Chapter 16
30 Sp'gin (We'yetday)

1

After leaving don Holdup's office, they drove back into town. They stopped in the plaza where they'd picked up Ian Goner, and let him off. "You let me know if you want any more of that stuff," the dealer said to Darius.

"We'll see," said Darius, and Goner headed off on whatever business he might have.

They then checked into the Green Otter Inn, bringing a few things to their rooms; though most of their belongings remained in the wagon, for now. Darius gave everyone directions to the Meandering Gander, where they would meet up later, for supper. He said he expected to get there around Third Four. With that established, everyone headed off to spend the day more or less aimlessly wandering around the village, alone or in small groups.

By early evening, the various members of the party all began to drift towards the pub. Darius was actually the first to arrive, earlier than he'd expected, and sat for a time alone, thinking and nursing a beer. Within an hour- by Third Three and Fifty- all the others had arrived.

Tino and Ginger were the last two to stroll in and seat themselves; not having seen each other for about a week, they'd been spending some time alone together this afternoon. As a waitress passed by, Alecstar indicated that the last of their party had arrived, and they'd all be ready to order soon. She nodded and went on to her other tables.

"So," said Jasp, "what's on the agenda tonight? Anything you'd like to discuss with us, Darius?"

Darius had barely noticed whenever any of his friends had come in, and it took him a moment now to shake off his quiet thoughts and look up from his glass. "Um, yes," he said, glancing at Jasp, then fixing his eyes again on his glass. "But perhaps serious talk can wait for later, when we get back to the inn. More privacy, you know."

They all agreed, and before long the waitress returned to take their orders. After she left, Darius said, "You know, I so often can spend way too long trying to figure out what I want to eat. It's life's little decisions that are usually the hardest for me to make. Just want to warn you all, if you're ever out eating with me, I think I'll often annoy you quite a bit with my indecisiveness. At least tonight, I knew I wanted fish and chips. Been wanting that all day, so you're lucky, this time."

As they waited for their food, Emma said, "Well, if we're not talking business right now, maybe we could all discuss anything interesting that may have happened to us today."

"Ooh, Tiejo fun today did have with Emma!" exclaimed the street rat. "Watched we did Tooblan in the Park. Very fine actors did play 'Comedy of Trajus.'"

"Yes," said Emma. "It was in fact the Tooblan Company themselves. One rarely gets a chance to see them perform outside of great theaters, but they said it was just such a nice day for it. And anyway, there is a tradition, albeit usually among less famous troupes.... Anyway, it was a wonderful performance. Especially from the lead actor; Trajus has probably never been played so well, not since Tooblan himself played him three hundred years ago. He so deftly shifts from moving you to tears, to moving you to laughter, and back again; one hardly has time to actually breathe. Which works especially well in the drowning scene; you almost feel what he feels, physically as well as emotionally. Just brilliant. Ah, I do so love Tooblanean plays."

"Most people do," agreed Darius.

"On Earth," said Tino, "he would be comparable to-"

"Shakespeare," Ginger finished for him. "Ha," she said, sticking out her tongue at Tino. Turning back to the others, "My spirit friend Gallis is a great fan of drama from various worlds, and has talked about some of the greatest playwrights from different planets. He says it's remarkable some of the similarities between worlds, in terms of great literature and so forth. Tooblan and Shakespeare, he's always said, is the best example of this phenomenon. So there, Mr. Knows Everything About Earth For Some Reason." She shot a good-humored scowl at her boyfriend.

"Yup," said Tino. "That's what he says alright. Remember, Ginj, I've been there sometimes when you've talked with him."

"Um, oh yeah," she said with a lop-sided grin.

"Moving on..." said Cameron. "Star, Tom, and I caught part of a concert by a new band called the Cephalopods. Their music rather reminds me of Black Radly's, except a bit more mellow. Very good stuff; perhaps a name should be thought up for this emerging new wave of music. I think there's going to be a lot of it soon, and it's going to be very big."

"I'm sure there's already a name for it, on some other world," suggested Tino. "Hey, Ginj, now that Cameron's brought up the subject of musical genres, it occurs to me that Black Radly sounded similar to some of the alien recordings you've gotten from Sizinia."

"You're right. She called it 'rock', if I recall correctly."

"Really?" asked Cameron. "But rocks just sit there; this music is so alive, so active, so fast!"

Tom said, "Well, it sounds kind of heavy, to me. Like rocks. But yeah, fast too. Like a rockslide."

"Anyway," said Ginger, "according to Sizinia, rock can have any number of sub-genres. Actually, I think the Cephs' sound is more like what you'd call 'rock & roll,' which is a bit softer and lighter than just plain 'rock' music, which is what Black Radly play. I'm afraid I don't remember everything she's told me on the subject, but most of the samples she's given me of similar music from Earth and other worlds is actually fairly close to one or the other of those two bands. Perhaps sometime I'll have to ask her to play us some other styles, for camparison, and tell us their names. I should also find out if she's heard or would like to hear these new groups on the Land."

"I'm sure that would be interesting," said Darius. "In fact, Emma and I were talking about this very subject, a few nights ago. She suggested I ask to listen to some of your recordings then, and I'm afraid... I never felt comfortable bringing it up. I certainly would enjoy hearing them, though."

Ginger smiled. "No problem at all. What could be better than sharing any kind of art, whether books, music, plays, whatever? It's what makes life worth living, so of course I'm always happy to give friends a chance to enjoy the things I enjoy."

Darius agreed heartily about art making life worth living; it was something he'd often thought, himself. But rather than saying that, he simply nodded and said, "Thanks. ...Anyway, there was quite a crowd gathering around the Cephs today. I must've been on another side of it from you three," and he glanced briefly at Cameron, Tom, and Alecstar. "I only heard a couple of songs, though. It really was pretty good. They told the audience they were playing songs from Earth, at least the ones I caught. Did they play any of their own?"

"Yes," said Cameron. "Not quite as good as the Earth stuff, but it shows promise. I think in a few years they'll be pretty great, maybe one of the biggest acts on the planet."

"Feh," said Tom. "I didn't think they were so great. Liked 'em a little better than those kids at the Boar & Bear, but I just don't think this new genre is my kind of sound. I'm barely inclined to even call it music."

"You're just too old," said Ginger with a smile.

"If you say so," grumbled Tom. "But Star, you're closer to my age than anyone else at the table. What do you think of those bands?"

"I like both of them. Of course, I'm a musician, so I'm better able to appreciate music in different forms. Also, I've heard some of the Terran recordings Sizinia has provided Ginger, so I'm used to it."

"You know," said Darius, "while I really like the Cephs as they are, it occurs to me they'd probably be better with a majitar or two, like Jae's."

"Maybe next time we're in Plist, we should talk to Jae about that," suggested Ginger.

"Oh hell," said Tom, "that'd just make them worse. I think-"

But before he could elaborate on what he thought, their food arrived, so he dropped the subject. But while they ate, they all continued to discuss what they'd done during the day. Emma asked Darius, "So if you didn't get to the concert til near the end, what'd you do before that?"

"Oh, I stopped into the local library to check out the latest issue of a graphic novel series I try to keep up on, called Oni. Well, I didn't actually check it out, I mean I read it there...."

Marian's face lit up. "Oni is my absolute favorite! I love graphic novels in general, but the serials just require such an investment of time, so it can be hard to keep up, especially when they do crossovers with other series. I usually end up just giving up on most of the ones I start, after awhile. Though Oni is a title I always make sure to read, when I get the chance."

Emma cut in with, "I've never heard of the word 'oni' before, but my subword sense has just given me a vague sense of what it means. Sounds interesting. I should like to check out this graphic novel sometime."

"It's great," said Darius. "It's filled with characters that are mostly based on the folklore of a country on Earth called Nihon- you know the word 'country,' I trust?" Emma nodded. "Wonder if we'll ever have those here on the Land," Darius mused, before resuming his earlier thought. "Anyway, I read a special issue once that gave some background on the various supernatural creatures that have been used in the series. In fact some even exist here on the Land, I think, though most of them... don't. Of course, for the most part the characters in the graphic novel aren't actually supernatural, they're just people who wear costumes to appear like such creatures, though a few of them are real- even if they don't actually exist in reality. But anyway, the title character is a conflicted hero, very dark, and sometimes acts more like a villain, in some ways. Lots of angst, but very cool."

Marian agreed, "Yeah, Oni himself is pretty awesome, though personally my favorite characters are some of the villains. Like Tengu, for example. He's usually an enemy, though sometimes he teams up with Oni, against common enemies. Which is definitely interesting and amusing, though he's at his best when he's battling Oni."

"Totally," said Darius with an uncharacteristically enthusiastic smile. "I dig pretty much the entire rogues gallery, though of course Tengu is the best."

"Actually, I mentioned Tengu because he's the most commonly seen enemy, like, Oni's arch-nemesis. But my favorite enemy is Kitsune."

Darius nodded. "Like I said, they're all pretty cool. She's another of my favorites. Though in spite if her being an enemy of Oni's, I tend not to exactly think of her as a villain. Her nature's at least as dichotomous as Oni's own; she does things which seem both good and bad, at different times, though I feel like she always believes what she's doing is right."

"And that belief would seem to be supported by the fact that she doesn't get along well with Death's Head."

"Who's that?" asked Emma.

"Not 'who', 'what'," said Marian. "It's a powerful organization which controls most of the world's local governments. Oh, I should mention that the graphic novel is set in a sort of fictionalized version of the Land. Years are never mentioned, though most fans assume it's sometime in the second half of the sixth century. But there are lots more villages in the fictional world than there were then, or even now; though I think even the largest villages have populations equivalent to the smallest villages on the Land today. The setting may also be based somewhat on Earth, sometime in Nihon's feudal era. There are also other countries, I think. I mean, foreigners are sometimes mentioned or even seen, though it's unclear exactly where they're supposed to be from. Anyway, the villages all have their own councils, like ours do, since the Coming, but there's no world government. Death's Head is pretty much the only inter-village organization... something like LandOrder or InterGang, or more accurately, like a large company, which has dealings with various local gangs, as well as local councils, as I said. Officially it's just a business organization, but it has its own military, which is rarely seen. Mostly they get other people or groups to do their dirty work; sometimes they hire individuals like Kitsune-"

"I thought you said she didn't get along with them?"

"Oh, she doesn't. But sometimes she believes in a specific goal of theirs. She does things her way, and as long as she gets the job done, they let her. Because of this, they don't exactly treat her like an outlaw, but they do know what sort of jobs they can trust her for and which they can't."

"Sounds fascinating... yes, I have stepped up my estimation from 'interesting.'"

"What we've mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg," said Darius. "There's so much more to it all..."

"Fine," said Tom. "But maybe we've heard enough for now. Honestly, you don't have to explain every last detail. She already said she wants to read it, so from this point on, all you'd be doing is spoiling it for her."

Marian looked at Darius and asked, "Does he remind you of Enma, just a little?"

"Just a little," agreed Darius, his grin widening.

"Who's Enma?" asked Emma. "I like his name."

"He's the head of Death's Head," said Marian. "Actually, the title he uses for himself is 'shogun,' though his ultimate goal is to take over every village in the country, and declare himself emperor. And Oni wants to prevent that."

Darius added, "Anyway, I think what Marian meant before was that Enma gets easily bored by his underlings' tedious reports."

"Well," said Tom, "if the reports are actually tedious...."

Darius and Marian both laughed. Then Marian said, "Okay, okay. We'll stop with the spoilers."

The two of them let the others handle any further conversation, until everyone was finished with their meals.

When they all got back to the Green Otter, they stopped in the parking lot to gather anything they might want from the wagon. Darius was the last to climb in; he was a bit tipsy, as well as being focused on his own thoughts, so he didn't notice how tense everyone had suddenly become. "Hey," he said, "Marian and John. I just realized you never even told us your last names."

"We've been robbed," Marian snarled.

"Funny names, but not the funniest I've ever heard. Kinda suits you guys, too. Anyway. What?"

2

"This is getting to be a habit with us," Tom growled. "First InterGang steals our wagon, now this."

John said, "Oh yeah, Ginger mentioned that to Tino, earlier. I meant to ask, when exactly did that happen? And why?"

"When we were in Tonad, on... Tuesday, I think," said Darius, suddenly feeling sober. "That's actually how Jasp came to join us. It's a long story, which doesn't really make any sense."

"All the money we'd left in the wagon is gone," Jasp said. "What we've got left is whatever we have on our persons. And hopefully whatever we'd taken to our rooms, earlier."

"Aren't there lock spells on the wagon?"

"There were. In fact, all the gangs that have any Sorreters working for them at all develop their own lock spells. But we also develop lock-pick spells for our thieves to use against lock spells."

"So you think this was done by InterGang?"

"Either them or the Agency, which operates here in Jump Village; any of LandOrder's thieves would recognize this as one of our wagons, and let it alone. Though this isn't really the Agency's style."

"It couldn't be an independent thief, could it?" asked Alecstar.

"Doubt it. Most of that type don't have access to lock-pick spells. So, this job was almost certainly done by a gangster, and considering our recent history, most likely by InterGang."

"Jeez," muttered Darius. "They must really want to see us fail; our money would be of little value to them. But what the heck is it to them what we do?"

"Personal politics," said Jasp. "And general spite towards anyone associated with LandOrder."

"Ah well. Perhaps a time may come when we may deal with that lot. Meanwhile, let's check out our rooms, make sure they haven't been hit. Assuming things are still secure there, we've got planning and sleeping to do. I think we should leave tomorrow. It's a good thing we paid in advance for the night's lodging."

Cameron applied some of his own lock spells and alarms to the wagon, then they headed up to their rooms. Jasp was the only one who had a room to himself, and after the others had settled into their own rooms (which were apparently untouched by thieves), they all met in his to discuss plans for the future of the Chaos. Before they began, Cameron scried and divined for any signs of natural or magical eavesdropping, and found none.

"So" said Darius, "I've been giving this some thought, since our meeting with capo Primus earlier today. I must say, I'm going to have to do a lot of hard thinking from now on. Maybe I don't want some grand, all-encompassing Plan, like the Order had, for a stage by stage road to ultimate victory. But at the very least, I should try to figure out what I hope to eventually accomplish, and work out at least more immediate plans. And I should be prepared to do the same at each stage, as we come to it. Right now, I realize I don't know what the hell I want the world to be; I just know I don't want it to be what it is. A bit of what it was, a bit of what it is, and any number of further alterations. It'll never be perfect, and I'll always be dissatisfied. I'll always want to keep changing it."

"But this is the nature of life," said Emma.

"On every world in creation," agreed Ginger. "Or so my spirit friends would have me believe. On every world, there is some good and some bad."

"And of course," Tom put in, "there will never be complete agreement on what's good or bad. Not between different people, not even always within just one person's own estimation."

"I hear that," said Darius. "And it really sucks. No wonder so many people are reluctant to do anything to improve the status quo. It's almost impossible to create any really significant change, and when you do, it won't be much better. There will be new problems, you'll lose things you liked as well as those you disliked, and there'll be plenty of people who prefered the old ways, anyway. When you're not even sure what exactly it is you want to change to begin with, or your ideas are vague at best... what's the point?"

"What the hell is the point?" asked Tom.

"I'm afraid I'm not likely ever to have a terribly good answer for that. Perhaps the best thing, perhasp the only thing to do, is to try to fix problems as we find them."

Alecstar, generally the quietest member of the group, had been thinking about this all along, ever since he and his bandmates had decided to join the Chaos. He doubted any good could be done against the Order, but he always went along with his friends, wherever they decided to go. Then too, he hated the Order more than he ever let on. If there was a chance to become even a small thorn in its side, he was willing to try. He was glad, therefore, that Darius was finally starting at least to try to take his concept more seriously, put some actual thought into it, even if the young adventurer was still admittedly confused and uncertain of himself or anything else.

As much as Star disliked speaking up, or making any decisions for anyone else, or even for himself, he hadn't always been like that. Once, he reminded himself, he'd been rather a good strategist. He'd planned and succeeded at many things he was proud of, and many he now regretted. His greatest personal failure had changed his outlook on everything dramatically. Now, however, he felt it was time to start making a contribution once again. It would be difficult for him, but he'd try. And so, in response to Darius's last statement, he decided to speak up.

"But to fix any problems, I mean any really big problems, the kind of things that require an outright rebellion, we'll first have to extricate ourselves from our present predicament, and also try to gain some serious power. Right now we're probably all perfectly capable individuals, but as a group, we're far from poised to present a genuine threat to the Order."

Darius quickly brushed aside his momentary surprise at hearing Alecstar speak like that, and turning to him, said, "Exactly. So this is what we have to concentrate on now: gaining power. That fits in with the original idea of wandering, meeting and talking with people, gaining allies. But we should work more purposefully on that. I still hope fate will just drop help into our laps, now and then; it's certainly been throwing enough problems our way. But we're still all alive, we're still at liberty, we're still occasionally picking up allies. Or I hope I may consider all of us in this room as allies." He stopped to glance at the various assembled faces. After a few moments, he continued, "Yes, I hope fate will help us, but also we must make serious efforts to help ourselves. Now, I'm sure in the course of adventuring, even if we mainly work alone or in the same exclusive groups, we will likely occasionally have met other people of like minds. Perhaps we'll be able to contact them by one means or another, or perhaps we'll run into some of them in the future. We may try to recruit them.

"Jasp, I know your group isn't quite ready to throw their full weight behind us, and that's wise. But you'll have personal contacts who may be willing to offer unofficial assistance, or maybe even people outside LandOrder. Maybe in time we'll have enough success that your capo and some of the dons may see we're a safer bet than we first seemed."

"Maybe," Jasp said in a distinctly noncommital manner.

"Continuing. Tiejo, you're quite sure your master, if we succeed in rescuing him, will be of help to us?"

"Quite sure, Tiejo is," the street rat said with a chuckle. "Good, and very goodly help he'll being, yes. Quite. Friends of his own he may recruit, also."

"Good. Marian, John, if you join us, or even if you don't, perhaps you can put a good word in for us with acquaintances?"

Marian sighed. "I'm afraid we don't really know anyone who'd be of much use, nor who necessarily have any particular negative feelings toward the Order. But we'll let you know if we think of anything, or anyone, I guess."

"Okay. Thanks. Who's next? Cameron...?"

Cameron sighed, and then slowly, quietly, reluctantly answered. "Well... and of course, no one's to speak a word of this, even to each other, ever.... I might be able to discuss the existence of the Chaos with someone who might prove helpful to your- I mean, our- cause, though I couldn't possibly mention any names to you at this point. If that someone had any kind of response for you, I'd let you know."

"Thank you," Darius replied solemnly, though behind his serious expression, he was amused by the fact that the ex-Sorreter had told them not to repeat what he said, and then proceeded to essentially say nothing. On the other hand, he had a fair guess what Cameron might have meant, and if he was right, it would be terribly exciting, and a great honor. "I truly appreciate it. Now, Emma- do you happen to know any elves who might be willing to help? I believe you mentioned that a fair number of your people thought the elves were on the wrong side in the war."

"Well, that's true, but I don't know a lot of them personally. Maybe a few people my own age, but we were just kids when I saw them last. We still are practically kids, but the point is it's been awhile since I've seen any of them; and besides, it was only idle talk, nothing serious. The talk of kids, you know? Also, maybe I got that general impression about some of my masters, at school, that they felt that way. But I don't really know any of them. And I've no idea when I might ever be back in Woodstockade, anyway."

"I should like to visit the village, when I get a chance," said Jasp. "There may be interesting things going on there. There has been recent talk in LandOrder of hiring a sorcerer away from InterGang. It has something to do with a project which he's apparently been keeping secret from his current employers, although if our spies have heard of it, theirs must have, as well. To the best of my knowledge, however, no one knows just what the project actually is. Rumor has it that it might be something very big."

"Might it be of help to us?" asked Darius.

Jasp shrugged. "No way of telling. Which is one reason I'd like to go there, to try to find out. In fact, I should contact the chief spy in Woodstockade and see if Primus or don Des'Tambor have had a chance to talk with sorcerer Des'Caina, as yet."

"Well, keep me informed, if you don't mind. Now, does anyone else have any questions, comments, or suggestions?"

The room was silent for a centhour. Then Alecstar said, with just a hint of a grin tugging at the corner of his lips, "Perhaps we might follow Tiejo's example, as with the identity of this master of his, and let some of our ideas come as surprises."

"Follow Tiejo, follow Tiejo!" the street rat chanted, jumping up and dancing around the room. "Secret, secret, secrets. Fun, fun, fun, and we all follow the street rat!" He began jumping on the bed, until Jasp grabbed him by the arm and pulled him down.

"I have to sleep there, you know," he said. "Besides, you'll wake the other guests."

"Tiejo, I don't think I ever really gave this much thought before," said Tom. "I mean, you're not too tall, you have a very boyish face, and you certainly act like, oh, I dunno, an eight-year-old, maybe. Or younger. But- how old are you, anyway? I mean, seeing you jumping on a bed, that just looks so wrong. Not out of keeping with your character, at all, but this is the first time I ever thought... well...." he trailed off.

Tiejo shook his head, grinning and sitting on the floor, with his back against the night stand. "Not knowing my age. Not counting for yearses." He paused for a moment, putting a finger to his temple. "Hmmm... oh, but Master, he asked me once. Thinking I knew it, then, or guessed. We rescue master, you maybe may asking him if he knows it, still."

"Ah," said Tom. "An added incentive. Or something. Well, look, I haven't really got any ideas for the Chaos right now. I think most of my old masters or acquaintances are probably dead by now. If we run into anyone familiar in our travels, however, I'll be sure to have a talk with them. Now, I'm tired, and I bid you all good night." With that, he rose from his chair, and left the group to head for his own room and bed.

"Well," said Darius, "since I'm rooming with him, I guess I want to get back there before he falls asleep, so I don't wake him when I come in. If anyone has anything else to say, say it now."

Again everyone took a centhour to think, and one by one began to shake their heads.

"Well, good night to you all, then. And of course, we have plenty of time to keep thinking about things; it'll be a good while before we reach Near Port, and that's hardly the end of things- hopefully. And then, new ideas and new opportunities may arise as our journey continues, and our situation continues to develop. Again, good night."

There were a few replies of "Good night," and everyone began to leave for their own rooms.

As Darius lay in bed waiting for sleep to come (which usually took longer than he wished), his mind drifted back to the conversation at the Meandering Gander. He smiled as he again thought of Marian comparing Tom to Enma, but suddenly it occurred to him to think of King Demos as far more comparable to the character. I guess that makes me Oni, he thought with a yawn. His thoughts continued in this vein, growing more jumbled as he slowly drifted off....


chapter 17

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