a smoothing effort at calm and swallowed bile, "that you have no use for me."
"Do I expect you to lead an attack on the Empire? Certainly not," Lorinne said. "If making the point about the bounds of what is permitted offended you, Zero, I apologize for my words. I wished merely to make some limits clear." She looked at her mug, at the table, not looking at Zero for the moment, as if in shame, or regret, or reluctance. Her eyes finally raised to regard her, and she then spoke.
"There are many cultures and ways to govern people in the Gossamer Worlds. A concern perhaps not properly appreciated by my people, in searching for Lost Eggs like you, Zero, is that the political and cultural mores and expectations of the Empire and those worlds may be at strong variance. The Empire is an Imperium, ruled by the Empress, with the aid of the Deliberative. The Deliberative is composed of Dragon Bloods from both the Great and the Minor Houses, although the former predominate. The Dragon Blooded are the major nobility of the Empire, and the Patricians, that is, members of the House who do not exalt, are the Minor Nobility. Below them is the main mass of the population of the Empire, the Peasantry, and below them, Slaves. It is very much a feudal pyramid of a society, but there is mobility. There is opportunity to improve one's position."
"Still, you may" Lorinne said "consider our political setup to be nowhere as egalitarian or meritocratic as yours. And it is perhaps an error of the Empire when we default to looking at other Worlds through the lens of ours. Hence, how the Empire will be inclined to treat your Gossamer World, working through you, and Vors. You are the nobility by our lights, after all. It does not mean that we cannot learn to express appreciation and utilize your political structures, but the default reaction of denizens and political structures of the Empire will be to give deference and preference to the two of you."
"All right, point taken," Zero said softly. "We have to make this work. I just have a lot to learn. I appreciate that you can see your society is not ideal, well, neither is mine. Three hundred years ago, we were fighting ourselves in a civil campaign that caused untold misery and horrible deaths. Luckily we emerged stronger than ever. However, there were hard choices and we had to change. Today, there are still some that say if we had made concessions and ignored the faults in the war, things could have stayed the same and we would have been strong enough to beat the Dwims, instead of losing to them."
Zero kept a steady voice, "But I don't think so. The issues needed to be dealt with. It is regretful that we lost a quarter of our population and so much art and history to those bad times, but we are better for it." She gestured then leaned across the table to offer her hand to Lorinne. The open palm, she hoped, to be a universal offer of peace and friendship. "Maybe your nation has that to look forward to. Perhaps you will come out of this a better place, stronger in the right values and understanding better of yourselves. I could be a part of that. New to it all and full of weird ideas."
"Change is coming, and has been coming. The Lost Eggs are bound to be part of that." Lorinne said.
Zero smiled, "I don't know what Peasantry is, non-voting citizens and children? And Slaves? Those are incompetents or criminals? We don't have those words. I'm beginning to get a feel for Nobles. Gifted and Responsible? Right?"
"We've a little more time before we depart" Lorinne said. "A brief civics lesson, then."
Over the next half hour, as the sky outside lightened, the Imperials increased in number and the activity of the Inn increased, Lorinne detailed the hierarchical pyramid of the basic social structure of the empire, from the Empress through the Dragon Bloods, down to the minor nobility, Patricians, to the free persons not part of the House systems, peasants, and then finally, persons who were not free, slaves. Lorinne tried to keep straight to topic, although sidebars on definitions, how long the Empress had ruled (one thousand one hundred and 12 years) and what plans there were for her succession (her daughter, Mnemon, the head of Lorinne's House, being the Heir) filled up the time. By the time Vors himself emerged, Lorinne rose from the table, excused herself for a moment, and went to confer with Glandive about marshalling the Talon.
"I still feel like my head is a bit caved in" Vors said to Zero, sliding into the seat Lorinne had vacated. "is that the right phrase?"
"You took an awful chance, Vors." Zero hooked a thumb at herself, "Not that I'm one to talk. I'm just awfully glad you're still with us. Did you dream of Dragons?"
Vors shook his head. "Not precisely, but I dreamed of a place. Of an endless polar vortex, a place where ice, and snow, and cold were what made up everything and every creature, there. A place I feel drawn to visit, if I but knew the way."
Zero continued to mull over Lorinne's honest descriptions of society under the Empress. Trying with all her heart not to feel horror at the caste system described. It wasn't her business, at least she saw that the Empire wouldn't expect to convert of all Ka El to their slavery ideas. But how would she frame it to Vors? And it would become their business as things went forward.
Save her people but work for slavers?
Zero lowered her voice, "I should have guessed some things right at the start, but it did not register until Lorinne gave me details just now. The Empire is a hard caste society, Vors. The Blooded, like you and I, are the leaders and rulers, even if judged amoral by other Blooded. Wardens actually outrank the Blooded by being Blessed, but how that works in practice with holdings, family weight, and bureaucracy I don't know yet. So to the Empire, you and I are the highest ranking people of Ka El and they expect us to manage the place and consult with the Empire about every interaction. We are a Council of Two."
Vors was tired and worn enough to lose some of his Mentat coolness, enough to stare at Zero for a moment in surprise, and horror.
She let him digest that, and took a slow breath, "And honestly, it gets stranger, I have not probed for details, and maybe we need to talk that through before either of us reveals that three hundred years ago, Ka El piled up a billion deaths to resolve the War of Will --while here, they own people, born to the lowest caste. Not quite the issue we dealt with but close enough. The social pyramid doesn't really offer much, and the enhanced abilities of the Blooded mean that it is plain to the lower two castes that they are not...with much prospect."
[Ka El wiki note: the War of Will, also known as the Five Clans War, was a three year civil conflict where the long standing relationship between construct sentience and born sentience was changed from enslaved constructs to a moral equality.]
"My biggest fear right now, is that our leaders won't want to be saved by the Empire when they find out." Zero studied her hands. "And I dreamed up a Second Breath last night. Same as yours: Air."
Vors looked alert, and spoke immediately. "Bide a moment on the question of our alliance...on your Second Breath, you did what I did, except in a dream?" Vors held up his hand. "Was it a dream, or is it real? We know you have to manifest just as I did, but was it real? Does it count in whatever sort of system they are using that you've done this?"
"Lorinne apparently felt my Manifestation or was watching me all night. Perhaps guarding both of us, since our ancestry is unknown and this Lost Eggs business is *much* more important than they are telling us."
Vors gave a short nod, and listened.
Zero digressed briefly and whispered a short summary of her suspicions that the Empress planned something much deeper than collecting a few extra Eggs to 'patch up' the bloodlines and resources of her Empire. Then she went back to his question, "So it appears to Lorinne as if our strength may be very high, since without any training or preparation we push the boundaries of what they expect from us."
"And thus all the more valuable" Vors said.
Zero gestured to herself, "I woke. It was real. My Second Breath was a small aerial display of art fans and fancy shapes. Nothing as impressive as yours. If you had a vision of a place, it may be an invitation from the ..." Zero paused, considering again that the whole adventure was dreamlike but true to everything the Imperials told them so far, "...Honored Mela. If that is the case, I'd be darned sure to go with you to the parlay. Perhaps we'd learn more about the real stakes in this conflict. Glandive told me that the journey to speak with Mela is something most Blessed never contemplate, let alone accomplish. Maybe you are exactly what the Empress is hoping to find."
Zero smiled, her expression was both cold and excited, and she spoke the Regimental cliche as a Strider salute to his audacity in the temple, "Congratulations. Sounds like we are in some serious shit now."
"More than I expected, at any rate. I thought I was going to be a spare part on this venture of *yours*." Vors said. "It appears we are both more immersed in these intrigues and machinations than we anticipated." He leaned back, and folded his hands in thought for a moment. "This hierarchical culture thrives on authority being a matter of social rank. Logic dictates that we go as high in the hierarchy as we have to, to make a trip to that cold and frigid place happen."
"What are the other Lost Eggs being told? And by whom? And have they had a vision similar to mine and a Manifestation like yours?" Vors added. "Meeting our opposite numbers, especially any aspected to Mela just as we are, is indicated as our course of action."
"Well, that makes sense to us. But don't forget that even a Lost Egg aspected to Honored Mela will be from an alien culture." Zero spent some time with the thought as well. "They might have a physiology and point of view that could not support such a dangerous quest. Or we might have more in common with the other Lost then we do with the Imperials. This is going to be hard to navigate. I like the idea of seeing the offered training before we head off to parlay the Dragon."
"I wouldn't want to venture into that frigid land unprepared. Certainly not with just a single Manifestation and no clear and real idea on how to do it again, at need, or how preparations for such a journey are accomplished." Vors agreed. "We continue on, observing, gathering data, and reaching out to these other Lost Eggs when we meet them. The implication I received is that we are going to be together for a time. We use that time, scope out the others. As they no doubt will be doing to us in turn. Navigating those interactions, Zero, as you say, is going to be difficult, imbalances and asymmetry of information and comfort with the Empire as has been presented to us. Not all of these Gossamer Worlds are going to have the same point of view. We could also look to forming bonds independent of the Empire structure, between our worlds. I wonder how the Imperials would take to that."
"A worn scout and a windy mentat," Zero chuckled. "I cannot think of a less likely set of diplomats to charm aliens from the Infinite Stair to our cause. But hey, I think you are right. As to the Empire, they have done this before. Many times. And the Empress is playing a deeper game this time. In the hints I've gotten from Lorinne, I expect the offers to gain our loyalty and obedience to be staggering and complex. They are going to bribe us, and do it so well that we must agree. A bit of side chatter with other aliens will not matter to them, though they will probably watch us out of habit. I'm sure they have been betrayed before by Lost Eggs."
Zero suddenly threw her arms around Vors and mashed him in with some of her considerable strength. She really was so relieved his mind had not taken a worse journey from his daring.
She released him."We have a plan then, let's get back on the journey."
"We have a plan." The surprise on Vors' face at Zero's unexpected gesture faded after a few moments. "Let's set to resuming this. I can't imagine we will linger here long."
As it turned out, less than a hour later, the Imperials had fully mustered, breakfasted and were ready to lead Zero and Vors back on their journey. The trip through the city of Shenug Wan was much more uneventful than Zero's previous excursion. A series of streets, heading to an ornate and well appointed city gate, and a path out of it along a road that ran through fields. Sergeant Anand walked alongside Zero and Vors.
"Is this wide open space troubling to you?" he asked Zero. Behind them, the walled city, and far ahead, there was a distant ridge of mountains, and closer, a small hill that the road headed straight for. But there was farmland into the distance in both directions to the left and right. "We're headed for that hill, there. The Door is in a temple there."
Zero almost asked 'why' and then thought about how little the Sergeant probably knew about her culture. It was just another flavor of kindness to ask if open spaces were a shock. If she'd been raised inside the Infinite Stair, what would open countryside feel like? "The land is quite pleasant," Zero answered for both Vors and she. "I was in the scout service for our world. Being in the outdoors was a near daily duty. Although our procedures have modified to less patrols as our numbers have dwindled. Still we field three person teams to check on the nanolife changes in the ecology around our city, Twenx."
"I see" Anand said. "I wasn't sure if people left that hermetically sealed city of yours. Walking around in there felt a lot like an arcology I visited, Novidad Prime.No one can leave the city, and doesn't. The endless storms outside scour the landscape."
Since he had mentioned another temple, she asked, "So you've probably been to many places that question the Blessed Dragons and tout their own kind of Faith. Is the formal building of places to meditate common in the Worlds? We don't do that."
"In the worlds I've seen" Anand said, continuing to walk along Zero and Vors "most worlds do have religions and worship and faith. And in those worlds, most of those build places, or carve places, or set aside places for people to gather together and share that faith together. Be it worship of the Dragons, a One True Goddess, or a mystical energy that binds the universe together, reverence of that is usually done in groups, and that means making spaces for it."
Zero made note of the linking words Anand used with Faith.
"Your world is unusual to my experience." Anand finished. "Perhaps, someone with more experience of the Stair might have a different view. So, when we entered the Temple, you had truly not been ever inside such a structure before?"
Zero shook her head 'no'.
"How does the Divine make manifest in your world, to individuals?" Anand asked.
Zero shrugged, "If a Faith Spirit manifests, I'm not sure I know of it. There are the books of Rao. He lived a long time ago and impressed people at the time. Many wrote down his public teachings. He had scholars that followed and reinterpreted his ideas. History and myth get a bit blurry with Rao, since there were not comps to record the events. People can write down what they like and skip the things they do not like. I suppose that a world that does not have a Faith Spirit is a poor place to raise Hope." Zero found herself thinking of friends lost and with effort she kept her game face on.
"Rao?" Anand said.
"Rao," Vors concurred.
"Rao sounds like a philosopher, a teacher of philosophy and faith whose words formed and shaped your culture." Anand said. "This talk about Rao... you might prefer to have it with a member of the Immaculate Order. We have the Dragons and we believe the Dragons created all of the worlds, but some worlds seem to have manifestations of the Divine not reconcilable with that. At least to me. I'm not a monk. They are. They do collect wisdom from other Gossamer Worlds. A corpus of his teachings would make a wonderful gift to them."
Zero nodded with a kind smile. She enjoyed Anand's point of view. He was a thoughtful and generous person. She tucked the idea away for later. She would not reveal to Vors or Anand that in one of her more rebellious seasons, she had deleted the standard Strider's Field Readings of Rao from her comp. She regretted it. It was an overreaction of the loss of two of her better teams during a Dwimmerlaik counter-offensive.
"And there is the temple." Anand pointed at a modest, squat building with a small tower sitting on a hill just ahead. "Not as impressive as the Temple you went into in the city, but we won't actually be going inside, anyway. The Door is the entrance door to the Temple, and I don't believe it is much used for its original purpose. One of the commanders might know to which local deities it is dedicated to, I truly do not know."
Zero scanned ahead and noted the outlines of the tower and base. It looked well kept. Whatever Faith Spirits dwelt there appeared to be honored by the community.
To her ear, the words 'local deities' made sense as much as 'rectangular sphere'. They just shouldn't work together. Luckily, the Warden ability seemed to pass meaning without really concentrating. She'd have to watch that, as her brain insisted on echoing the literal meaning of the words a few seconds after her sense of them. It was an annoying habit to get into. Zero put some pep in her response, "I like the way you pass on flavor as well as pragmatics, Anand. It helps me get a better understanding of just how complex the Infinite Stair is." Zero rolled the question she wanted to ask around in her inner political ear a bit to see if she really could ask it without defaming the Dragons. She decided to skip it. Later would work. There were always the monks of the Immaculate Order to query about such things.
Zero judged Anand to be a true believer and loyal citizen.
"So far, this is a pretty good route," Zero looked at Anand. "So many people here. That is both a delight and a bit harder to get used to. How many Doors between us and our Destination?"
"On the other side of this door here in Sheung Wan its a straight shot through the Stair to the Threshold, and to the Door to the Empire" Anand replied. "Its not the only route, the interconnected and vast nature of the Gossamer Worlds and the stair means that there are always multiple ways to get anywhere, if you know about it. The trick is finding those routes, exploiting them, using them. Sheung Wan connects two sections of the Grand Staircase that would probably take years to walk from one to the other in an ordinary way. But its not the only way we could have gone. We could have walked on the Staircase in your region a little more, in the opposite direction, and then traveled through the Gossamer World of Emre to get to a region of the Stair close to the Threshold. And there are probably others we don't know about. *I* certainly don't, but one of the other Wardens might know. You." he glanced over at Vors "are probably especially familiar with the idea of 'knowledge is power'"
"Yes" Vors aloud. "Its a tautology."
"Knowledge of the Stair does get shared, the Empress encourages it, but I know Lorinne has secrets she knows in her dealings with the Stair she has not shared, especially given that she's a Mnemon. As does Glandive. And every other Warden in the Empire. I am sure, Zero," Anand smiled "that you will discover secrets of your own, in good time."
Glandive called, just ahead,"We're here, its time to go through the Door." The conversation had carried them to the small temple. Two man sized statues made in the same gray stone that the temple was made out of flanked the tall narrow, peaking structure. The statues each depicted androgynous humanoids with large bird wings as an additional set of limbs. The left statue carried a sword, and the right statue carried a bound book.
Zero stopped to admire the work and feeling of age. Stone, worked by hand tools probably. She smiled to think how much this seemed like an adventure in an alternate history record.
Lorinne had already opened the Door, and held it open, revealing the landing of the Grand Staircase beyond. Zero could see that this portion of the stair a series of smooth ramps that ran up and down in a zig-zag pattern.
"Forward into the Infinite," Zero said to the group. She paced with the Imperials, expecting Lorinne to shut the door behind them all.
Once inside the Stair again, she did peer down along the line of ramps noting the scale of the Stair dwarfed the temples of Sheung Wan. On an impulse, she thought about Twenx, and sure enough, the very air around her vibrated with tension on her left side. When she turned about 180 degrees, the tension swung steady around her. That way.
Zero looked to Lorinne.
"Looking for your Gossamer World?" Lorinne said, with a nod. "Oh, you could eschew traveling through Sheung Wan and walk the Staircase until you reached it. The ability to find a World you are searching for is limited to the routes of the Stair itself. That sense doesn't know about shortcuts like the one we just used. That's why those shortcuts are so important, and useful to learn and record. It would likely take you a couple of weeks of walking, maybe longer, to get all the way to Twenx *that* way. But you can do it."
"We are going the other way, though." Lorinne indicated the opposite direction. "That is a good skill to practice, though. It helps as an orientation method. Perhaps you will be the one to lead full explorations of regions of the Stair near your Gossamer World."
"Perhaps," Zero easily agreed. Lorinne was extensively briefed and most of what she had shared with them on this trip was sparing and yet effective in appeal. There had been a good scout of Ka El and at least passing familiarity of Zero. It was not only the small device that had led them to her. It was no stab in the dark. And it was not chance at all that had Lorinne spending so much time watching and sensing each test Zero made of her new abilities.
The Empress would be pleased to see two Blooded returning with Lorinne and Glandive.
Zero again, set aside her thoughts of the layers and depths of planning. She kept a pace with the troops as they followed on the Stair upward, not down. She began a list of things in her head that would further the survival of Ka El and gain her loyalty to the Dragon Empress. One of her hands lightly fell on the data controls of her scout belt. She tapped for a pulse sweep and was unsurprised to find the effect blunted. Instead of a ninety meter circle of temperature, distances, and bio readings, she saw a weak nine meter return.
Zero nodded once. Yes, lots to do and learn.
The ensuing walk took hours, with occasional stops for rest, and for water. One of these stops turned out to be in a Gossamer World itself. Zero noticed that Lorinne had carefully looked in a region of the stair for a particular Door, and then led the group through it for a rest. The vista beyond this door was of a gigantic sand dune, a small rivulet wending its way through it. Beyond it were some striking mountains. The dunes appeared to be an anomaly, beyond the trestle tables of what appeared to be a park was a more scrub-filled land, dry but not the desert the dunes would suggest.
Zero tapped her belt, and the datacomp threw out a scan pulse. Since that seemed to work as normal, she took a threedee of the views as well. The spot chosen seemed well suited to a quiet repose.
The conversation running around the table wound up focusing on the worlds they had seen and what it was like to be someone who walked between worlds.
"I've known a couple of homebodies who wound up exalting as Wardens" Lorinne said casually, over a meal of rice balls filled with pork "Now there is a tension for you, Zero. You've been chosen by the Dragons with the ability to see all the worlds of the Stair, but you prefer your armchair, or your hometown. Straight up chosen of the Dragons like Vors." she nodded to the Mentat, examining a rice ball and contemplating its consumption "can wind up getting desk jobs without sweat. Not every chosen of the Dragons is competent at, or has the temperament to be, a soldier."
Zero nodded but found herself thinking otherwise. All the rewards and none of the risk? Just because of a genetic trait? Lorinne had more to add.
"Wardens are a bit different, though. Its kind of baked in that you will see the universe, or that you're expected to." She raised a hand. "And before you ask, I've not heard of an Exaltation being revoked by the Dragons. I don't know if that's possible. You'd have to talk to an Immaculate for that, maybe even the Mouth of Peace himself."
Revoked. Zero considered that. Not a pretty thing to contemplate, but interesting that Lorinne would bring it up when the context apparently did not happen. At least, the Immaculate Order did not talk about it.
If her 'gifts' were integral to her genetics, or even if they were deliberate machinations of Magic Lizards, removing them would change her in ways that would be very very serious. Yet, the elemental essences moved. They attracted and flowed. It seemed logical the Dragons could decide some particular Warden was dishonoring the intent of a Blessing.
And then boom. Problem gone. Lorinne was providing more clues, but Zero thought they'd make more sense in a season or two.
Zero let her face show only mild interest. "I think I'll have to learn the basics before I have worthy questions for the Immaculate Order. And then we'll see." Zero rolled and twisted the echo of Lorinne's comments in her head. "Ka El finds itself in a strange position, that continued survival involves no armchairs or lack of sweat. I think you'll find Vors and I are restless if not busy." She nodded respectfully at Vors and then Lorinne.
"To learn enough to ask the right questions." Lorinne replied. "Especially since you do come from a Gossamer World under threat. I do wonder what the other Lost Eggs' worlds are like. What sort of crucible, what sort of matrix do the Dragons choose to ennoble and anoint someone. Especially from Worlds with which we have had no sustained contact, or no known contact, at all. Are all of their worlds like your Ka-El?" She chewed another ball of rice and pork before continuing. "All of the Lost Eggs I've heard of before have been in allies, satrapies and other Gossamer Worlds bound to the Empire one way or another. You represent a change, you and Vors. And there are many questions hanging over things, since the end of the last war."
"Questions for the restless type to explore, and solve," she finished. "And now I think we're ready for the last portion of our journey."
Zero nodded. "The experience shall be unique, we can only hope to measure it and respond with a future for all of us," Zero surprised herself. That sounded more like her father than her usual.
"We can so only hope" Lorinne agreed.
The next period was, in the end, just a long walk. Nothing molested Zero or the Emissaries of the Empire, and the miles went by step by step. A seemingly endless zig-zag of a staircase finally gave way to a room, for lack of a better word, where this portion of the Stair met two others, a narrow stony corridor heading downward. Lorinne and Glandive directed Zero, Vors and the group up another path, entirely.
This one, Zero quickly learned, had guards, Imperial guards, manning several of the landings here. Zero and Vors were introduced at each turn to the Lieutenants and commanders here as Lost Eggs, Zero in particular as a Lost Egg Warden. The guards were polite to both Zero and Vors, and several groups and landings later, the group left the guards behind to stand on a landing with two Doors on it, on opposite sides. Lorinne led Zero and Vors to one of them.
"The Door to the Plaza of Worlds, in the heart of the Imperial City" Lorinne said to Zero. "Would you like to do the honors?"
~Ah, she's passing me opportunities. Perhaps she expects negotiations will be more one-sided against us than has been allowed so far.~ Zero glanced at Glandive for clues then back to Lorinne. ~Ah well. Nothing much showed on the faces of these two commanders.~
Zero spoke for Vors benefit as well. "Thank you. Every bit of practice is appreciated."
"Familiarity with the technique is going to be important if you need to open a Door in a hurry." Lorinne replied.
"Would that not be more urgent inside of a Gossamer World, where the wrong approach means you will open the mundane door by mistake" Vors asked.
"Indeed, yes" Lorinne allowed.
Zero stepped up to the Door and focused there. The Door tension arrived more quickly, she sensed late afternoon skies, it would be dark soon on the other side. Less certain, there were murmurs of a large number of people. She knew she could not hear through the door, but it was not quiet through there even with the dinner hour arriving. The temperature and sense of water nearby was much more pleasant than on this side. The Infinite Stair was like walking a large cavern system. It was always too cool in the Stair with no solar heat or dry air to temper it.
And yes, she noticed the coolness only when specifically seeking for it. More or less she'd become... comfortable ignoring the chill. The Second Breath explained a lot.
Zero touched the Door and it swung open. The metal mass was perfectly balanced and it barely made a noise. She looked at the brightly painted buildings through the Door. The curious roofing colors held her eye. She realized the Door was higher up, some sort of platform provided access on that side. The City was a huge place, with hundreds of people in sight moving and talking; enjoying the remaining day. They were safe. The scale of it caught her emotions. Thousands and thousands of people; safe. At least here behind layers of guards and controlled access.
Zero found her voice choked up so she kept the question simple, "How many people in this city?"
"The Imperial City is the largest single city within the Empire" Glandive said. "The population within the city walls, including the garrison, and including the population of the Imperial Palace grounds is approximately a million people. Some more live up at the port of Ostia, officially outside the walls of the city."
"What is the second largest city?" Vors asked. "And how large is it in comparison to this?"
Zero was grateful for Vors' question. It gave her a moment to deal with the protective surge of terror and wonder. A million people in one city. If the Dwims ever got this far, it would be Ka El all over again. Zero smelled smoke and fire from the Dwim attack of ten years ago, a nightmare smell of sweat, fear, and her tears. She reached up and brushed through her hair with her fingers so she could touch her palms over her eyes for a moment. She took a deep breath.
"Maya, near the seat of House Cathak, in the far western plains of the Empire is the second largest city." Glandive replied. "It is about four hundred thousand strong. That does NOT include the Cathak Legions, which live outside the city."
"Logistics and seeing to feeding and managing such a city of this size, with this level of technology must be challenging." Vors said. Above the city, Zero could see a lighter than air craft slowly moving southwest over the city.
Zero brought her hands down. The airships were nothing like the Dwim aerial gas bugs, for which she was extremely glad right now. This was ok. She felt the need to cry back off.
"It is. Satrap Abbas does not have a cushy job, its a rather difficult one to manage the City, even if he only reports to Her Glory." Lorinne put in. "I have found him a not very joyful man. I sometimes wonder if the Empress gave the job to him as a punishment, not an honor."
Zero felt her face was too hot, her muscles too tight. She spoke when she knew her voice was military enough, "Sometimes honor is unpleasant. However, the evidence of such a vital city speaks volumes to the ability of the man." She gestured at the glory of the thriving metropolis. "Perhaps it is the times, and that he knows more than he wants to about how fragile vitality can be."
"Perhaps" Lorinne replied with a nod. "Uneasy lies the burden of the office."
Zero felt she'd revealed too much, so she shifted topics, "I am eager to see more. Can we walk the streets? Or are we due to present to a watch officer? Your task is complete, so I expect we are to be given to someone with jurisdiction here. This Satrap Abbas handles new Lost Eggs?" She looked to Lorinne.
"The jurisdiction I'm to hand you to..." Lorinne turned to include Vors in her gaze, "both of you, now, over to, is the Chamberlain of the Guest Palace, inside of the Imperial Palace grounds. He will see to your care and feeding, as it were, and the next phases, the arrival of the emissaries of the various Houses, and the Empress, too, will occur there. Education of the Empire, offers to join Houses, negotiations and discussions about how you might into our society, and how we can help Ka-El."
Zero nodded. Things were going to stay busy. Good.
"Regardless, as fellow Wardens I hope to keep in contact with you going forward, whether you join House Mnemon or not." Lorinne added.
"And I" Glandive added with a nod. "Having seen Ka-El and the threat it faces from our mutual enemy, I feel enough of a bond to it to wish well for you and your Gossamer World."
Zero smiled and itched at her nose to hide any blush. She missed Ka El already but being here might be everything to those left behind. Allies like these were going to make such a difference.
"So yes, my task completes upon that handover. Now, if you wanted to see the city before I take you to the Guest Palace, or if you wanted to go directly to your rest and recompose there and wash your hands of me for a while, I leave that decision to the two of you." Lorinne finished.
"Not tired," said Zero simply. "So yes, can we move through the city to find our way to this Guest Palace?"
"Yes, although there isn't that much interesting by the direct route." Lorinne said. "We're here near the center of the entirety of the city. The Imperial grounds, which cover the western third of the city are that way." She pointed across the plaza. "Down that street there, and through the gates and we're on the grounds and a route to the Palace. The more interesting parts of the city are in just about every other direction." She turned clockwise. "Barracks to the north." She turned again "The markets and bazaars, and residences are to the east." She turned, to the small temple-like building they had emerged from. From this angle, beyond it, there were even more domes and towers than the other two directions. "Temples and other public buildings are to the south, and more residential areas. And plazas everywhere. Plazas are where people meet, where the outdoor restaurants are, where the city congregates. This one is just the largest."
"The city isn't quite one of those cities in the Gossamer Worlds that runs all day and night, but the evenings here can run long, thanks to the mild weather." Glandive said. "Although sometimes finding a carriage can be tricky. So the question is, what are you in the mood to see, Vors? Zero?"
"I have ideas if Zero does not." Vors began, and then stopped, and bowed his head in Zero's direction.
Zero nodded to the compass points as the Imperial Wardens explained the landmarks. She knew her heart spoke to her resolve. But she was curious what Vors would choose. She would swear to defend these people. It resonated within her as if this Empress had already asked, perhaps that was a fancy only. She was being overly emotional and the mellow buzz of voices was still such a pleasant tune. Still, later there might be nothing but duty and training. So she spoke freely, "I would sit in a cafe with a pot of tea and listen to people talk of their lives. An hour would be fine."
Zero looked at Vors and nodded that it was his turn.
"Hearing what the common person says, and seeing what they do, free of overt surveillance is illuminating. We don't know much yet about the common people of your world." he said. "We know a few soldiers, and a couple of Wardens, but what do the folk here say? What do they *do*? How do they live? If sitting in a cafe, as Zero suggests, sounds too sedate for your taster, simply walking in an area frequented by people, and seeing how they act. Getting a sense of day to day life here would be accomplished by seeing what they do in the night, or don't. We've seen a Temple to the Dragons in a different world, but a temple here in the Empire would also be an instructive experience, if only for the parallax."
"Don't you agree?" Vors looked at Zero.
"Yes," Zero smiled. "I agree very much." And she looked back to Glandive. "And if we arrive at the Guest Palace a few hours later, this is not a measure of your service, yes?"
"The Imperial service cannot predict when precisely the Lost Eggs will arrive" Glandive replied. "As you have seen, even the time of day is not predictable, although there is a window within which they were hoping for people returning. A few hours, Zero, is not something they could see us dawdling in."
"Unless, of course, there are spies watching the Door." Lorinne said archly.
"Of course there are spies." Glandive replied. "The Empress' intelligence is well known. After all, she directed us to Zero and Vors' world. Knowing when a Lost Egg comes through the Door is child's play."
"So are you saying we should go directly to this Guest Palace?" Vors said. "Because we are being monitored?"
"Not at all." Glandive said. "Her Glory will likely see this as us showing the Empire for purposes of winning you to join our culture, so she will approve of the detour."
"So, then. A drink and a meal, a well populated area, and then perhaps a walking tour of a district or two? I know that *I* want some Dan-dan noodles, myself. Shall we?" Lorinne said.
"We shall," Zero agreed. She let the Imperials set the pace, even to using their presence as a visual shield so that she and Vors' clothing would not draw too much notice. While Zero suspected people in this City were used to outlanders, it should mean 'intelligence' was worth a few Cycles if reported quickly to the right place. She'd rather be the observer for this evening.
Zero maneuvered closer to Vors as they took a direction. "Do you know what Dan-dan are?" If that question made Lorinne or Glandive turn in question, she just winked at them. "Because I sure don't."
"This gift of languages makes it difficult to establish etymological roots of words." Vors replied. "Dan-dan did not translate, it came as a proper name" Vors continued as they followed Lorinne and Glandive into the city, to the east. "Studying the Imperial Language, for you, you realize, is going to be best done in a Gossamer World where your gift does not apply. I have an advantage in that the spell can be dispelled on me, and I can learn it normally. I wonder" Vors said "if the gift of languages can be actively repressed for long periods easily?"
Zero tossed the word about in her mind, stirring ideas to see if the phrase would be a name or a cooking process.
To a first approximation, it sounded more like a proper, native noun, than a noun derived from a verb. But it was uncertain.
"Not that I have found" Lorinne said, as she slowed to join the two of them, letting Glandive lead. "Exegesis, as scholars at the Heptagram call it, appears to be a combination of the nature of the Door as well as the Warden herself. We have proved this by the use of Icons into Gossamer Worlds. A Warden who uses an Icon to transport themselves to a world does NOT gain the translation ability they would by means of walking through the Door."
"Yes, a combination," Zero appeared delighted with sudden insights, "And so it seems there is a construct mind, with perhaps a complex mission, which enforces a balance that seems arbitrary but we do not understand the mission. The Stair is there in both cases. The Warden is empowered in both cases. And yet the Stair will not lend Exegesis unless the form is executed, despite no lack of power or proximity. It suggests the Stair is aware, and enforcing a paradigm, or the Stair is surrounded by layers of proper and improper forms, as in martial arts, which cannot be known because the construct's limit is of an order near Infinite compared to our own." She shook her head in awe and her voice became closer to a whisper, "Even the Dragons must wonder at it. I hope it baffles the Dwims as well."
"It does add to the wonder and mystery of the Stair." Lorinne agreed.
Zero pushed back her hair over one ear, and pulled her attention back to the passing crowds. She did not want to miss a thing.
The sheer variety of people that walked past as they made their way from the plaza pointed to the diversity of the Empire. In several blocks, Zero saw people of hair color from sheer blonde to darkest black, and skin color from ebony to ivory. Most were dressed in robe-like clothing, however there was diversity in that wear, too, and not just by the occasional soldier or three, either. Zero and Vors get scrutiny and interest from people passing by as well, Lorinne and and Glandive getting a few respectful nods now and then.
"We don't quite have a mass media here, or else the general population would recognize Wardens on a greater basis." Glandive said to Zero and Vors. "Sometimes, we get recognized, though. And there are broadsheet series of stories, fictionalized, about the adventures of the Wardens. Their accuracy is rather...limited." Glandive said, in an amused tone. "I suspect you and the other Lost Eggs will provide fresh inspiration."
By this point, Lorinne had led the group to a restaurant with outdoor tables, abutting on a plaza, with the same plan as the large one they had entered. A couple of other restaurants, shops and other buildings competed for the attention and interest of passers by. In short order, they were seated at one of the outer tables.
"Dan-dan noodles, definitely." Lorinne said to the waiter, even before the menus were distributed. "Enough for all of us. And some wine. And whatever they wish." She gestured toward Zero and Vors.
"I want some dumplings." Glandive said, handing the menu back. "You know what kind I like."
Zero tried to take in everything, especially the facial recognition and expressions of people dealing with them and the Imperial Wardens. She barely glanced at the menu at first.
The trait of exegesis definitely extended to the menus, as Zero was able to read most of it without difficulty. Oddly, though, there appeared to be a duplication of some sort in the text. The name of the dish was given, and then it was given again, sometimes with a slight variation. Dan Dan Noodles, when Zero checked, was listed as "Dan-Dan Noodles" and then as "Peddler's Noodles." Most of the other dishes were like this as well, and the dishes seemed to mainly contain noodles, or dumplings, with a lesser number of rice dishes. The meats in the dishes appeared to be mostly pork, along with a lesser number of beef, chicken, and fish.
"We might need a little extra time for their orders" Lorinne said indulgently to the waiter, giving a nod to Vors and Zero. "Just bring the noodles for a start."
Zero found herself falling into an easy rhythm with Vors as they dissected the menu offerings, for language and ingredients both as if it was the most important thing in the new universe. Exegesis was an exciting mystery all by itself. Some ingredients noted on the menu were less than helpful, "served with choice plant spices" followed a few listings. To see if Vors idea was correct, she willed the Stair Translation gift sideways in her mind and tried to catch the characters without translation. It actually seemed to work, but she was defeated by the inked text that she couldn't read. She was only able to determine that the phrase was different in various offerings, but translated to her the same.
She also could see, before the mounting headache made her let go of the process and the idea, that the duplication appeared to be two kinds of alphabets in the untranslated forms, one ideogram in nature and the other a more character based form.
So perhaps the exegesis was actually translating fully, but Ka El did not have the plant family being used. She shared her discovery with Vors.
"You look a little pale for it" Vors replied. "So its not an absolute, but its a strong effect to override." he said. "This may be a case where our outside viewpoint is allowing us to see things the Imperials do not."
Zero nodded and finally made some choices that sounded warm, gooey, and spicy. Zero smiled to Lorinne and Glandive, who seemed entertained by it all. "It is hard to estimate when any of this will seem routine."
The Dan Dan Noodles proved to be long things, with a brown sauce, diced meat, and vegetables. The Imperials seemed to enjoy it with gusto. Eating did seem to help Zero's headache.
"It COULD be years from past experience." Lorinne said. "I remember, when I was a young girl, a Lost Egg was brought into Mnemon, found somewhere in a Gossamer World, like Vors. Dragon Blood, not Warden. I remember it was years before she was really comfortable with Dragon Blooded society and the Empire. Eventually joined the Bureaucracy, as I understand it. But I remember my older brother laughing at the mistakes she made and the wonder she had at things we took for granted."
"It is, however, from my point of view, fascinating to see the wonder you have," Glandive put in.
Zero showed every sign of agreement, for her thoughts expanded in many directions. She watched the customers. She glanced aside to measure Glandive and Lorinne. She also could not help but wonder if she would like being laughed at again. Once it was a thing of youth, not something to think on overmuch, but across years, there had been less things to laugh at for everyone and because of the 'good omens' around her, her teams, her comrades, and sometimes even her commanders deferred to her skills.
Zero decided the Dan Dan noodles were not exactly to her tastes; a peculiar set of spices after all. But really, it was exciting to not like the food. She was thrilled to know she was on a completely alien world. Why should the food be easy?
Why should anything be easy? Zero grinned at Vors and spoke to Glandive, "I think this is the beginning of a lovely friendship."
Glandive speared a small dumpling that was resting in red oil, consumed it with gusto, and answered. "I am pleased that our early relationship has gone well. In some ways that is not crucial, once you are ensconced in the guest palace, my role, and Lorinne's role will fade in favor of the real diplomats, and teachers, and trainers. But will we work together in coming years? Absolutely. There are less than a hundred Wardens in the Empire. We really are a tiny and important community. Aside from the ones who are too far out to get back, I am sure you will meet most of them in the next couple of years."
"Including our fellow Lost Eggs?" Vors puts in "Well, I'm not a Warden, but I'm still a Lost Egg. What happens to me?"
"Good question" Glandive nodded to Vors. "You, after all, are a surprise. I can't imagine they won't let you stay in the Guest Palace with the Wardens and learn and be introduced to the Empire in their, ah..." He fumbled for a word.
"Cohort?" Lorinne suggested.
"Cohort" Glandive agreed. "If we had found you outside of this great project, you'd have been adopted into Mnemon, Vors, and educated with us. If we had found the both of you outside this project, things might have complicated, because of Zero's blessing."
"Because she's a Warden, and thus even more important than a Dragon Blooded?" Vors asked, with a clear rhetorical tone
"Yes" Lorinne said.
Zero kept her voice low, more to hear other conversations nearby than out of respect for security, "So since you mention it again, I had not thought to ask about how the resources of our enemies stack up. How many of the Blessed do they have? More than a hundred? Less?"
Glandive looked around briefly and faced Lorinne "A conversation for here?" he asked.
Zero found Glandive's question far too familiar of the paranoia of defending the last city in the world. Here? In the heart of the Empire?
"I think we can talk briefly, securely. No one is paying attention, and there are no active magics."
"Could be a listening charm" Glandive said. "But I don't see anyone who'd be possibly doing it." He nodded to Lorinne and then turned to Zero.
"The Enemy does not have Wardens in the same way that we do." Glandive began. Lorinne tapped a nail on the table. Glandive cleared his throat. "Aside from the Akuma, who are Dragon Blooded who have renounced the Dragons and serve their cause. They are uncommon and uncommonly dangerous. The Greater Dwimmerlaik, and there are not many of those, use other methods, methods we have studied but have not replicated, to rip into worlds. In the case of the last War, they ripped through a Door into the Empire, here, destroying that Door in the process and producing a gate from which they came into our world."
"They have many more who can use things like keys to open Doors." Glandive added. "Probably far more than the ten thousand that there *should* be of the chosen of the five Dragons. And then there are the millions of servitor races they use. Fortunately, the difficulty in the logistics of the Stair make it difficult for them to bring all of those to bear on us at once, or else we would be lost."
"So" Lorinne's voice was steel "when I hear members of the Deliberate who you'd think were well educated say that we could wall up the Doors and forget all of our problems with the Enemy thereby, I want to punch through a wall. Hiding our heads here would not save us from the threat. As you and your Gossamer world know."
Zero was forced to add, in defense of her world, "Except that we never knew we fought against a foe with nearly unlimited resources. But I certainly take your point." Perhaps, if the leaders of Ka El had known, had realized how many would die, how much history would be lost, they would have surrendered at the outset. Zero really hoped not.
Zero went on, unable to not sink her teeth into the strategies involved, "So you have many baikokudo? This is a surprise, considering the flower of faith I have seen in everything so far. What is the order of magnitude of the Akuma? Five? Or fifty?"
"Perhaps a dozen have existed in the centuries of the history of the conflict which is twelve too many" Lorinne said. "Twelve people who have taken the gift of the Dragons and turned it to evil and nihilism. How many of those are active still is hard to say. But it is said that the very element that they once wielded is corrupted, so that they are no longer masters of Earth, or Air, or Water, or Fire, or Wood, but rather twisted, desecrated versions of those elements. I have never met or seen one of the Akuma, so I don't know if that is merely a doctrinal belief, or something that actually occurs."
"I prefer to believe that the gift of the Dragons could not be so easily turned to the destruction of the Dragons" Glandive said. "Men might do evil and ill to other men and not have such a gift revoked. But to wish for the annihilation of all realities would be too much for the Dragons not to react to. Perhaps it is the Dwimmerlaik who corrupt the elements, rather than it being a ill mark against them. Either way, Zero, the Akuma are not the major threat, not when compared to the bulk of the Dwimmerlaik forces. But they do exist. But we do not like to speak to the general public about them. For, as you intuit, we do not wish to shake the faith in the populace that such a betrayal can happen."
Zero nodded once and slowly finished her noodles in thought. In a few minutes she gestured the server over to refill her drink.
On Ka El, it had all happened too fast, and the weight of their own history had fooled them into thinking they could master any threat. Ka El had no kind of war for resources and there were no scarcities. The long history of solving every obstacle with clever use of the sciences had eliminated the old fierce culture and being a guardian soldier was a concept only understood in data, not in practice.
From the bigger perspective, Zero revised the thought; from the Infinite Perspective, Ka El was an ideal target. The beauty and order of the world came apart as if a smartbomb dropped into a children's park.
So here they all were. The Empress was reaching outside the box of normalcy. It seemed even more obvious that the Empire balanced on the edge of two futures. On one path, the Dwim resources apparently greater than the Empire, and having enslaved other races to use as attrition armies, the Houses of the Empire would slowly fall as they defended against the inability to flank their opponents or bring the battle to the Dwim centers of control. Defense, just as on Ka El, was not a strategy. On the other path, the Empire would examine its current record of victories and defeats and realize they needed to change something, and immediately.
The Lost Eggs were the better future and the Imperial benefits would extend to allied gossamer worlds. Zero swiveled her gaze on a cluster of seven children running by. A cart went by with wares wrapped against dust. Two women walked slowly away from the cafe speaking with animated gestures. They were graceful in their joyful discussion.
Zero glanced at Vors' patient face, and realized she'd caught him studying her again. She smiled. Looking back to Glandive and Lorinne, she said, "So millions of Doors, infinite possible Wardens to be blessed, even if a small mathematical thread connects my personal history to yours, current events seem to support that I have a Fated part to play here. But all the computational power in a handful of worlds could not comb such Infinity for matches that seem so inspired." Zero was not used to public or policy speaking, she plunged ahead, "Magic or Science or Anomalous Reality, I expect to speak to the Empress before the Houses fill my head with wealth and pleasant futures producing children without benefit of creche. I'm ready to meet the rest of the Lost Eggs."
"I am a Mentat" Vors said, speaking up. "I deal with probabilities, with numbers, with figures. I live and breathe them. Zero is right, the mathematical thread that connects us to you, and to this Empire is small, and thin, but the coincidences and probabilities suggest that we were meant to be found, and meant to be here. There is a clear causal line of events, calculable."
"You sound like one of my teachers." Lorinne said to Vors, and then turned to look at Zero. "You will get your chance to speak with Her Glory before the Houses vie for your bloodline, and your talents. Both of yours." she clarified immediately. "As far as meeting the rest of the Lost Eggs, well, then, let us not delay any further, and bring you to the guest palace. Glandive, if you would take care of the bill here, Zero, Vors and I need to find transport."
Glandive nodded and Lorinne indicated for Zero and Vors to follow her up and away from the cafe. "Transport in the city can be an issue, especially after dark." she explained. "Personal motor vehicles haven't been perfected given the physical laws of the Empire. Large scale things we have magical power sources for, such as airships, and large sea going craft. But we've not miniaturized such power sources reliably enough to power things smaller. So we are limited to bicycles, and horse drawn carriages, and the like." She indicated a row of carriages parked by a curb, the smaller ones hitched to two horses, and the larger to a team of four.
Zero had no idea what a bicycle would be and the gift of translation offered nothing. Yet she did smile at the horses. "We have preserves of wildlife. The Dwims only go out of their way to kill cats of any size. I recognize the horses. Yours seem more vibrant in color than ours, which are patterned like the veldt they enjoy." She gave a smaller smile to Lorinne. "Lead on, Warden."
"The Dwimmerlaik kill cats." Lorinne said, This idea seemed new, and stunning to her. "That is not behavior that I am aware of in the Enemy, but then, I don't think someone has made that sort of study of their occupied areas to notice such a Specific. As far as the horses, yes, we do take pride in our Horses. House Cathak, long ago, before the Empire was unified, began as clans of horse archers, dominating the western plains of the continent. They maintain that cavalry tradition to this day. Tepet is, was much more of an infantry sort of House. Glandive." she admitted. "would know much more of that military history, though."
Zero indulged her curiosity up close with the four-legged plains runners. Yes, their colors were deep and strong. The musk from them was heady. She found animals fascinating, and while she had read data about training animals to pull such carts as this, she found the actual thing more wondrous than the comp descriptions. She had questions about how difficult domestication was, but imagined that should wait for another time.
With a little bit of negotiation, Lorinne commissioned a four horse carriage that seated five, open air. She helped Vors and Zero into it, and then had the driver, a short, plump woman, to drive back to the restaurant where Glandive awaited, and joined them on board, for the journey through the city.
"Usually carriages dispatched by the Imperial Palace would have been waiting for us at the Door." Lorinne explained as the carriage moved through the dark city, lamps of some sort common on the thoroughfares but less common on the side streets. "Hiring our own transport will require a bit of talking at the gate by me so that the driver doesn't have difficulty. But we've a few minutes of travel before we get there. We'll proceed through the gate to the Guest Palace, where you will meet what other Lost Eggs have already arrived."
"I admit" Glandive put in "as to curiosity as to who our counterparts have found."
"You would have been an excellent scout, Glandive," Zero mused aloud, "since many a strategy comes fruit from asking the right question. For instance, while it took days to return here, I do not think you have really said how long you have been following the small tracking device, eliminating possible Doors in order to discover Ka El. Has it been weeks or months since the Empress set this in motion?"
"Now that is a very good question." Glandive said. "Her Glory officially announced the project about 380 days ago, a year on our calendar. There was a lot of maneuvering and wrangling before teams were assembled and set out, and politics that Lorinne is better at than I. But Lorinne and I set out..." he looked to Lorinne quizzically
"One hundred sixty four days ago." Lorinne said.
"Walking to Ka-El by the long route took three and a half weeks." Glandive said. "We also scouted for a faster route back, or I did, while Lorinne did observation on your Gossamer World, so that when we presented ourselves, we had a basic knowledge of your situation."
"It was difficult keeping our presence and entrances hidden." Lorinne said. "We would have preferred to find a more exterior Door to the one we used. I have suspicions that there is at least one other door on Ka-El."
"Why?" Vors asked, as the carriage turned onto a boulevard and headed toward a dark straight shape ahead.
"Part way through our journey to Ka-El, at a junction of Stairs, I felt a pull in two directions." Lorinne said. "We went with the stronger pull."
Zero added nothing. But she imagined herself in a similar situation doing the same. During a field mission, tasked by Authority with making the best of a ...what would be the mild way to say it?... a deteriorating situation at home, Lorinne had noted but not explored another opportunity. The underlying significance was certainly the Dwim access to Ka El. The bastards had withdraw, not disappeared.
In fact, it made a lot of sense the Dwims might have a station of troops outside, inside?, the other Door. Well, she'd get Imperial training before she asked to tackle that nest of vipers. It did put in her mind exactly what might have happened to the small Imperial contingent if they had come upon a disguised Dwim redoubt in the Stair while approaching Zero's world.
Zero watched the route unfurl as her imagination ran variant scenarios for taking out the Dwim outpost without them getting word back to their masters.
She perked up only when she realized that the carriage was now exiting the city again. What did that mean? They had specifically come here as journey's end. She noted Lorinne and Glandive had no reaction as they slowly passed out of the precincts of buildings large and small and the road led off to distant green hills and a bit of winding through luxurious copses. Why wouldn't the learning and gathering be in the city? Odd.
Zero glanced at Vors.
"Is this some sort of parkland, Lorinne?" he asked her. His tone, his mentat training schooled any rising panic or concern in his voice. He might as well been discussing the consistency of nutrient paste. "Did we leave the city behind? Where are we bound?"
"The Guest Palace, here in the grounds of the Imperial palace." Lorinne replied. "Glandive?" she prompted.
"The grounds of the palace adjoin that of the Imperial City and the great wall that surrounds the city also surrounds the Palace grounds. So it is technically part of the city, although access to the grounds that we travel through is restricted. That wall whose gate we just passed through is a fraction of the size of what surrounds both the city and the grounds themselves. It is much more of a social barrier than a defensive one." The path met others in a circle, and the horses breathed with the effort of going up a hill
"And here we are, The Guest Palace." Lorinne said. Lights pulled back the evening light on the front columned porch and entrance area, letting the bulk of the building recede into shadow, although there were poles with lights in paths that ran into the gloom in all directions from this entrance area. A man in a dark suit, wearing spectacles stood on the steps of the entrance and waited for Zero, Vors, Lorinne and Glandive to exit the carriage. He bowed.
"Senator Lorinne!" he said magnanimously. "I had no idea that you had been brought into the Lost Eggs project."
Vors said quietly to Zero, "Unexpected. She never suggested or intimated this."
Zero provided a hand signal back to Vors, ~situation unclear, 360 defense~.
Kido turned and bowed to Glandive next. "Sir, it is an honor to see you again."
"Come and introduce yourselves." Glandive said in response, as he turned to look at Zero and Vors.
Zero appraised the distinguished fellow with the micro goggles in turn. She put a palm flat over her heart and gave a slight bow at the neck. “Hullo! I am Strider Tolerance Zero, senior scout in the 77th Lightning Recon Regiment, Ambassador of Ka El to the Dragon Empire, and member of the Council of Two.” At the back edge of Zero's collar, a very small slice of the material snapped upward 10 centimeters and blinked a tiny harsh blue. It snapped back into whatever concealment it sprang from. She waited on Vors, studying the shadows behind the dark suited fellow.
~Threedee acquired. Filed. Please tag for crosscheck.~
"I am Mentat Toolei Vors of Ka El, Speciality Science, member of the Council of Two, Emissary to the Dragon Empire." Vors added in turn. "I have exalted to the Dragon you call Mela, the element of Air. I am not a Warden, but still a Dragon Blood by your system."
She deeply regretted not reading up on ancient weapons and tactics in her long career.
"You found two Lost Eggs, Senator" the man said, with pleasure and slight surprise in his voice. "Your reputation is maintained." he added.
"Perhaps, good Chamberlain" Lorinne said. "Fortune and Preparation are best each held in separate hands and employed."
"Indeed" Kido bowed again, to Vors and to Zero. "We have quarters for your inspection and discernment, new clothes, and dinner is to be served shortly, if you wish. All of the Lost Eggs that have preceded you have been invited."
"Have there been many?" Vors asked.
"Not as many as one might hope, but all have arrived within the day." Kido said. "One hopes there will be more. If you would both follow me?"
Kido lead Zero, Vors and the two Wardens into and through the palace. The entrance gave way to an enclosed square court room with a squared off pool in the center. Kido lead the ground around this quiet opening space, and through a corridor to another, much larger square space, this one open to the sky, the center full of green grass.
"This is the main portion of the building for the guests" Kido explained. "living quarters are all on the second floor, rooms for eating, reading, and the other aesthetic pleasures are all on the first floor." He led the ground around the large central space, and at the nearest corner, up a staircase to the second floor. All the bedrooms were on the outer wall, the courtyard side of the second floor a railed balcony that looked down onto that central space.
"Do you have a preference for the view?" Kido asked. "Although a few of the choicer suites have already been claimed. And do you need one or two?" he glanced at Vors, who coughed in surprise.
Zero was brought back from puzzling over how the variables of the Infinite Stair had delivered the Lost Eggs back in such a tight time period. "One or two views?" Zero half turned towards the elegant man to figure out the riddle, then she processed Vors' cough and caught up fully.
~Well, that was bold.~ She half smiled, "Council of Two does not imply that we are never apart. We shall take two rooms side by side. Views of the courtyard interior are fine, or however it might suit to allow for the side by side suites." She sketched a neck bow to the Chamberlain. Zero was pleased that the man was so frank, but realized he might have offended Glandive or Lorinne on her behalf. She thought it clever that she provided an excuse for the Chamberlain's personal question, as well as an answer that fit the situation.
Zero did not even look at Vors to see his reaction more fully. Instead she smoothed the moment further by asking Lorinne, "You have a reputation for Bounty or Luck, Lady Lorinne? Perhaps you'll tell us a tale of two before you have to return to your duties."
Lorinne nodded. "I won't so cavalierly leave the wo of you so early. The Mnemon House isn't far from the Guest Palace, anyway."
"I would have words with you, then, milord" Kido said to Glandive. "Once the Lost Eggs are settled with the Senator."
"Very well" Glandive said.
Kido turned to look at Zero and Vors. "All of the suites face outside, but adjoining suites, with a bathroom between, would suit?"
"Yes, that will be suitable." Vors said. "Thank you, Chamberlain."
As the Chamberlain led the group down the corridor, with its railing overlooking the courtyard, a four footed silver-furred animal moved in the opposite direction with purpose and speed. Kido chuckled slightly but did not break stride. In short order, a pair of suites, two rooms apiece, with a view of an exterior garden were presented to Zero and Vors. The suites had a bathroom, with inset tub, and a shower, in common. All the decor was in wood, aside from two small statues, in a green rock. The group regathered in the quarters designated for Zero.
"A servant will come when dinner is ready and you can meet the rest of the Lost Eggs gathered so far. Is there anything else that might be brought?" Kido asked.
"If I am going to share tales with Zero and Vors" Lorinne said. "I am going to want tea."
"Tea, very well. A servant will see to it" Kido said. He looked to Zero and Vors. "Anything else?"
"Perhaps tea for three more as well." comes a voice from the open doorway.
...to be continued in TeawiththeSenator.