"Have I ever told you," asked Jasp Underground, when the entire party was seated together out on the sun-drenched deck of the Merry Faerie, "of the derivation of my Order name?"
They all thought this an odd question, one more likely to be asked by someone who'd known them a good deal longer than Jasp had. It also seemed slightly out of character, but they supposed everyond was entitled to be in different moods at different times.
Darius, in fact, had often noted that he himself was usually taciturn, yet occasionally downright garrulous, when the mood struck. So he rather liked the spy's sudden, unexpectedly casual and friendly disposition, and responded in kind. "No, I don't believe you have. And since we've some hours' travel ahead of us, perhaps nearly a day, why not regale us with the story, for whatever time it passes?"
"That I shall, my good sir, and glad I am to find you in such spirits. May you always be well, my friend. Well, of course you all know of Drop River, and whence comes its name."
"Of course," said Tom.
"Of course, of course. It's because of its course, yes? Well. It comes in from First Sea, down the Drop River Mountains, through the Drop River Forest, and then- poof!- it drops below ground for, say, 450 to 500 miles or so, before reemerging to the surface, and continuing on down towards Drop Lake."
"Yes," grumbled Tom, "I believe I said we knew that."
"So sorry, sir. I'm in an expository mood, I'm afraid. Well then, when I was a child growing up in Tonad, which was of course founded right by the spot where the river drops underground, I was quite interested in geography, and spelunking, and such and so forth. And so one day I ventured alongside the river, and underground..."
"And that's where the name 'Underground' comes from," said Tom.
"Well, yes, to make a reasonably brief story painfully short. Yes." He sighed. "Well, I suppose I didn't really have much of an adventure, down there. Just wandered around for awhile until I got bored. Aside from my encounter with an ogre, almost completely uneventful and boring. Never did get anywhere near the point where the river heads above ground again, either. Went maybe fifteen miles, in fact, before turning back home. Subsequent visits took me never more than twice that far, and usually considerably less than the original trip. Still, took up a fair part of a few of my teenage years, going down there did. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends."
"Please, go ahead and tell us about the ogre, if you want," said Ginger. "Tom's being rude. He gets like that, it seems."
"No, no, he's quite right. No need to bother. But I'll say this: He was actually a fairly nice sort of ogre. I've talked to him once in a while over the years since I first met him. Said some of his ancestors migrated north a long time ago, but one was left behind unintentionally. Which was just as well, because that one ancestor eventually met a lovely, by ogre standards, ogress with whom he fell in love and had ogrelings, and eventually this descendant came along, my friend Jagshard."
"He told you all this, did he?" asked Ginger. "I mean, I'd always heard ogres were semi-intelligent, at best. I was never quite sure if they even could speak."
"Oh, well, they can. True, their intelligence seems less than ours, and many stories make them out not to do more than grunt. But they were created with the potential for speech. It was necessary, as apparently they were intended to be used as a weapon, or more accurately, an army, by some mad schemer who wanted to take over the world. Or so their lore holds it. Actually, Jagshard wouldn't tell me too much about that, because it was a subject rather taboo among his people, and certainly not to be spoken of with outsiders. But I got the impression whatever happened all that time ago had something to do with the ogre migration. And that migration, sometime in the 600's I think, was how there came to be ogres in what would later be called by men the Kimrin Mountains."
"So, you weren't ever really scared or in any danger from Jagshard?" asked Emma.
"Well, we didn't exactly walk up and introduce ourselves when we first spotted each other. After all, we were both far from home and our own kind, and neither of us had ever met each other's kind before. And of course, we'd both heard little if any good about each other's kind. No, we were both amply cautious. But eventually we worked out that we meant each other no harm, and we had fun sharing information about our respective races, and families, and so forth. Of course, we never told our families about each other, for fear of endangering each other. People can be pretty stupid about things they only think they know about, you know."
"You can say that again," agreed Darius.
"Anyway... I don't quite know what else to say. Yes, I went underground often, along Drop River. And that's how I chose my surname, years later, when the Order passed the surname law when the Coming was completed."
"Did any of your friends who went with you ever meet Jagshard?" asked Ginger.
"One did. A girl about nine years my junior. Cabbit was her name- and still is, of course. When I was I think sixteen, on one of my last trips underground, she must've been about seven, she followed me down. Oh, quite unbeknownst to me. I never let my friends find out about Jagshard, for various reasons, including the one about not telling my parents about him. But anyway, the entrance I took to the underground tunnel the river followed was actually on her family's property, though not in obvious sight.
"Our families were neighbors and friends, and there was some little get-together that I ditched one afternoon, and Cabbit followed me. I figured that out just after meeting Jagshard; when she saw him, she just walked right up and introduced herself to him. She wasn't afraid or anything, just curious. Well, he introduced himself, too. I was just very embarrassed, and brought her home as soon as I could drag her away from her new friend. I told her never to tell anyone about him, and as far as I know she never has.
"Still, her parents were terrified she could have been hurt, when they found out where she'd been, even without knowing about the ogre. They boarded up the entrance, after forcing me to show it to them. They also sat Cabbit down and gave her a stern talking to about taking risks. She sort of built up a protective mental wall after that, but I think she's finally starting to come out of it, after all these years. Anyway, I hope so. But back then, she definitely changed, got a lot shier and less fearless and impetuous. I kind of made it my mission to try to tear that wall down, and over time I've had a little success. I gave her a job as a spy some time after I'd become LandOrder's chief spy in Tonad. That helped a bit, but she's still improving.
"Oh, of course I found another entrance after the old one was boarded up. It was a good bit farther away, and this time on no one's property. I couldn't just leave my friend and never see him again, with no explanation, could I? Anyway, as I said, that was near the end of my visits. Haven't seen him in years, but at least we got to say good-bye. Cabbit never went back down there, and now I'm not at all sure she even remembers."
"So... you think of her as a little sister, I take it?" Ginger asked.
"Um... no, well, not really. I mean, for some years I guess I sort of did, but now... she's a friend, and a coworker. Mostly a friend. Maybe... well, nevermind maybes."
"Ah. Okay." Ginger hid a grin.
"Are we there yet?" asked Tiejo.
"No," said Tom. "You'll know when we're there. The boat will stop moving, and the crew will yell at everyone to get off."
Tiejo sighed. "Then has anyone more stories to be telling?"
"Well," said Tom, "I suppose I could tell you all of my master Drexl, who taught me the fine art of masks. The making of, and performing with. I always thought of it as an interesting counterpoint to Stemin, who taught me to read faces... although actually, the two arts have both differences and commonalities. For example...."
Tiejo and Emma both listened to Tom for quite some time, though everyone else soon drifted off to their cabins.
The ferry docked at Jump Village Harbor about Second Two the next morning, and all passengers headed for their wagons, including the Chaos party. When instructed, they took their turn to fly out to the landing area on the shore. Alecstar then went off to hire a team of striders for the duration of their stay; they expected to be in town perhaps a few days. Just before Star left, Tiejo asked if it wouldn't make more sense to take the wagon, and Star explained that rental agencies often provided leader-spells, which are small hand-held devices specifically enchanted to coax animals into following the bearer, in a very tame, leisurely fashion. Such spells could also be used to let a stranger ride a strider, if he preferred. Tiejo found the idea fascinating, and thought of asking Star if he could go along, but after a few moments' vacillation, decided to wait with the others at the wagon.
After Alecstar had departed, Tom turned to Cameron and said, "Speaking of those internal enchantment engines-"
"Which, of course, we were speaking of a few days ago."
Tom gave him a quizzical look, as if he didn't see the point of Cameron's qualification, then simply shook his head and continued. "Of course. Anyway, speaking of them, what I want to know is, just how innovative are they, really? I mean to say, how exactly are they different from whatever sort of enchantment allows things to fly? Well first let me say, the differences I see are these: That what we got now can fly, but can't travel unaided on land; and the new thingamajigs can take land routes, but can't fly. What I really don't understand is, how can something that can move forward at great speeds in the air not move forward at all on land?"
"Well, to answer your first question- what I think was your first question- the main innovation is that the magic doesn't have to be recharged, as with current vehicles."
"Like gas," suggested Ginger.
"What have lights and stoves to do with transportation?" asked Tom.
"It's something Zephrey once told me about, vehicles on some planets use a kind of liquid gas-"
"Isn't that an oxymoron?" asked Darius.
"I'm afraid he never really got me to understand that myself, other than to say it was actually short for 'gasoline,' which was made of gases and other things, besides which it all depends on what temperature a substance is at, anyway. I'm afraid I haven't much of a head for alien sciences. He always consoled me about such things by reminding me how much faster everyone on the Land advanced than on other worlds. Here it is nine hundred twelve years into our world's existence, and where do you suppose Earth was in their 912th year? We've advanced thousands of years faster than they did, he says. It's just that they had a great head start on us.
"Anyway, I digress. They used gas to power their vehicles, all sorts that go over land, through air, and on water. Not for a long time now, on Earth, but some still do on other worlds. And they had to refill their gas tanks quite often. Much more often than magic must be recharged."
"You know," said Cameron, "magic is of course basically based on science, just much more advanced science than most planets have. And yet in time it will surely be replaced by lower sciences. So we'll probably use something like this gasoline to power vehicles ourselves, someday. Well, long after we here are all gone, though. And then in the distant future, science will even go beyond today's magic."
"Haven't we had a conversation like this before?" asked Tom. "Anyway, so how is it we won't have to go in to garages to have Sorreters recharge our magic? I don't understand what could be so different..."
"Well," said Cameron, "I don't fully understand it either. I'm sure it wouldn't take much studying to understand the fundamentals of it, though. All I've heard is that somehow, they've designed a sort of self-repeating, or looping spell. The magic doesn't drive the engine directly, as is the current method. Or I shouldn't even say engine perhaps, because that's not what we have now. What we have now is... well, probably not really explainable in layman's terms. Or at least it would take a while. But the new design does have a sort of engine, in fact come to think of it, probably very much akin to one that would be fueled by gasoline, except that we haven't the means to make gasoline yet, most likely. Based on introductory science courses I had to take at SMA, I would assume gas would be burned and converted into actual gas, as in a state of matter, which might...."
Cameron trailed off into silence for a few moments, before saying, "Um, forgive me. I've kind of lost.. where I was going with that. You ever get a picture in your head for just a moment, and then lose it, irretrievably?" They all nodded. "Anyway, maybe I'll get a chance to look at plans for one of the new engines someday. I expect this is rather a fusion of magic and science, that will work better than either one would alone. What I've heard is that the magic somehow drives the new engine, which actually provides the work that moves the wagon or carriage. Meanwhile, the magic doesn't dissipate because it hasn't done any real work itself. It merely cycles through the engine and back into the enchantment engine, and then repeats the process as long as the engine is engaged. I'm sorry, I'm speaking of two separate engines here. The enchantment engine is actually quite different from... the engine that does the real work...."
He shook his head, and continued, "Now, to get into your other questions, Tom, magic is still an expensive thing. You know that it takes a Sorreter a certain amount of mental and physical energy to produce and direct magic; or rather, well... the common usage of the term 'magic' is a bit inaccurate. It's tricky to explain the proper technical definition, really. The word's actually an abstract concept, more than anything tangible. Um... and before I go any further, I need to explain that most of the terminology used by Sorreters consists of words borrowed from Earth, when spirits were instructing the first generation of magic-users, centuries ago. The thing is, as you probably know, there are lots of different cultures on Earth, and lots of different languages which have different words which express the same basic concepts. And most if not all Earth cultures have long since abandoned their belief in... well, all sorts of supernatural things like magic and religion, in favor of science as the one true explanation of everything in the Universe. But of course, even if the people of Earth no longer believe in such things, the ideas remain popular in stories and games. And such entertainments use terminology which originated out of various supernatural theories which were developed to explain things. Actually, these theories may not have been considered supernatural at the time, but actually scientific, even if they were later refuted by more advanced science. The funny thing is, and yes, I've said this before, while the current scientific understanding on Earth, which replaced the earlier beliefs, is in its own way correct, someday even more advanced science will find a way to prove the old theories were right, after a fashion, and so science will come full circle. Of course, the use of magic on the Land jumps ahead... but never mind. I'm getting redundant, again.
"The point I intended to make is that to explain the underlying principles of magic to us, spirits selected various words that were used on Earth by different cultures long ago, which today are considered fantastic. And while various words might mean essentially the same things in different languages or belief systems, spirits chose to use them in slightly different ways on the Land. The words in a Sorreter's lexicon may not mean precisely what those words mean on Earth, but close enough. One word might mean exactly what it meant on Earth, whereas another word which means the same thing on Earth as the first word, on the Land might mean something slightly different. I think it was all rather arbitrary, in the beginning; spirits could just do all this stuff naturally, and had no reason to give names to these things, for themselves, since none of it works for mortal beings in quite the same way it does for spirits. So they pretty much just mixed and matched words from various Terran languages to use for their own purposes, in explaining it to the first Sorreters.
"Anyway. We all have within us various energies, as I said. I called them 'physical' and 'mental' energies, but that's oversimplifying. There are actually several different types of energies, collectively referred to as 'chakra.' It would be too complicated to go into in detail about all the different kinds of chakra, and not really necessary. Suffice to say, Sorreters learn to direct and mix their chakra in specific ways to create desired 'energy compounds,' of which there are a great deal more types than the original energies. Kind of like mixing three primary colors in different ways to produce an entire spectrum of different colors. Anyway, while the chakra in its original forms perform natural functions autonomically, there's not much it could do that we'd think of as 'magic,' per se. However, the energy compounds, collectively referred to as 'mana,' are the source of our magic; or rather, our ability to cast spells. The word 'magic' is what Sorreters use to refer to the results of those spells, even if non-Sorreters think of the word as referring to the casting of spells, and would probably also use it for the energy source that powers those spells in the first place. Anyway, using up our mana to cast spells drains us of the chakra of which it's made up, the same as any normal physical or mental work would. And of course, just as with normal exertions, our energies may be replenished with food and rest. And just as with normal labors, it's reasonable to expect suitable compensation for magical work. Hence, as I said to begin with, magic is expensive."
"Okay," said Tom. "But it still sounds like magic is... well, magic. I don't quite get what you mean when you say it's just an abstract concept. Isn't magic the same as the spells you cast? I mean, I understand the distinction between cause and effect, but even so, we're talking about something where both the cause and the effect, and yes, even the energy source, are all beyond the means of non-Sorreters. It's not natural. So I don't get why normal magic dissipates and that in these new engines doesn't."
"Right, well... just now I've only been describing one kind of magic. The energies within us- all of us, not just Sorreters- are quite natural, and scientific, though not really observable or measurable or manipulable by means of the Land's current level of technology. So the way Sorreters work with it... well it's largely done through force of sentient will, but that's hard to explain and takes a lot of training to be able to manage. And not everyone who studies magic turns out to have a great aptitude for it. But we also perform other types of magic which require certain scientific instruments or elements or any number of things... and it's not all about energy. Some of it is physical, such as the DNA manipulation that was used to create various mythical creatures as well as intelligent races such as Elves and Merfolk, all originating from human stock. To be honest, in the past few centhours I've already said more than we're supposed to say to non-Sorreters, though I suppose it's common knowledge that most if not all Sorreters are technically spirit-talkers, and basically none of what we do would be possible without at some point having received assistance from spirits. In any event, I fear I can't go into too much specific detail not only because it would be too complicated, but also because of binding restrictions against the divulgence of certain matters. We're literally incapable of saying some things to outsiders; if we tried, our vocal chords (or hands if we're writing it), or whatever, would just seize up. And magical authorities would be alerted and dispatched to our location to deal with such transgressions."
"Wait, do you mean to say that you're being constantly monitored?"
Cameron waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, no, of course not. There are rules against that sort of thing, as well. But it's like with Surreal, for example. If anyone attempted to play a real game of it, the magical authorities would be alerted and immediately deal with the offenders, because it could be catastrophic. But the alert would come from a sort of autoscry. Just like with the use of off-world technology. A spell, or rather network of spells, cast over the populated area of the world, which only activates itself for the authorities if it detects a specific thing it's listening for. And no one can hack into this autoscry, by any kind of magic. So in a sense we're being monitored, but by a mindless, inanimate object. You might as well worry that you're being watched by a rock."
"If you say so," Tom dubiously allowed.
"In any event, I digress from the point at hand. Some kinds of spells or magics require actually little if any of our personal mana, but such things are fairly rare and extremely complicated, pretty much exclusively the province of master-adepts, and usually not something that can even be done by individuals, but rather by groups working on major projects. Though our friend Emma, here, is an obvious example that there are exceptions to every rule, as Roderick proved a century and a half ago." At this, Emma just grinned. "Anyway, most magic which is performed on a day-to-day basis by your average Sorreter- or sorcerer- does involve the expenditure of personal mana. You might say that the word 'spell' means 'mana that has left the body,' or that has fulfilled or is in the continuous process of fulfilling its purpose; or in a slightly more accurate yet abstract sense, 'spell' refers to the direction a Sorreter gives their mana. Except... it's more complicated than that, sometimes.
"Ahem. I don't mean to lecture, I'm sure you're all very bored and/or confused. After all, I'm just an adept, not a master-adept. And obviously the term 'master' doesn't just connote a greater aptitude for the practice of magic, but also, more specifically, denotes having attained the level of a teacher of magic. And I'm clearly not a teacher."
"I dunno," said Darius, "I mean I don't think I'm ready for a pop quiz, or anything, but I think you're doing alright. At least I think my layman's sense of magic is improving."
"Uh... what the heck is a 'pop quiz'?" asked Tom.
"Oh, sorry. It's a technique they use in schools, a spur-of-the-moment sort of test for students, to see if they've absorbed the material they're being taught without warning, or time to prepare."
Tom shook his head. "Schools. Feh. Another innovation of the Order. I prefer the old days of one master teaching one apprentice one trade."
"One at a time, anyway, in your case," suggested Ginger with a wry smile. "In a way, I think people like you, jacks-of-all-trades, are like the prototypes for schools. Many masters, many subjects... just without the convenience and efficiency of teaching it all in one place in just a few years. Must be easier than travelling the world to learn so many subjects over the course of a lifetime."
Tom didn't bother replying to this. Instead, he looked back to Cameron and asked, "So, how is it sometimes more complicated?"
"Hmmm? Oh, well... it's sort of about whether the spell has a direct effect, or if it affects an object which then... becomes sort of magical, itself. And different spells take different amounts of energy, some hardly any at all, and some a great deal. And then there are the indirect spells which can be used by non-Sorreters. These can be things like t-mail bubbles, recording devices, or flying spells. For the latter, an object must be thoroughly infused with magic, or rather externalized mana, enough to lift it and any passengers and cargo. A flying carpet takes about as much mana as a translocation, for a month of continued usage. Of course, most anything one flies will have mana enough in it for several months, or up to a year. And the bigger the object, the more mana it requires. A full sized wagon, which may be required to carry a great deal of weight, takes more mana than I know how to describe, and can generally only be trusted for about two months before it should be recharged. Needless to say, that kind of mana isn't going to be produced by a single Sorreter in a single sitting, but rather it has to be built up by a team of Sorreters over time.
"Now, I suppose they could use flying spells in conjunction with the new engines, but... that much mana... the mana to make it fly plus the enchantment to move it forward... would be prohibitively expensive, and also, there's only so much mana an object can bear at one time. Too much could damage its structural integrity. Even traditional flying spells have to be precisely calculated by teams of trained engineers and Sorreters, in conjunction. Besides which, different types of spells sometimes interfere with each other. So it probably wouldn't be very safe flying in a wagon with an enchantment engine. There may well be other reasons they aren't made to fly; as I say, I haven't read too much about them, and I'm mostly making educated guesses here."
"Fine, whatever. But I still don't see why what we have now can't move on land. Surely if it can move forward in the air, it can do so on the ground, and use less magic in doing so. I mean, it sounds as if traditional flying devices would need two separate spells, anyway; one for levitation and one for forward movement..."
"You're quite right; there are two spells used to make a vehicle fly. As I've already said, the spells have to be carefully coordinated. It's a delicate balance, so trying to use just one spell at a time would throw the balance out of whack; that's why a flying vehicle can only use magic for air travel, not for land travel. Now, internal enchantment is a different type of spell altogether, and from what I understand, they haven't yet figured out a way to strike a safe balance between that, and a traditional levitation spell. And while, in its own way, it's potentially more powerful and efficient than a traditional locomotion spell, it's still not nearly powerful enough to generate lift on its own. It isn't even entirely a matter of magic, but rather of simple physics."
"I really don't think that makes sense."
"Hey, this has been real fun and educational," said Darius, "but I think I'm going to stretch my legs." What he was mainly thinking was he didn't want to sit around listening to Tom in one of his argumentative moods, but in truth, he did feel a little cramped in the wagon.
"Tiejo too!" exclaimed the street rat.
And so the two of them climbed out the back, picked a random direction, and started walking.
Just as the Merry Faerie was docking in Jump Village, Carver Woodrat was ordering breakfast in the dining room of an inn simply known as "The Lodge," on the outskirts of Plist. It was a place frequented by hunters, trappers, and woodcutters, as well as the occasional guests who liked to pretend to be the sort of people who lived such a lifestyle. Quite frankly, Carver considered even most folks who made a living from the woods to be a bit more civilized than he was generally comfortable with. Or at least, anyone who had need of such a temporary lodging as this was not really his type; he figured serious outdoorsmen of any sort would have their own residences in the woods, and not need to be spending time in inns. Then again, even those who did have their own cabins in the woods were a bit more civilized than Carver Woodrat. Or at any rate, that was what he preferred anyone who knew of him to believe. True, his own home was more out of the way than... well, probably than the homes of anyone else on the Land. But no one had ever seen his home, inside or out, so they couldn't possibly know how he lived, away from prying eyes. For all anyone knew, the interior of his well-hidden home, deep in First River Forest, could be as refined as the king's palace. Not that Carver himself had any real knowledge of what the king's palace was like; still, he liked to think that his living space was of a higher class than his reputation would suggest. Yes, he tried very hard to ensure that people saw him as being of a lower class; though again, to be honest, it's not like his personal tastes weren't to some extent in keeping with the assumed persona he presented to the world. Well-rounded, that's how he liked to think of himself, with tastes both high and low, even if he preferred strangers and casual acquaintances to see only the low.
Immediately after ordering, he got up from his table and went to a public t-mail booth. He put a bit coin in the slot, and when a bubble rolled out of the dispenser, he activated it, saying, "Carver Woodrat for the office of Don Chieftain. Audio only." Of course, not just anyone could place a call to a known gangster and expect it to go through. The caller had to be known to the person he or she was calling, and their voice had to be on record with the recipient's voice recognition bubble recording system, and the voice had to match the name given by the caller. Carver's voice was one of those on file in Don Chieftain's system, despite his being well known (by those who didn't know him well) for never using t-mail. This belief, of course, was not strictly accurate. If he didn't use t-mail to call ahead, he'd just have to show up unannounced, at any place he might have business. He'd had no choice but to do this before the Coming, and back then it had not exactly been considered ill-mannered; after all, what choice had one? But since transcommunication mail had become so damned commonplace, it had become almost entirely unacceptable not to make an appointment in advance. Luckily, there were such public booths as this, which meant he didn't have to bother carrying his own t-mail bubbles, thus allowing him to maintain a reputation for hating t-mail. Truth told, he actually appreciated the fact that the advent of t-mail had provided one more means of perpetuating his anti-social appearance.
The answer came after a few moments, "Don Chieftain's office. May I ask the nature of your business?"
"Got a message fer Mr. Chieftain, from Xander Breakhead of Tonad. Matter of some urgency, is what I was told, though personally I ain't in no hurry. I can stop by whenever's best fer yer boss. An' before ya even ask, no, I can't just pass th' message on ta you. I am required by th' terms o' my contract ta deliver th' message in person."
"Please hold," said the secretary.
"Sure," said Carver; but he realized he'd already been put on hold before he even finished saying the word.
Almost a centhour later (quicker than he would've expected), the secretary returned to the line and said, "The don will have time for you at precisely Second Three and Fifteen. Your window will last until Second Three and Thirty. Don't be late." And before he could say anything in reply, the connection closed, and the bubble he'd been using vanished.
Damn gangster secretaries are getting ruder all the time, he thought to himself. With a sigh, he got up and returned to his table, to await his food. He hoped it'd get there in time for him to eat- he wouldn't dream of rushing, regardless of how long it took to arrive- and still walk to the office of the don, before the 'window' closed. But if not... well, he'd already been paid. As he'd indicated to the secretary, he had no great concern for whether he delivered the message today, tomorrow, or whenever.
Luckily, the service was prompt, and he had ample time to savor his meal and then stroll at an almost casual pace toward his appointment. As he walked, he mused that the secretary hadn't even asked if he needed directions; but then, he supposed she wouldn't have been so foolish as to just tell anyone who called how to find her employer's base of criminal operations. Besides which, she must know that if his call reached her in the first place, he must have been there before. Maybe he'd even met her on one of his rare visits, though he hadn't recognized her voice; not that he was much good at remembering voices he didn't know well. And unlike some people, he never utilized t-mail's visual capabilities, so voices were all he had to go on, when dealing with representatives of people (whose names he'd have no reason to know), rather than with the people themselves (whose names he generally did). He hoped that if he had met the secretary, he'd at least remember her face when he saw it.
Checking his pocket watch as he arrived outside the headquarters of the Plist branch of LandOrder, he saw that it was Second Three and Seventeen. "Two centhours late," he said to himself. "Well, no matter. It won't take a full fifteen centhours to deliver the message." He opened the door and strode up to the front desk. The receptionist (actually an enforcer) looked up, and Carver said "Carver Woodrat. I'm expected."
"Yes, go right ahead, Mr. Woodrat." With that, the receptionist went back to reading a book, though Carver was sure that if he made any sudden, unexpected moves, the man would not be slow to react.
Carver glanced at the tall floor clock standing against the wall to the left of the desk, which said Second Three and Fifteen. That's right, he suddenly recalled. My watch always did run a couple centhours faster than the clocks in this place. Well, so much the better. He started walking down the hallway that extended past the desk on the right side, passing several closed doors on either side of the hall as he went. He reached the far end of the hall in less than a centhour, and gave a quick rap on the final door before opening it.
The don's secretary looked up and said, "Ah, Mr. Woodrat." She looked as if she'd been about to say something more, but instead fell silent, and simply looked at him, apparently waiting for him to speak.
She looked vaguely familiar to him, so he supposed he must've seen her before on at least one of the occasions he'd had business here, though he couldn't really remember. It had been awhile, and he rarely paid much heed to such people. He supposed she could have picked up on that, and taken offense at it, which would explain her rudeness. He wondered idly if she acted this way towards anyone who showed such little interest in her, or just the people she considered beneath her. He knew he couldn't blame her for thinking a 'rat to be beneath her, and of course he was more or less a 'rat, both by his name and by the reputation he worked so diligently to cultivate. So... he suddenly found himself disposed to forgive her. Taking off his hat, he bowed his head for just a moment before smiling in what he hoped would seem a cordial manner, and said (in what he hoped would seem a sincere tone), "Sorry if I'm late."
"A centhour, perhaps. Hardly the least punctual visitor the don has ever received," she admitted. "Well, go on in. And you needn't knock on his door."
"Much obliged," said the messenger, as he put his hat back on.
He opened the door, nodded to Chieftain, and closed the door behind him. "Hi. May I sit?"
"Please do," said the don, with a wave of his hand. "I must say, I've been eager to see you, though I'm afraid I've already a fair idea about what you're going to say."
As he seated himself on a chair facing the don's desk, Carver replied simply, "Oh?"
"Yes. Actually, yesterday morning, my chief spy was contacted by one of don Breakhead's spies, concerning the matter about which you were sent here."
"That so? It was just two nights ago... no, sorry, I should say three nights ago, I meant it was just two days... Anyway, I was approached by this cute little Tonadian spy, who conveyed to me a message from don Breakhead, which she said I was to deliver to you personally. She said it was urgent, but that they couldn't use t-mail to contact you. In fact, that was part of the message: the fact that they were afraid their transcommunication may have been compromised by InterGang, somehow."
"Yes, I think it was likely the same spy who talked with my spy, yesterday. She told him about the concerns with t-mail, but that their chief Sorreter had done a thorough check of their communications, and he was convinced there was nothing to worry about on that account. However, she also said that, unless I felt the need to contact her don immediately, he was content to wait for you to arrive with your message. She didn't say what it was, but it was easy enough to guess. Obviously the t-mail issue was one part of it, but I believe the other part won't surprise me, either. Still... well, let's hear it."
"Right. Aside from the t-mail thing, there was also... well, as I understand it, the very reason they were worried about t-mail was because InterGang had known of your interest in certain persons, and had taken an interest themselves. Even assuming their knowledge was not an indication that your communications had been listened in on, it was still troubling that your rivals were suddenly involving themselves with these people. I gather the people in question weren't of any serious interest to you; that is, to LandOrder. To you, personally, perhaps, but not to your organization. And so, assuming there was cause for concern about t-mail, you could send a message back with me, for Breakhead, about what to do next. Though since that seems not to be the case, what Breakhead would like is for you, or preferably you and your capo... or even just your capo. One, the other, or both. Whatever, the point is, someone should get in touch with Breakhead, and let him know what to do. As of now, his own chief spy is traveling with the group in question, and awaiting Breakhead's orders. But until he hears anything official, there's nothing he can tell his man. And I do believe- this wasn't specifically said to me, but it's a feeling I got from the way the girl who gave me the message was acting- that Breakhead would prefer to get his spy back to Tonad as soon as possible. Failing that, at the very least he wants to know what to tell the man. Again, as soon as possible."
Chieftain nodded. "Yes, that's all pretty much as I imagined. Though if he's so eager to get his spy back, I would think he would've contacted me or the capo as soon as he was sure t-mail was safe."
"Well, as to that... my guess is that he thought his spy could do with a bit of a vacation. Lotta people who live in Tonad appreciate a chance to get away for awhile. Even if it's just a couple of days."
"Could be. Though I'd expect him to know the mindset of spies better than that. Every spy I know is most comfortable in familiar surroundings. Easier to keep an eye on things, if you already know where to look. In any event, I thank you for your service. I'm afraid I don't have any more business for you at the moment, since the t-mail is apparently as secure as ever."
"No worries. I don't know about spies, but I can always do with some down time, myself."
"Heh. Oh, would that I could find the time to take a few days off. Don't get me wrong, I love my job, but it can be mighty stressful."
With that, Chieftain rose, and Woodrat followed suit. They walked to the door together, and after exiting the don's office, Chieftain said, "Always a pleasure, Carver. Hope to see you again soon."
Chieftain offered a hand, which Woodrat shook, saying, "Likewise, I'm sure, Don. Welp, I reckon I gotta be headin' out, now. Have yerself a good 'un." Turning to the secretary, he tipped his hat and said, "You take 'er easy, darlin'."
The secretary didn't respond, but rather just looked away. Chieftain rolled his eyes and tried his best to suppress a grin. He knew full well that he was one of the few people for whom Carver Woodrat dropped his affected accent and manner of speaking, which was designed to make people think him low class. Certainly his true style of speech- assuming the one he used around people like Chieftain wasn't just a different affectation- wasn't exactly high class, but the don always found it amusing to hear the man talk this way around others. Actually, he mostly found it ridiculous. Especially considering how many wealthy and well educated ranchers and such spoke just the same way. But the funniest thing, to Chieftain's way of thinking, was that people like his secretary could hear a man like Carver talk that way and have it reinforce their low opinion of him, and still hear certain members of the upper class talk that way, and be charmed by it. No doubt his secretary would be thrilled to marry a rich rancher and know full well he was worthy of respect- not just because of his money, either, but because of his mind and his taste- and continue to disdain a person like Carver. Not once would it occur to her, possibly even if you pointed it out, that there was any commonality in the way the two types spoke. He was fairly sure Carver was aware of that very mindset, and found it every bit as ironically amusing as he did.
As Woodrat exited the outer office, Chieftain forced the grin off his face, turned to his secretary and said, "Please hold any calls until further notice. I'll be in a t-mail conference. If I'm not done by the time any of my appointments show up, convey my apologies, and let them know I'll be with them as soon as possible."
"Thank you kindly."
The don returned to his office, closed the door, and sighed. Let's see, he said to himself. I suppose I should start by calling the capo. I do hope he'll let me join in the conversation with Xander. After all, none of this would be happening if not for my silly hobby of following the careers of adventurers. I probably shouldn't use company personnel for such things, especially from other branches. But dammit, how was I to know that fool Seth Manager would cause such trouble...?
Darius walked very casually, hands clasped behind his back, and admired the scenery. "Jump Isle really is quite beautiful, don't you think, Tiejo?"
Following a pace behind and to the right, Tiejo was constantly swinging his head from side to side, back to front, up and down. "Yes, beautiful. Nice trees, nice grass, nice flowers, pretty creeping and flying creatures all about."
"Why, Tiejo, that sounded remarkably cogent, my dear boy!"
He shrugged and said, "No consistencies there are being in my speech, methinks. Even irregularities are inconsistent. Words leave Tiejo's mouth as they come into my head. Not knowing am I why they come in the order they do. First person, third person; good grammar, silly willy nilly grammarings; coherence and sensibility or what with the attention deficit; is all being the same to Tiejo. Perhaps the madness it is. Crazy Streetrat, remember?"
Darius smiled. "Yes, I re-"
"Look! Pretty grove of trees!" shouted Tiejo, and he dashed off towards them. Darius chuckled and ran after him.
Though the street rat was faster than him, it didn't take long to catch up, for once Tiejo got to the little wooded park, he slowed down to look at everything closely as he passed. Darius took a look back behind before entering the wood. They were still outside the village proper, but aside from this grove, as they walked civilization had been more and more encroaching, or they had been encroaching upon it. If he had never been here before, he might have assumed this natural park was the last vestige of wilderness before one truly entered town. Of course, having been in Jump Village on several occasions, he knew they took great pride in integrating nature with urbanism. It would in fact be difficult to find any area of the village which was entirely devoid of at least a few trees or flowers.
He'd never actually been into this grove, but he'd passed by it before, and knew it wasn't too large. Walking past it took perhaps ten centhours at a good pace; taking a casual stroll through it shouldn't take much more than twenty, if that. And he didn't really expect to go that far now; they'd have to be getting back to the wagon soon.
He caught up with Tiejo and joined in the nature-watching. The trees were mostly a mix of cypress and palm, and a few others Darius recognized but didn't know the names of. There were also the occasional century plants, still far from full grown (88 years to go, thought Darius), as well as countless types of flowers, in just about every color.
Tiejo was watching a squirrelbat scurry up a tree, and Darius could tell he wanted to follow it with more than just his eyes. Darius started to smile, but suddenly felt a flush of depression coming over him. He backed up, and turned to choose a tree to slump against, as he felt his mood draining the strength from him.
But just as he turned, two people jumped from behind a thicket of trees, swords drawn. One was a rather large, dark haired and deeply tanned man, perhaps a few years older than Darius; the other was a shortish, red haired woman probably a year or two Darius's junior.
"Have at you!" shouted the man, with a somewhat goofy grin that belied his obviously intimidating size and strength.
"Your money or your life, villain!" echoed the woman.
"I haven't much money on me at the moment," Darius said, "which is just as well, because just now, my life isn't worth that much to me. And my friend has even less than I do."
"What friend?" asked the man.
"He's right.." said Darius, turning to point Tiejo out; but he didn't see him. "Um..." He glanced about, and then up; Tiejo was halfway up the squirrel-bat's tree. "There," said Darius, pointing.
"What is he, nuts?" asked the woman.
"Yes, actually. But quite charming. His name's Tiejo Streetrat, and I'm Darius Lonewander. And you are?"
Turning back to face Darius, she said, "Hey, don't you know when you're being waylaid? Maybe you're nuts, too. You don't seem to know how to react properly to people waving swords at you and threatening your life."
"Well, you know, normally I'd disarm you and demand you explain yourselves to my satisfaction, lest I turn you over to the authorities. But by coincidence, just before you jumped out at me, I entered a little bout of depression. They come over me sometimes, I'm afraid. And when they do, taking my life strikes me more as an offer than a threat. And I thank you kindly. But anyway, if you're gonna take my life, do it." He took off his money pouch and lightly tossed it to her. "You can have this, too. But please, leave Tiejo alone. He never did anyone any harm. ...And if you're not going to take my life, the least you could do is introduce yourselves, as I have."
"Fine," she said with a sigh. Then she brightened and declared, "I am Maid Marian, and this is Little John. We are merry persons who rob from the evil and the annoying and the overly lucky, to give to those poor, good souls who have precious little luck of their own."
"That'd be us, mainly," said John, with a grin. Darius noticed that while John's voice was deep, it was also quite warm and friendly. Thinking back, he realized it had been just as friendly when the man had been threatening him, just a couple centhours ago.
"You see," continued Marian, "the world is terribly unjust, unfair. So many good people can try their hardest, be totally honest and hard-working, basically do all they can to fit in and work within the system. And then the system just goes and screws them. They may be left with no choice but to become outlaws or die. Well, it's not like we ever wanted to be outlaws, but hell... society gave us each a choice, and we made it. As much as I might dislike being a criminal, I'd dislike dying even more. And I'm pissed at any system that demands such a choice of us. Right, John?"
"Right you are, Marian. Well spoken." Turning to Darius, he said, "...Would you believe I used to be a policeman? Oh, I managed to support myself in a limited capacity, and there was some fun to be had in it, not to mention the pride I took. But when in the course of duty I was injured nearly to the point of death and it took all my savings to pay the doctor, and I was laid up for over a month, the department fired me for missing a month of work! Can you believe it? My landlord took pity on me and let me stay without paying rent until I healed, but after that I was tossed out on the street, with no money, no job, nowhere to go and nothing to do!"
"That sucks, man."
Marian sighed in exasperation and said, "He doesn't need our life stories, John."
"No, really, please," said Darius. "This is taking my mind off my depression. I still could use an ale or two; why don't you guys come into town with me and my friends, have a drink together. Maybe some fish and chips or something; I know a nice little pub..."
"Did you say 'friends,' plural?" asked Marian. "You mean, more than just the street rat?"
"Yes, they're back at the wagon. We really should be getting back to them. Alecstar must have the striders by now."
John sheathed his sword and turned to his partner. "Yeah, come on, Marian, I'm hungry. I need to eat."
Tiejo jumped down from the tree, landing beside Darius. "Tiejo can be Will Scarlet, hmmm? Yes? I call Scarlet! ...Or maybe Much. Hmmm."
Marian sighed again, and rolled her eyes. Looking back to Darius, she asked, "You're not particularly lucky, are you?"
"Well, I've never thought much about it. I've had my share of good luck and bad. Some of both has been earned, and some of both not. I don't know that I necessarily deserve to have had anything published, for example; but then, it doesn't sell that well, anyway. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I didn't deserve to have nearly my whole clan killed when I was fourteen."
"Oh... I'm sorry..." she said in a sympathetic tone. Quickly, though, she recovered her stern and businesslike demeanour. "Well, are you rich?"
"I was born that way, but I'm not now. I have more than enough in the bank, and tidy stashes in various places. But I certainly wouldn't say rich, no. And by the way, I wholeheartedly agree with what you were saying, earlier. My clan were good people who raised me to think of everyone as equals, but some were just less fortunate. We should do whatever we can to help such people, they always said. And since I've been out travelling the world, I've seen lots of pointless suffering and poverty, lots of injustice. I have good, hard-working, intelligent and talented friends who are abysmally unlucky. Tiejo isn't the only Streetrat I know. And it totally outrages me, frustrates, and saddens me to see it. I don't consider you outlaws, in any sense but technically. And I agree not all laws should be strictly followed if it is not possible, no matter how hard you try, to follow them and live. What's more, I know there are people who are unjustly driven to acts of desperation, who then abandon all their principles. It's nice to see people who won't steal indiscriminately, people who at least try to take only from those who can afford it, who have more than they deserve. It does seem that that is what you do."
"And what exactly do you do, besides get depressed, write, take crazy street rats into the woods, and deliver long, meandering rambles? Or is that about it?"
"I adventure, as do those waiting friends I spoke of. Also, I'm planning a rebellion called 'the Chaos,' which is just getting slowly organized. Maybe we'll make the world a slightly better place. I hope so."
"So do I. Well, besides banditry, we also do some adventuring."
"And I try to do a little stage work for plays, when I get a chance," said Little John. "You know, building sets and whatnot."
"That sounds fascinating. You know, some of my friends are musicians, and they occasionally provide music for plays, so I hear. I've only known them a very short while, though. Mostly they play inns and taverns, I think."
"Well, we look forward to meeting them," said Marian. "I could stand to eat, myself." She finally sheathed her sword, and then she returned Darius's bag. "I suppose we might as well get going, then."
They turned, and the four of them began walking back the way Darius and Tiejo had come. "Good," said Darius. "By the way, I call Robin Hood."
Unseen by Darius and Tiejo, who the bandits were following, John grinned and nudged Marian. She just sighed and rolled her eyes.
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