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Chapter 39
9-12 Sp'mo' (Tuesday-We'yetday)

1

They only flew for a couple of hours, Tuesday evening, going less than two hundred miles before stopping for the night. Tom complained that they'd have done as well to stay in Triscot another night, and leave Ha'day morning, to get in a full day of travel. Still, he didn't complain too much, as he was anxious to break in his new tent. After about seven hours' flight on Ha'day, they reached the southernmost point of the long, unnamed stretch of woodlands that ran for about 2500 miles, through central Near Land, and Tom once again found something to complain about. Darius had decided they should fly along the western edge of the forest rather than the eastern edge, which Tom figured would amount to an extra day of travel. But Darius assured him that it shouldn't be much more than a few hours' extra travel, on the ninth and final day of their journey. And Tom had to admit, as he'd never flown before joining the Chaos, the trip would take much less time than any of his earlier travels, either way. He also couldn't argue with Darius's reason for taking the longer route: the desire to avoid running into any of the harpies that were more likely to appear along the forest's eastern edge. A few hours after they passed the forest's southern tip, they made camp for the second night of their journey.

Darius woke early Penul'day morning, and went into the woods to forage for wild potatoes; he knew there were some growing around here somewhere, having discovered them on one of his previous adventures. They were a different variety than he was used to, and he wasn't even sure if they had a specific name. It also struck him as odd that they could be harvested at any time of year, unlike the ones he used to pick on his grandfather's farm, which were always harvested in Autumn. (Which was convenient, considering it was currently Spring.) Even so, he supposed it was more a tradition that Triscan farmers harvested when they did, rather than a necessity. Probably, harvesting in Autumn would only be a necessity in the northern villages, which actually experienced real winters. On the other hand, Grandpa Putt had grown various other crops, which perhaps needed to be harvested at a specific time of year, which would have meant potatoes must be grown in whatever time wasn't being used by the other crops. Besides which, Darius knew that crop rotation was important. Though he didn't know much about farming; he'd never taken the time to learn how and why everything was done the way it was, as he'd never had any intention of becoming a farmer, himself.

He was careful not to let his musing prevent him from being consciously aware of what he saw as he walked. All too often, his thoughts would distract him from what he meant to be doing, and blind him from things that were right in front of him. In fact, he could sometimes completely forget what it was he was doing, even while specifically thinking about that very thing. That never made any sense to him at all, but since he was aware that it could happen, he'd long since learned to prevent it. Still, it required more effort than he was always willing to expend, so there were plenty of times when he just didn't bother, and hoped his attention would remain focused without any extra effort. Sometimes it did, and sometimes not. Today, however, he wasn't willing to take any chances. Because today, he was in the mood for-

"Oh, there they are!" he suddenly exclaimed. He spent a few centhours digging up enough potatoes for the meal he had planned, for the group's evening meal, then headed back to the camp site.

"There you are," said Emma, as Darius approached. She and everyone else were sitting around a small fire, which Tom had used to prepare some coffee. "Where've you been?"

"I woke up in the mood for stew, and I remembered that there were some wild potatoes around here, so I went out to see if I could find them." He held up his bag, "And I did. So now, we should see if we can find some kind of meat wandering around. I wouldn't imagine there are any cattle nearby, but there could be bears or curlycoats."

"I could definitely go for some honey bear stew," said Tom. "But we should also look for carrots. And it's a lucky thing we already have spicebulbs in our provisions."

"Not so much luck, as careful planning," said Alecstar.

"Anyway," said Emma, "it's funny that you got some potatoes, because I just dreamt last night that I was a potato."

"Really?" asked Darius.

She grinned and said, "No, not really."

Darius rolled his eyes. "You're a riot."

"So what did you dream last night, Em?" asked Cameron.

"Oh... the only thing I remember at all is that in one dream, my last name was 'Des'Chester.' Which is odd, because I don't think there's anyone by that name. Could be, I guess. I mean, there was no 'Chester' among the first fifty elves, but there was a point awhile back when elves started making up new surnames that weren't based on the first generation, as is the case with most elven surnames."

"Why'd they do that?" asked Darius.

"Meh, I guess it started getting hard to find a mate you definitely weren't related to, or at least didn't have the same last name as. Which didn't necessarily mean you were related, but it could be... confusing. Probably why humans waited so long to start having surnames; you didn't want to have to think about such things."

"Uh, ew."

"Well, that's how it works, with a world population starting out so bloody small, you know. Anyway... I think the fad of choosing new names started around 850, maybe a bit later; anyway, a generation or two after the original fad of choosing surnames started in like the early 800s. And the whole thing started a third time, after the surname law was passed, the year after elves rejoined human society. So who knows how many elven surnames there are now? I'm sure I don't know them all. Anyway, I dunno where my subconscious came up with 'Des'Chester,' but subconsciouses are weird like that."

"But... it seems like choosing new surnames would make it more likely to end up marrying a relative without even knowing it."

Emma shrugged. "Beats not marrying someone you love, just because a shared surname makes you worry you might be distantly related, even if you're not. That'd be a real tragedy, spending your life alone for potentially no reason at all, just to be on the safe side. Anyway, everyone's related if you go back far enough. All humans, elves, and even merfolk, originated with Connor and Brigid."

"But what kind of god would allow that? That's just disgusting."

"You know what? I don't think I'm going to talk to you about my dreams anymore." She turned to Cameron and asked, "So, what'd you dream about?"

"Who, me? I dreamt I was a potato," he replied with a grin.

Emma giggled at that, but her laughter was cut short by Tom, who said, "Alright, enough of this nonsense. If we're going to do some hunting, we'd best get to it. It's sure to set our schedule back a few hours, at least. There's more than just finding and killing to do, after all. I'm not sure if any of you have ever had to do your own butchering-"

He was interrupted by all the others suddenly raising their hands. Even Tiejo.

"We are adventurers, after all," said Darius. "That means we must spend a fair amount of time between villages, for days or weeks at a time. There's only so much one can take of dried foods; obviously, people like us have to learn all the aspects of obtaining and preparing whatever foods the wilds may provide."

"Fine. Then you know it takes time. So let's get going."

"You know," said Cameron, "I can count down our hunting time by simply divining for game."

"Oh. Right. Good idea."

So, Cameron asked everyone to give him silence, and closed his eyes. A few centhours later, he opened his eyes and said, "Okay, I found some black bears; sorry, Tom, no honey bears. In fact, even the bears I did find happen to be farther than we can walk, so let's get the wagon packed, and I'll pilot us closer to them. It should take a few hours."

"A few hours?" asked Darius. "That's more than two hundred miles. It's hard to believe there aren't any bears closer than that."

"Yeah. It surprised me, too. Not sure what's keeping them away from the immediate vicinity. Actually, it's more like three hundred miles... if we keep heading north. We could find some about a hundred miles south of here, but I didn't think anyone would want to backtrack."

"Damn right," said Tom.

"Although the ones to the south are honey bears."

"D'oh."

"Didn't you see anything but bears?" asked Darius. "Something that might explain why they're avoiding a four-hundred mile section of woods?"

"Divining's not like scrying. You don't actually see anything, you just sense the presence of whatever it is you're seeking. And you don't sense anything for which you're not specifically divining."

"Ah. Okay, well... let's go."

They put out the camp fire, packed their things, and took to the sky. However, it was only about half an hour before they discovered what exactly it was the bears were avoiding, when dozens of gryphons suddenly shot up out of the trees, less than a mile ahead of the wagon. Cameron swerved to avoid them, and quickly landed the wagon, at a safe distance. Everyone got out of the wagon and looked up to witness an aerial battle overhead.

After a few centhours, one gryphon left the fray and approached the wagon, being careful not to appear hostile. He landed a few yards away, and approached the group. The gryphon began squawking, and it was clear he was speaking, though of course no one understood him. Cameron quickly cast a universal translation spell, which allowed everyone to understand the gryphon, and he them.

"My name is Cameron Piper. I'm a Sorreter. I don't know if you've ever spoken with humans before-"

"I have, actually. A few times. Sorreters have sometimes passed this way, whether adventurers, military, or just employed by traders and such. So I was hoping one of you might be able to cast a UT spell. Well, my commander was hoping, when he sent me to find out your business, and let you know things could be dangerous for unwary travelers, at the moment. You should alter your course, put a bit more distance between yourselves and the forest. Our war mostly takes place within its boundaries, but skirmishes sometimes stray a ways onto open terrain... or at least, the skies above open terrain."

"I had no idea gryphons were at war. When did this start? And what's it about?"

"Oh, it's been going on a few years, now. You may know that these woods have never had an official name, but once travel began increasing between the southern villages and the northern ones, human map-makers wanted a standard name they could all put on their maps. So it was decided to call it 'Gryphon Forest,' since it's mostly we gryphons who live here. The only problem was, there was no standardized spelling of our species' name. Some spelled it G-R-Y-P-H-O-N, others G-R-I-F-F-I-N, and a small group spelled it G-R-I-F-F-O-N. So they decided to ask us how we spell it. Not that we do a lot of writing, for obvious reasons, but we do know how. And yet, we were just as divided on the issue as humans. Debates among our kind grew heated, and finally it was decided that, since humans had so recently managed to settle their own differences by having a war, we might as well follow their example. So... that's what it's about."

"That's ridiculous," said Darius. "It's obviously way cooler to spell it G-R- and before I go any further, it suddenly occurs to me that maybe I shouldn't reveal my opinion without knowing which side you're fighting on."

The gryphon emitted a series of squawks which went untranslated, but which no one had difficulty interpreting as laughter. "Don't worry about it. It's not your war, so a human's opinion would be irrelevant. We're not so easily offended by irrelevant matters."

"Perhaps not," said Tom, "but if you're willing to go to war, you're obviously offended by trivial matters, as long as you perceive some relevance in them."

The gryphon nodded. "True enough. But remember, all sentience on the Land is originally derived from human stock. So please don't hold our triviality against us."

"Wouldn't dream of it. In fact, Darius mentioned recently that he plans to change the intelligence classification system, if and when he comes to power. I think all of us here agree that all the so-called 'semi-intelligent' races should be granted equal status with humans, elves, and merfolk. Of course, the whole 'human intelligence' thing goes both ways. Being seen as our equals may not be entirely a good thing, considering that humans can be pretty stupid, sometimes."

"Um, yeah, that's what I just said."

Tom looked a bit embarrassed, but said nothing in reply.

"By the way," said Darius, "Cameron's the only one who's mentioned his name so far. I'm Darius. May I ask your name?"

"I'm afraid the translator spell wouldn't work for names, unless they happened to also be an actual word, which mine isn't. It'd just sound like a squawk, to your ears, indistinguishable from most other gryphons' names. And the same can be said of your names to our ears. So there's no way I can call any of you by name, and I'd be hard-pressed to recognize your names if I heard you speak them, even repeatedly. Although since your kind started using surnames, they can usually work with the spell." He glanced at Emma. "More so with human surnames than elven ones."

"My surname is 'Pseud,'" said Emma, "something I chose based on 'pseudonym.'"

"'Alias'?" asked the gryphon. "Sounds like you're hiding something."

She grinned. "Sounds like the spell garbles the translation, just a bit. But that's close enough."

"You could call me 'Lonewander,'" said Darius.

"'Wanders Alone'? Huh, I like it. Anyway... were you the one he was talking about," the gryphon asked, nodding in Tom's direction, "when he mentioned the intelligence classification system?"

"I was. It occurred to me the other day that something should be done about it, when I was talking with a pirate captain who was explaining the history of-"

"Yes, yes, do what you like. Honestly, I haven't much interest in the matter. I know I'm intelligent, as do my friends, family, comrades, and any humans with whom I've ever communicated. What do I care what some silly piece of paper at the World Science Council or the Order's village has to say about it?"

Darius grinned. "Come to think of it, the captain did say none of the semi-intelligent species seemed to care about it. Still, it bothers me. So I'll try to change the law for my own peace of mind, even if it doesn't matter to any of those I'm ostensibly doing it for."

"Anyway, what's this he mentioned about 'if and when you come to power'? Are you running for office?"

"Actually, no. But speaking of that... if your people wanted to follow the example of my people for problem-solving, don't you think it would've been a much simpler matter to just vote on how to spell your species' name, rather than going to war over it?"

"Of course, you're right. But if humans often leave the most sensible course of action as a last resort, after exhausting all other possibilities, it makes sense that we would, too."

"I suppose so. Anyway, as to my coming to power... I'm planning a rebellion against the Second Order. I'd appreciate it if you don't mention that to anyone, though."

Again, the gryphon laughed. "Whom am I going to tell? Anyway, see... there you go, human, planning another war."

"Well, I've actually been rethinking that, lately. I mean, I want to be ready for war if need be, but I'd prefer to achieve my goals peacefully, if possible."

"Good luck with that. Knowing humans- and probably, every sentient race God has ever created, anywhere in the universe- you'll need more luck than you're likely to have."

"You're probably right, although I hold some hope that it may not come to war. After all- and forgive me for saying this- it seems to me that my own goals make sense, are more important than a thing like how to spell a particular word. On a certain level, it seems like the more important beliefs are the ones most worth fighting for, but on another level, I can't help feeling that it should be easier for people to come to an agreement about things that actually matter, whereas they'll feel freer to just keep arguing about things that don't really matter. So maybe it's the trivial things that are more likely to lead to war."

"Maybe. Sounds like a question for philosophers... though come to think of it, it's hard to believe they haven't had any wars, yet."

Darius laughed. "I know what you mean. It's probably just because there aren't enough of them to start an army. Although actually, I'd say some of the spirit-talkers who created the Plan, which led to the Coming of the Order, could be considered philosophers."

"I imagine you're right. Anyway, I really should be getting back to the battle, so if there's nothing else-"

"Wait," said Tom. "By any chance, do you know where we might find some carrots?"

"Funny you should ask. I'm the only gryphon I know who eats carrots. I once met a traveler who shared some stew with me, which had carrots in it. I quite liked them, but uncooked they're too hard for me. So he gave me a pot, which I can fill from a river, or more likely from the wells your kind of set up at various spots on the long routes between villages, where rivers are too far away. Also he gave me a kind of glass, which I can use to focus the sun's rays, to start a fire. So I keep a small garden of carrots and some other vegetables, to boil occasionally. I'm afraid I can't take you there right now, but it's only about a mile in that direction," and he pointed a wing toward the forest. "If you can find the garden, you're welcome to a few carrots. Lucky thing for you the Spring crop is just about grown. I'd take a circuitous path, if I were you. It's quite out of the way of the battle, but you never know...."

Tom turned to Cameron and asked, "Wait, can't you just divine for carrots?"

"I could, sure. Or having a general idea of where they are, thanks to our friend here, I could even scry for them. Or we could just walk in the direction he pointed."

"Thank you," Darius said to the gryphon. "We appreciate both the carrots and the warning you came to deliver in the first place. It's been nice talking with you." And he started walking into the woods. The others followed.

Before they'd gone far, the gryphon called out, "You, too. And by the way... Y-P-H."

Without stopping or looking back, Darius grinned, extended his right arm, and raised his thumb, to indicate that was his preference, as well.

2

Penul'day evening they dined heartily on fresh black bear stew, and set aside as much of the leftovers as they could fit in the wagon's small magic refrigerator. There was still a fair amount of bear meat that hadn't been used in the stew, so they made jerky out of as much as they had time for. Tom grumbled a bit about not having the time or supplies to marinate it before drying it, but even he admitted the end product wasn't bad.

We'yetday morning, they broke camp, and once again took to the sky. Around noon, they descended for one of their regular breaks, to stretch their legs and whatnot. There were, of course, rest stops which had been constructed along the routes to Kimrin and Near Port, consisting of water wells, picnic tables, outhouses, and sometimes various other amenities. While the Chaos avoided such spots when making camp, they decided it would be okay to utilize them for brief stops during the day, as long as there were no other travelers using them at the time.

After enjoying a lunch of reheated stew, they headed back to the wagon. Just as he was about to climb aboard, Darius idly commented, "You know, I've been thinking. We've been really lucky not to have had any rain since this journey started, a few weeks ago. I mean, it's Spring. Usually-" but he was interrupted by a sudden, loud thunderclap. Everyone immediately turned to glare at him. With a wince, followed by a sheepish grin, he said, "Oh shite, my bad."

Ginger sighed. "It's the same on every world, so the spirits tell me. Say anything like 'Things couldn't possibly get any worse,' and they get worse. Speak of the rain, and it shall appear."

Before it did appear, they all hurriedly got into the wagon. The first drops began falling soon after the last of them made it under the protective cover of the wagon's canvas. A centhour later, they could hear the rain pounding above and all around them.

"Well," said Tom, "looks like we'll be staying put for awhile. Whether or not it's true that 'only fools fly over water,' I think we can all agree that only fools fly under water. So... what shall we do to pass the time?"

"I'm not sure what difference being grounded makes," said Alecstar. "I assume we'll pass the time in much the same ways we do while flying for hours on end."

"Ooh, wait," said Darius. "I've got a better idea. This is the perfect time to use a little something I picked up during the first rest stop we made after leaving Triscot."

"What's that?" asked Tom.

"Just a sec..." he said, digging in one of his packs. He produced a small chest, which he opened, and withdrew a bundle of twigs. "Purpleshade."

"Never heard of it," said Tom.

"I read about it in a book called Landian Alchemy, which was written by a Sorreter named Tagg, around the end of the sixth century."

"I've heard of that, but never read it."

"Well, it's been fairly popular ever since it was published, so I'm not surprised you've at least heard of it. Anyway-" he paused suddenly, then said, half to himself, "Huh, now that I think of it, I guess kappa were on the list of mythical creatures mentioned in the book. Funny I didn't think of that while I was listening to Captain Teach's lecture the other day." He shook his head, and again addressed the others. "Oh well. Anyway, the book is pretty much about any magical developments on the Land, up until the time it was written. I suppose there have been countless other developments, in the three centuries since then. But the main thing that inspired the book was the general public learning about the existence of mythical creatures, which had been created by Sorreters based on stories from Earth and other worlds. And in the chapter about mythical creatures, Tagg wrote about how many of them were relocated to mostly uninhabited areas, or at least areas which were uninhabited at the time, in 580. To be honest, I don't remember much about the book at all, since I was fairly young when I read it. In fact, there were a number of things Teach mentioned that just sort of jogged my memory, vaguely. The point I was getting to is, Sorreters discovered purpleshade trees while transporting certain creatures, such as gryphons and harpies, to Near Land. The description of purpleshade is what I probably remember best from the book, because, even back then- I think I was 8 or 9 when I read it- it really struck a chord."

"Why's that?" asked Tom. "Also, why the heck is it called 'purpleshade'? Those twigs aren't any shade of purple."

"No, but the tree's flowers are."

"Oh. That makes sense."

"As for why it struck a chord with me, it's because, according to the book, chewing purpleshade bark induces a feeling of melancholy, or an enhanced sense of loneliness and isolation, which is something I pretty much always feel. I know it's something that all Landian humans feel, due to the punishment God meted out to us for the Fall. This is something I was talking with Emma about during the first night of our journey, when we camped out between Plist and Tonad. How some people, even elves, feel a stronger sense of loneliness than others. So I was always kind of curious how purpleshade would affect me, and I eventually got a chance to try it, during one of my adventures, when I think I was like 16."

"Why would you want to try a thing like that?" asked Tom.

"Partly I wondered... if I was already more lonely, by nature, than the average Landian, if maybe it wouldn't affect me at all. But also I wanted to know how a person could possibly feel any lonelier than I did. And if it was possible, then maybe... having experienced it, my normal disposition would seem not so bad, by comparison. So, that was my primary motivation, and it actually worked, at least for a while. But there was... a part of me that thought, if it made me even more depressed than usual, maybe... maybe I'd actually put an end to my misery, which is something I had often enough considered, but was never quite depressed enough to do. And it sometimes depressed me even more, thinking about the fact that I'd probably never do that, no matter how much I might want to. So if purpleshade weakened my unwanted survival instinct..." he sighed.

Everyone was silent for a few moments, feeling awkward about this confession... though it was something at least Emma and Cameron had already known he thought about. But before too long, Tom asked, "And why the hell would you want to share that kind of experience with us? I see there are enough twigs there for each of us."

"Ah, well, as I was also talking with Emma about, the fact that some people feel greater isolation than others can make any bonds they do form feel more special. And it's a similar thing with purpleshade. If you can find a way to overcome the enhanced loneliness, it actually produces a secondary effect, more like intoxication. A sort of euphoria, a feeling of... closeness. Since I usually travel alone, I've never had a chance to really try that. I mean, I've heard that it's possible to overcome the loneliness and bring about the euphoria just by thinking of your loved ones, even if you're alone while chewing the purpleshade. Of course, for me that wasn't really an option, since my loved ones were mostly dead, or so I thought, which would probably make the melancholy even worse. But the best way to achieve euphoria is to chew the stuff while you're actually with people you already feel a certain degree of closeness with, and talk to each other, get to know each other better... the effects are supposed to make you more comfortable talking so intimately, and the drug's effects mix with the natural effect of getting to know people better. I've probably mentioned at least to some of you, that being around people, even people I like, can make me feel even lonelier than I do when I'm alone. So I thought... maybe sharing this stuff with all of you would change that. Maybe it would help me feel closer to you, help me overcome my natural feelings of not being part of the group. You know... I always feel like an outsider, in any group I've ever been in, including my own family. So, whattaya say? Anyone feel like gambling on possibly enhancing your mood temporarily, and our friendship permanently? Now's the time to do it. I'm not saying it would impair the ability to pilot the wagon, because it's not really like being drunk... but, better safe than sorry."

Emma, whose eyes had widened in recognition as soon as Darius had first mentioned the name 'purpleshade,' suddenly smiled. She reached out a hand toward Darius, saying, "I'll take one."

"Have you tried it before?" asked Darius, handing her a twig.

"Sort of. Not in this raw form, but my siblings and I found a bottle of pills called purpleshade, stashed in our parents' closet, a couple years ago. My older brother, Robin, told us how this drug had been introduced in Woodstockade in 901, when he was in his late teens. I would have been about 6 or 7, at the time, so I hadn't been aware of it. Actually, my oldest sister, Phoebe, had been aware of it, since she's just a couple years younger than Robin. I don't think either of them had ever tried it, though. Anyway, when we found the pills in 910, I was nearly 16. Actually, it was my younger brother, Xavier, who found it; he was looking for hidden birthday presents, I guess. Since the bottle was hidden, he was worried our parents might be trying to hide some kind of medical problem from us, and he brought the bottle to Robin, to ask if he knew anything about it. I happened to be talking with Robin at the time, about some trivial thing I don't even remember. That's when he explained what it was to both Xavier and me. And later, all five of us tried some, together. Oh, I've only mentioned three of my siblings. So... there's Robin, Phoebe, Rosalie, me, and Xavier is the youngest. He was 13 when he found the bottle."

"So how'd you like it?" asked Tom.

"Um... it's complicated. I'll explain in a centhour. I want to start chewing the stick before I get into all that. It should weaken my reluctance to talk about my family."

As Emma started chewing, Darius turned to Cameron. "What about you? Have you tried it? I mean, since it was Sorreters that discovered it in the first place."

He shook his head. "Of course I've read Landian Alchemy, but unlike you, the brief mention of purpleshade trees didn't catch my interest. If anything, I had the opposite reaction. Like you, I could sometimes be a bit sullen and withdrawn, especially around the time I first started studying magic, at age 13, which was when I read the book. I certainly didn't feel any desire to start feeling more isolated than I already did. But... if Emma's having some, I'll try it, too."

Darius passed him a twig, and soon everyone else in the group had taken one, as well. They all began chewing, and Darius said, "Oh yeah, anyone mind if I burn some incense in here? I've been thinking about getting some ever since our first visit to don Amalgamator, but I knew I wouldn't be able to use any at my clan's place, since my sister can't stand the stuff. I could burn it in the furthest room from her, and she'd start complaining that she couldn't breathe, I'm sure. So I waited til we were shopping for supplies for this trip... but then, I wasn't sure it would be a good idea to burn it in such an enclosed place like the wagon...."

"I don't mind," said Cameron. "In fact, it would probably remind me of Drag. He's always been a lover of incense, so I developed a certain fondness for it, while studying with him."

No one else objected, so Darius dug out a pack of incense sticks, an incense holder, and a box of matches. "I'll set it up at the back of the wagon, though, so the smoke can escape more easily." After he got the incense smoldering, he turned to Emma and asked, "So... you were going to tell us about your family?"

She shook her head, and wiped her eyes, which were beginning to look a bit moist. "Um, not yet. Someone else go first. I can feel the melancholy setting in, and I need... to feel the closeness you were talking about. This was your idea, why don't you start?"

Darius began chewing the end of his own twig, and paused to reply, "Well, I feel like... I've already talked way too much, over the last couple of weeks, about all my issues. To be honest, I was kind of hoping the purpleshade would serve as a sort of equalizer. I'm sure we all have our own issues, our own problems. God, I hope it's not just me! Anyway, I feel like I've monopolized the soul-bearing long enough. So... who should go first? I know! Let's go by age. Youngest first, or oldest?" He turned to his cousin. "Thew, what about you? You're the newest addition to the group, so you're the one most in need of... our getting to know."

"True, but I'm also the one most in need of getting to know the rest of you. Maybe start with the oldest?"

Tom said, "Fine, I'll do it, if no one else wants to. Let's see..." he chewed some more, as he tried to think of what aspect of his life to share with his companions. "You know, I wonder... if these things could be smoked, like incense."

"I suppose they could be used as an ingredient in incense," said Darius. "Lots of things are..."

"No, no, I meant... just light the end, as is. Not put it in an incense holder, but just... hold it in your mouth, as it smolders. I've heard stories about people on other worlds smoking various plants...."

"So have I," said Ginger. "Spirits have told me a bit about that. But they don't tend to just smoke a plant 'as is.' Well, that works with some plants on some worlds, but from what I've heard, the plants usually have to be processed in some way, first, and usually there's some kind of apparatus for burning the finished product, like a pipe... or it may just be rolled in paper. On Earth, I think the most common such plant is tobacco, which God specifically said... somewhere in the O'Gas, I forget which book... doesn't exist on the Land. Although we do have another plant Terrans use this way, cannabis... but I've never heard of any Landian using it as a drug. It has far more practical applications."

"Huh. Tobacco, now that's a word I'd heard. Couldn't think of it til you mentioned it, but that's one of the things I was thinking of. Never heard of cannabis being used that way. But there was something about the tobacco pipes that sounded sort of appealing."

Darius said, "But if you've heard of pipes, why... did you suggest just lighting the purpleshade twig?"

He shrugged. "I guess I just wasn't in the mood for extra work. But Earth isn't the only planet from which I've heard stories. There are worlds where things are done more simply."

"That's true," said Ginger. "Zephrey once told me about a planet called Trigonis, which has plants called gelmarra, the roots of which are smoked precisely as Tom suggests."

Tom took the twig out of his mouth and began excitedly wagging it in Ginger's direction. "Gelmarra, the very thing! Damn, my memory of alien words is for shite, but that was it. In this story a fellow traveler once related, 'The Life and Times of Oldan Weerie,' the title character was very fond of smoking gelmarra root." He shook his head with a grin. "Ah, I liked that story! Actually, as I recall, my companion never got a chance to finish telling it, as we parted ways before the story was completed. It had a lot of tales contained within, about Weerie's travels. But I think what I always liked best was that his name sounds like 'old and weary.' That just cracked me up! Though I suppose it wouldn't have sounded funny on- whatever you called the planet."

"Trigonis."

Still grinning, Tom replied, "If you say so."

Everyone was silent for a centhour after that, before Tom resumed speaking. "Anyway. Something about myself. Well, when I was thirteen years old, both my parents died. You and I have that in common, Darius... or at least it seemed we did, which was one of the reasons I trusted you, when we first met. Of course, mine really are dead."

"I'm sorry," said Darius. "How did it happen?"

"They were both miners. Met on the job, fell in love. Eventually married, and later, had me. And thirteen years later... there was a cave-in. Almost everyone on their crew died, including both of them."

"Oh, Tom," said Emma consolingly.

"It's alright. It was a long time ago." He grinned anew, as he added, "Obviously it's been a long time since I was 13, or I wouldn't be the one going first in this whole 'getting to know each other' thing." He sighed, and his expression turned neutral again. "Anyway, after that, having no means of supporting myself- certainly my parents couldn't afford to leave me any inheritance- I became a street rat."

Everyone seemed a bit surprised at that. Darius said, "If that's true... I don't get why you seem sort of... disdainful of people like Tiejo, or Rune...."

"Tiejo is understanding," said the street rat. "Is being one of the reasons I never have taken offense from things he was saying about me. Always saw him as a fellow, I did. Many fellows I am having, but not all of them are as content as Tiejo is being to be what they are. A frustrating life it can be, often impossible it is being to escape it, as hard as one may try. But knowing I am that there are simply more people in the world than jobs. Unfair? Yes. But it is being what it is being. Is not being anyone's fault. Still... if lucky enough and persistent enough one is being to escape that life, natural it is that one would not appreciate reminders of it. Also... understanding I am that one who has escaped rat-hood may thinking: 'If I can do it, anyone can do it. If they don't, just lazy they must be. Unwilling to work as hard as I did. Why then cutting them slack should I be? Why pitying them?' Yes, Tiejo understands all this. But said I did, 'lucky and persistent.' Both qualities are being necessary. Persistence, along with skill, perhaps... it is rare indeed for luck to being enough, without these things. Howevers, for many people- not just rats, but for us especially- persistence and skill are not being enough, either. Luck is most certainly necessary, as well. If work hard people have, their luck I do not begrudge them. Nor their own tendency to see only their hard work, and not their luck. Luck is being a hard thing to see, in one's own life, after living as a rat. Luck is a thing which only seems to belong to others. Erroneous this view is being, but... very understandable."

Everyone stared at Tiejo in shock. After half a centhour, Tom replied, "So, wait... are you saying you always knew I had once been a street rat?"

Darius chuckled. "Perhaps you're not the only mind-reader in the group."

Tiejo laughed, too. "Hmmm, perhapsing Tiejo can be called 'jack of all trades,' like fellow Tom!"

"Oh, I don't know about that," said Tom. "After all... haven't you only had one master?"

"Hmmm, yes, but various things he taught me."

"Such as?"

"Oh... well, hmmm... telling might be too much of a clue as to his identity. Still waiting I am for the dramatic effect when meet him you do!"

"Fine. Anyway... you've all learned something about me. I trust you're starting to feel closer to me, now. So... I reckon it's Star's turn."

Alecstar took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. "Very well. When I was a young boy growing up in Tanq, my best friend was a boy named Stavros, who was about two years younger than myself. When we were around 8 and 6, respectively, both our families were among the settlers of Kimrin, and our friendship continued. We both had our own interests- obviously, I wanted to become a musician, while he wanted to become an investigative journalist, and possibly start his own newspaper someday. Meanwhile, we mostly spent our childhood playing adventurers, as I'm sure many in the present company did. Our dreams didn't exactly take off, right away; when we were old enough to need to get jobs, we both joined the police department, which at the time was under the command of police chief Poss. He was one of the key figures in organizing what came to be known as the Northern Alliance, as well as becoming general of the Army in 901. He recruited many members of the police to join the army, including Stavros and me."

"Wait," said Darius. "Is Stavros the one you and Sidney were talking about?"

"Yes. But... I only brought him up so that I could explain my name to you all. It was during the trip north, as our families were moving from Tanq to what would become Kimrin, that he and I made up our own language, to pass the time. We spent a lot of time together; sometimes I rode with him in his family's wagon, and sometimes he rode with me in mine. We continued working on the language for some time after arriving at our destination. I don't even remember what inspired us to create a language, but anyway... we called it 'Lanwich,' which was also our language's word for 'language.' You'll have to remember, we were both pretty young, so it wasn't going to be anything too complicated. All we really did was make up words that were a little bit different from what they were in Landish. Close enough that it would be easy for us to remember the new words, but tweaked just enough that, at least we hoped, anyone listening might have a hard time following what we were saying to each other."

Star sighed, paused a few moments, and continued. "We had fun with Lanwich when we were kids, though we used it less and less as we got older, and by the time we got jobs, we never spoke the language at all. It was after I deserted the Army that I thought of Lanwich for the first time in years, when I was trying to make up an alias. My given name, Alec, was a name I knew that on Earth was related to the name 'Alexander.' So... I mean, it's funny, how it seems a lot of people who change their names to hide their identity, make such slight changes, it almost seems pointless to bother." He glanced at Cameron as he said this. "But I guess people are just naturally comfortable with the names they've lived with all their lives. And of course, our sense of anonymity strengthens if we avoid our home villages. And as you learned when we first met, Darius, I avoid Kimrin as much as possible."

"Though you do still go to Tanq."

"Yes, but I'm sure no one there would remember some eight-year-old kid from over thirty years ago. And anyway, I don't just avoid Kimrin for the sake of anonymity, but also... well, I'm avoiding Stavros."

"What exactly happened between you two, anyway?"

Alecstar stared at his twig, twirling it between thumb and forefinger. After a centhour, he shook his head. "Sorry, but some silly shrub isn't strong enough to make me feel like talking about that."

After a bit more chewing, Star returned to what he'd been saying earlier. "Anyway, my first thought was to change my name to Alexander. But then, it randomly popped into my head that that kind of sounded like 'Alecsander.' You see, while most of the words in Lanwich were just slightly tweaked, some of them we'd changed in different ways. For example, we might swap the meanings of certain extant words. We did that with 'star' and 'sand.' So I considered changing my name to Alecstarra, 'ra' being Lanwich's equivalent suffix to 'er,' so it would be like calling myself Alecsander. But," he shrugged, "I just didn't like the sound of 'Alecstarra,' so I shortened it to Alecstar. That still sounded a bit awkward to me, but I figured I could get any new friends I might make to call me 'Star,' for short, and anyway, I was tired of thinking about names. I couldn't come up with anything better, so I gave up. As for my surname, which I had to choose, oh, a year or two later, I just went with Inco, because in Lanwich it meant 'incognito.' So, that's my story. Who's next?"

Darius said, "I'm guessing Tino is the next oldest. It's too bad he isn't here; it'd be nice to actually get some insight into his past, considering how mysterious he likes to be about himself."

Ginger grinned. "It wouldn't surprise me if he guessed this whole conversation would be happening, and left early especially to avoid it."

"What is he, psychic or something?"

"It does sometimes seem that way. But I was actually kidding. Sort of. Anyway, his absence makes me the next oldest member of the group. So..." her expression turned serious as she said, "I suppose I should talk about my father." She paused for a few seconds before beginning. "He was a person who loved life, and loved his fellow man. He believed God meant for us to be happy, and to share happiness with all those around us. At the very least, he believed everyone should strive to avoid impeding the happiness of others, though he admitted that sometimes that was impossible. He said that most of the time, life was simple, but there could occasionally arise... more complicated situations. Sometimes doing what would make one person happy would simultaneously make someone else unhappy. Sometimes there might be multiple people involved in a situation, each of whose feelings must be considered... including one's own feelings. There are times he felt it would be best to place others' happiness above your own, but also times when it was more important to consider your own happiness... especially in situations where your happiness coincides with that of someone else, even if it makes a third person unhappy. Such was the case with my mother... For years, she and my father had been part of a trio of best friends, since they were children. And once they all grew up, both my father and their other friend developed romantic feelings for her. While she loved them both, it was Dad she was in love with. It took awhile for her to be sure of her feelings, and in the meantime, things grew tense between Dad and his friend. Dad decided it might be best to just move away, so that his friend could be happy with the woman he loved. However, once Mom realized it was Dad she wanted to be with, well... that meant that their collective happiness trumped the happiness of their friend. The good of the two outweighed the good of the one. It hurt both Mom and Dad to make a choice that hurt their friend, but it was unavoidable. That friend moved away, unable to bear being around either of them anymore. Though years later, he did marry someone he met in the village he'd moved to, so it all worked out for the best. Still, there are never any guarantees. He could have just as easily spent the rest of his life pining for my mother, alone and miserable."

"Either way," said Emma, "I'm glad your mother chose Therman. Otherwise there'd be no you. And that would really be a shame." She giggled, and turned to Darius. "That euphoria you mentioned is starting to kick in. I love all you guys so much right now! I think I'm ready to talk about my own family, now."

"Well, since you didn't do that in the first place, now you have to wait your turn. And you're the youngest- unless we're only counting Cameron as being 6," he added with a grin.

Emma and Ginger both laughed at that, and Cameron himself couldn't quite manage to suppress a grin. Still, he said, "Oh, no. I'm 24, in spite of being born on Quad Day, so it's my turn next. Unless Tiejo's older than me, but I think he said before that he doesn't know his own age."

"Hmmm," said Tiejo. "That is being true. But... twenty-four years ago was 888, yes? Yes, that was a Quad Year. I remembers learning about Quad Years that very year, though it was the second one to come in my lifetime. Too young I had been to beings aware of the first one. Still young I was in 888, but I am remembering, now that I think of it, liking the look of the year: three eights, all in a row. Very nice. In fact, it pops into Tiejo's head that I wished at the time I could be turning 8 myself, that year. But no... I turned... 5! Hoo ha ha, I finally knows my age! It was this story I told Master, I think in 903, the year after we first met, this story that led me to remember my age then, too! Forgetted it I had, until just now. I knew Master would know my age, but I couldn't remembering how he'd have known. ...And now, I cannot thinking what made me tell him the story of the eights.... Hum. Oh wells," he rapped his head with his knuckles, "head like a sieve, I am having. Or no, not sieve, for it loses contents forevers and evers. Things I have been knowing stay in my head, locked away. Only misplaced the keys to certain doors in my memory, I have. I should to be getting a key ring."

"So, you were born in 883," said Darius. "I'd say you look younger than that, though actually I've never been quite sure how old you looked. Anyway, you should have spoken before Ginger, but I guess you can take your turn now."

"Hmmm-mmm. Let me to be thinkings. I did already just tell a story from being five years old. I can't really thinking of anything very exciting or dramatic from my life to tell, except for time spent with Master, which as you are knowing, I am purposely not talking about. Hmmm. Ooh, I know! I remembers the first time I had ice cream! That was exciting! ...Though maybes not so much exciting to be hearing about."

"Dammit!" exclaimed Darius suddenly. "I knew I was forgetting something I wanted to do the other day!"

"Which day?" asked Emma.

"Last Wor'ginday. Not this past one, but last week. When we were in Tanq. It was Ice Cream Day, and I totally forgot to get ice cream! I was gonna suggest we all go to an ice cream parlour, after Tom got back from the bank, but instead he told us about our accounts being frozen, and all. And then there was the whole incident with Monogwrangle." He sighed. "Oh well. It's not like that's the only day of the year one can have ice cream."

Tiejo said, "No, but a good day it is being for ice cream. Thinking I am the holiday originated in Olek... so maybe next year we can all go there to celebrate Ice Cream Day together. It could being the next mission of the Chaos! After alls, we started by heading west from Plist, so sense it would be making to go east of Plist, to finding more allies. But mostly for having ice cream."

Tom said, "Since you picked our first mission, I think someone else should get to pick our next one. It's not fair for you to get two turns in a row."

"Fine," said Darius, before Tiejo could reply. "As leader of the Chaos, I'll choose our next mission. I say we head east of Plist to look for more allies. If we just happen to end up in Olek on Ice Cream Day, well... why fight fate?"

Tom rolled his eyes, but didn't argue.

"This has all been fun and interesting," said Ginger, "but I wasn't quite done talking about my father yet."

"Sorry," said Emma. "I guess I shouldn't have interrupted to say I was glad you exist."

"Well, that's okay. I guess I can't object to that. Anyway, I didn't have much else to say. It's just, I told the story about my parents' love triangle to establish my father's feelings... well, actually both their feelings... about how important happiness is, and how tragic it can be when it's impossible to avoid causing unhappiness. Dad always told me, you should try not to blame yourself if you can't help impeding someone else's happiness, nor should you necessarily blame others if they impede yours. But on the other hand, you should always make every effort to put others' happiness before your own, unless there's a good reason not to. And you shouldn't let anyone get away with needlessly making anyone unhappy, whether you, your friends, or total strangers. That was why he opposed the Coming of the Order: those who planned and implemented the Coming may have believed they were doing God's will, but Dad believed they were wrong. He believed that what they were doing would surely bring about some happiness, but that it would ultimately cause a greater degree of suffering. And even the people who didn't actively suffer because of the Coming might... be deprived of some of the happiness they would have had, if not for the Coming. So he argued with Arch-bishop Talak, Bishop Kizin, and the other Planners. Tried to make them see reason. And failed. It broke his heart to realize he'd have to enter into open opposition to his fellow spirit-talkers, but that's what led to his founding the Protestant Movement. Even then, he desperately hoped outright war could be avoided... but he prepared for it anyway. Kind of like you're doing now, Darius."

"Wow. You're comparing me to Therman? I'm honored."

She grinned and said, "You should be."

"Anyway, it's no wonder you want to oppose the Second Order, though I'm a bit surprised you don't seem to hate the First Order. After all, they're responsible for your father's death."

She shook her head. "It was his choice to oppose them. Like I said, he himself told me not to blame others if they can't help causing you pain. Yes, the Order hurt me and my mom by taking him away from us, as they did. But it was war. And that war was just as much his doing as theirs, if not more. I honor his memory by not holding them entirely responsible for his death. But, yes, I also honor his memory by continuing to support his cause. I still believe he was right to oppose them... in spite of the fact that, as we've all observed, the good that came of the Coming is more obvious than the bad. Of course, in a more everyday kind of way, I honor his memory by doing whatever makes me happy. Which, for the most part, means singing. And hopefully that also brings happiness to others."

"I know I've always enjoyed your singing," said Cameron. "And it certainly makes me happy to be both friends and bandmates with you."

"Thanks," said Ginger with a smile. "Me too."

"Me three," said Emma.

"Well then, me four," said Star. "Although I was in the band before you were..."

"Fine," said Emma, "you three, Tino four, and me five."

"It's funny, though," said Darius, glancing at Ginger. "You never really struck me that much as the fun-loving type. Certainly not as goofy as you're always saying Tino is, anyway."

"Well, you should've seen me when I was a teenager; I was a lot wilder, back then. At least, until my father was killed, when I was 17. I definitely got more serious after that. Though I still know how to have a good time, when I feel like it. It's just, when we all met you, I decided that this whole rebellion thing was a serious undertaking, so I should try to curb my normal tendency toward, you know, good time-having. Because it wouldn't do for Star to be the only really serious one in our group. And then, once we started traveling together, it didn't take long to see you're not the type who's comfortable having, or being around others who are having, a really fun time. So I've tried to be sensitive to that."

"Oh. Well, thanks."

"No worries. But when all this is over... maybe we can all go to a club, or something."

"Ah... no thanks. Seriously, thanks for the offer, but... no. The absolute height of excitement for me would be going out to a nice family restaurant. And even that can sometimes get... vexing."

"Very well," said Cameron. "No clubs for Darius. Now, can I have my turn?"

"Go for it," said Darius.

"Good. You know... first I want to thank you for introducing us to purpleshade. When I first started chewing this here twig, I thought you were crazy, because the melancholia set in pretty quick. But you were right, listening to everyone here tell even just a little bit about themselves... some of which I'd heard before, and some I hadn't... well, it started making me feel closer to you all than I've felt to anyone in a long time. I mean, it enhanced the closeness I already felt toward my bandmates... and that euphoria, oh yes, it has mostly replaced the melancholy, now. Anyway, this is good stuff. So again, thanks, Darius."

"You're welcome, all of you. And thank you all for joining me... the way I feel right now, it's better than those Happiness pills, in a way."

"Glad to hear it. Now then, what can I say? Darius, I talked to you early in our journey about how I never felt very close to anyone, when I was a kid. I don't recall if I've mentioned this to you, but of course my bandmates know, that my closest friend was my older sister, Lorraine. I became an apprentice Sorreter in 901, at age 13. The next year, Lorraine became an adept, at age 19, after four years studying under Grand Sorreter Drag. That was actually a pretty quick apprenticeship; she was quite possibly his best student ever. It probably didn't hurt that she obviously had the best teacher in Sorret, but of course the same could be said of all Drag's apprentices, over the years. My own master, Jinno, is not someone you will have heard of. I was actually his first student after he became a master-adept. While being his apprentice hardly carried the same cachet as being apprenticed to someone like Drag, I got on fairly well with him. He was what you'd call low-key, which suited me just fine. I liked to keep mostly to myself, in those days, having already figured out, in the years prior to becoming an apprentice, that I didn't always get along well with others, in spite of basically liking everyone. And Master Jinno was kind of the same way. Maybe not quite as anti-social as I was increasingly becoming, but... he wasn't what you'd call a joiner. And that's what I liked about him. In fact, I began to get closer to him after my sister and Drag joined the Protestant Movement. Well, not closer, exactly... it's not like we hung out, or anything. After all, he was like twelve years older than me. But I did find myself confiding in him more often, because I had begun confiding in Lorraine less often. You see, I thought my sister had made a mistake in becoming a Protestant. I thought, as Jinno did, that people should just let whatever happens, happen. If I had to pick a side, I knew I would've been in favor of the Protestants, because they were basically of the same mindset as me; that is, they didn't want the world to change. But in spite of that, I would rather have let it change than do anything to prevent it. And most importantly, I thought Lorrie was just looking for trouble. In fact, it became more and more apparent that there would inevitably be a war, and I really didn't want my sister getting herself killed. It's kind of ironic that I started pushing her away, specifically because I was afraid of losing her.

"But anyway, I should mention that our parents were also Protestants, but they weren't nearly as involved in it as Lorrie was. And by 903, even they were trying to convince her to curb her involvement with Drag. But... shortly before the war began, there was an incident which led to their deaths." He fell silent for a time, chewing some more on his purpleshade. "I don't want to go into the specifics of the incident, because that... could very well cut into this togetherness-induced euphoria, and I don't intend to let that happen. I'll just say it was... so damned senseless. It pissed me off, made me quit feeling so apathetic. It wasn't just the tragedy of losing my parents, though that probably would have been enough. No, it was the fact that they had given up on the Protestant Movement, and were actually getting some others to do the same. I'm not sure, but I think they might even have been on the verge of convincing Lorrie to quit. So, the Order actually would have been better off letting them live. That's what made me decide to join my sister and the Protestants. What made me become a soldier when I was only 15. Partly I wanted to avenge their deaths, but a large part of my motivation was just thinking that anyone as obviously foolish as some of the people involved in the Coming, didn't deserve to be the ones determining the future of the world. I mean, if those idiots didn't even know what was in their own best interests, how could they possibly know what was right for everyone else?"

After another pause, Cameron concluded, "Anyway, I quit my studies with Jinno to join the war. Lorrie didn't exactly approve of my getting involved, at my age, but she didn't blame me. It wasn't until the Battle of Elves' Ambush that she decided to order me to go back to Sorret. After what happened... she was just too scared to let me continue fighting. And honestly, as many comrades as I lost that day... I had no more stomach for war, myself. So I agreed, and went back home, resumed my studies. But my sister did let me know about the plan Drag and his followers had to disappear if it should become necessary, and I insisted she let me go with them, if and when the time came. Which, obviously, it did." He turned to Darius. "During the Battle of Triscot, on your clan's estate."

Emma looked at her friend, sadly. But after a few seconds, her face brightened, to Darius's surprise. But her bandmates and Tom all knew what she was referring to when she said to Cameron, in an amused tone, "It's no wonder you didn't trust me, when we first met."

Cameron looked at her, his own face brightening. "Glad we got past that, my friend. Thanks to Tom."

Darius turned to Tom and asked, "Why, what'd you have to do with it?"

He grinned and said, "A story for another time. Let's just say, when I asked Cameron to look into you, the day after I met you, he was returning an old favor."

"Oh...kay. Well, I look forward to hearing what that's all about, whenever you feel like explaining it. Meanwhile, I'm the next oldest after Cameron, so it should be my turn to share. But I'd rather let Emma go next."

"Thanks," said Emma. "Although, after hearing Tom and now Cameron talk about their parents dying, I feel kind of bad about the thought of talking about just arguing with mine."

"I feel the same way, about eighty percent of the time," said Darius. "But while I think everyone who ever meets me should hate me, after listening to me whine so much, very few people actually do. You know... I've been thinking over the last week or two that the time I've spent with all of you has really been beneficial to me. Even without the help of purpleshade, I've been growing to like you all quite a bit, and to feel more comfortable with you than I do with most people. And I'm even starting to feel that it kinda makes sense if you like me."

Emma replied, "We do, Dare. Well, I can't speak for the others, but I know I do genuinely consider you a good friend, at this point. It's hard to believe it really only has been a few weeks since we met."

"So, my point is, if people can like a whiner like me, I'm sure there's nothing you can say about your strained familial relations that will make any of us think less of you."

She grinned. "Okay, then. Well, as I recall, Tom asked how I liked the purpleshade pills my siblings and I tried, and I said it was complicated. Of course you all know that I felt my parents were on the wrong side in the war. My dad became a captain in the Navy, and my mom had a hand in financing certain aspects of the war, once my people joined. And even before that, they both played a part in persuading other elves that we should join the Order. They weren't exactly leaders in the movement, but the attitude had been growing in popularity ever since Durell contacted the elves in 901. Huh, it sounds almost odd to hear anyone, even myself, mention that without using the word 'secretly,' doesn't it? I mean, when humans talk about it now, they always say 'when Durell secretly contacted the elves.' But the thing is, even if humans didn't know about it until," she swallowed nervously, consciously avoiding Cameron's eyes as she said, "the Battle of Elves' Ambush... it didn't remain secret in Woodstockade nearly that long. Des'Eller and the rest of the council made public Durell's apology for our ancestors' banishment, on behalf of the Order, and his request for our help, fairly soon after he first contacted them. Durell also shared details of the Plan with the council before most humans outside the Order had any idea the Plan existed. Of course, just as was the case once the Plan's existence became common knowledge among your people, he hid some details from us, as well.

"But, like I said before, I was quite young, at the time, so I didn't really learn about any of this until years later. I was barely aware there was a war, when it was being fought in 903, except that it meant Father was away longer than usual, and Mother was more worried about him than usual. By the time I first started really thinking about political or social matters, in my early teens, the war had been over for a few years, elves had begun moving to human villages, and vice versa. I had human friends, at my school in Woodstockade, and I barely remembered a time when humans and elves hadn't lived together. You might think, then, that I'd be glad my parents had chosen as they did. But I began to hear rumors which had first circulated in Woodstockade in 901, but which were new to me. In fact, the rumors had recently been renewed by human immigrants, who were comparing rumors they'd heard in their villages, starting around 902 or 903, after the founding of the Protestant Movement. One of those rumors was that Durell had somehow blocked Drag's own search for the elves, to prevent him from offering his own apology for the banishment, and of course to prevent him from seeking our help in what had then been the impending war. That made me realize that it really didn't matter which side my people had joined; we could have rejoined human society, either way.

"Of course, that did not, in and of itself, mean I had to believe my people had chosen the wrong side. It merely opened up the possibility. Clearly, all of us here are prone to introspection, and I'm no exception. I'm probably the most extroverted of the group, though. Or maybe that'd be Ginger. Yeah, now that I think of it, both of us girls seem to be better at social interaction than all of you guys. But probably that's just a coincidence. Because I've known plenty of sociable guys, both humans and elves, as well as anti-social girls. And it's not like anyone in this group is exactly a hermit."

"Although," said Darius, "I often think someday I'd like to be a hikikomori. You know, if I could afford it."

Emma thought about this subword for a few moments. "That's not a word I think I've ever heard. Is that something you read in Oni?"

"I think that was the first place I read it, yeah. I've seen it in a few other stories, too."

"Anyway, I hope your sense of isolation never gets quite that bad. You did say you've been feeling more sociable since meeting all of us, so that's a hopeful sign. But I was about to say, I digressed. The point I was getting to was, I spend a lot of time thinking about things, but also I always liked talking to people about things. Sharing ideas, influencing one another's thinking. And once I had realized that it was possible elves and humans could have reunited without our taking the Order's side, I became increasingly interested in learning all I could about the matter. I did a lot of reading on the subject, talked to lots of elves and humans who were living in Woodstockade, and did a lot of thinking. The more I learned, and the more I thought about it, the more I doubted that my people- and my parents- had made the right choice. As for my siblings, none of them ever had strong feelings about it. Robin and Phoebe thought as I did, but not so much that they made a big deal of it. Rosalie was firmly of the belief that our parents were right, but it's not like she thought I was unreasonable to disagree. Xavier was too young to have an opinion one way or the other.

"Well, all my investigations into the matter started when I was about 13, and like I said, my first exposure to purpleshade was a few years later, in 910. Of course, it's not like I spent every waking centhour obsessing over history. I had plenty of other interests, and my greatest passion, obviously, was music. Actually, I think that as my disagreement with my parents' position slowly increased over those few years, I threw myself more into my studies, both musical and academic. I suppose I could easily digress again, go off on a tangent about how elves tend not to choose permanent careers until later in life, but that had actually become a moot point by the time I got my educational stamp, when I graduated primary school in 910. Schools had opened in Woodstockade in 904, just like they did in human villages, which made 16 a much more standardized age for us to see ourselves as adults, but still... There remains a feeling among my people that just receiving the educational stamp from a headmaster is less meaningful than receiving confirmation from a master of a specific trade that we're ready to begin working in our chosen field. And it still happens that most elves don't do that until they're about a decade older than I was when my music teacher said I was as ready as she could make me. That happened about the same time as I graduated. So I certainly saw no point in going on to a university, as most of my classmates did. Yup, there I go, digressing again! The point is, I had been working harder and harder the more strongly I disagreed with my parents, specifically because I wanted to obtain the final stamp on my adult license, so I could leave home.

"So, that's basically where my head was at when we tried the purpleshade pills that Xavier had found. I don't remember the exact date, but it was in late Summer, so probably about a month before my sixteenth birthday. And of course, it would be a few months after my birthday, that I graduated, and officially became a full-fledged adult. I left home a few days before Last Day. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Gosh, I've talked a lot, just to set up my account of that one day in Summer 910. I said it was complicated, how I felt about purpleshade, and I want you all to understand... I remember very little of what my siblings and I specifically talked about, that day, but I clearly remember feeling very close to them, closer than ever before. And even though our parents weren't home at the time, I felt closer to them. The same with all my friends, including humans. And I began thinking that maybe my parents had been right, after all. I mean, if the Protestants hadn't been preparing for war, it probably never would have occurred to Drag to search for the elves. So it didn't really matter that Durell beat him to it, and blocked his efforts; the Order was indirectly responsible for those efforts in the first place. Or maybe directly responsible. And my parents must have realized that, as must Chief Des'Eller and the Council.

"It was my saying that, which led Robin to tell me about a rumor from 901 which somehow I hadn't yet heard, in the course of my research over the past few years. Though it was related to a common enough rumor, from the same time, about gangs being part of the Plan, which led to stronger ties between the police departments of different villages, and the establishment of InterVil. Of course, Durell denied that the Order's Plan had encouraged the increased gang activities, and he did his best to assure Des'Eller that the rumors were false. Back then, no one knew where purpleshade had come from, but it suddenly appeared on the black market in Woodstockade in 901, not long after Durell and his associates began spending more time there. They claimed that it must have been an elven apothecary that had come up with the drug, but of course now it's clear that was a lie. But even at the time, there was a rumor that elven criminals were establishing secret ties with human gangs, and that purpleshade was introduced in our village to make anyone who tried it feel a sense of loneliness that would make them more susceptible to the suggestion that they'd feel less lonely if elves rejoined human society, which ultimately led to public opinion favoring the Coming of the Order. It may have even been what led to our parents making the choice they did.

"When Robin explained that rumor to me, the feeling that my parents might have been right disappeared, replaced by outrage at such a trick. Of course there was no proof that it was anything more than a rumor, but it fit very neatly with everything else I'd learned. Most of that was little more than rumors, as well... but there were things that had, by then, become common knowledge, and accepted fact. Things the Order themselves had admitted, while still denying other things. I'm not saying their denials were implausible, but it definitely seemed to me that all the things they denied were more likely to be true than false. The facts just made more sense if the rumors were true. So I assumed the same must be true of purpleshade. Even then, however, I couldn't quite shake the euphoria the pills had induced. I was more sure than ever that my people had been on the wrong side, which made me more determined than ever to leave home. And since there were no other elven villages, that meant traveling to human villages. And that thought appealed to me more than ever, specifically because the purpleshade was having the very effect on me that Robin said it was supposedly meant to have on elven society in general: a desire to connect with humans.

"So, that's it. Complicated. I loved the purplehade, at the same time that its very existence infuriated me. Which is kind of why I was both eager and apprehensive to try it today, with you all. Because... I wanted that same sense of enjoyment, without the negative associations the experience held the first time. Because I have no reason to be upset with any of you. There's no history of any of us using purpleshade for the wrong reasons." The anger had her old memories had shown on her face, while she was explaining the rumor her brother had told her about, but now she smiled brightly. "I have absolutely no objection to the intense sense of connection I currently feel with all of you, my dear friends! And I'm sure it's not just the purpleshade talking. That enhances my feelings, sure, but... honestly, I think I already felt closer to you guys than I ever have to anyone. Because we all have so much in common. Cameron would probably say that's our shared disdain for the Second Order, or the methods the Order employed to establish it. And there is that, but there's so much more! We elves may not naturally feel as strong a sense of isolation as humans, but as Darius and I once discussed, we can still feel it, to varying degrees. And my own sense of isolation was... greater than that of most elves. The feeling that my people were wrong, and that my parents were wrong, and that the whole state of the world is wrong... well, kind of wrong... Most of the time it was easy to ignore, but the way the purpleshade starts out by making it impossible to ignore, making the sense of loneliness almost unbearable, and then enhancing the sense of connection I have with those who feel the same way I do about things... Oh, man, let me tell you... if you use this stuff when you're with truly compatible people, there's not much you wouldn't do to ensure that that connection lasts forever." She looked at Darius and giggled. "Ha ha, I said 'ensure.'"

Darius laughed, too. "Yeah, maybe this stuff is good insurance that our friendship will last." He paused before adding, "Unlike the incense, which seems to have finished burning some time ago, though I didn't notice."

"It does tend to hang about in the air, though," said Tom.

Cameron suddenly said, "If you'll all excuse me... I have to make a private call." He moved to the back of the wagon, opened a flap in the canvas, realized it was still raining rather heavily, and said, "Bugger." With a sigh, he sat down, and cast a cylinder of invisibility spell about himself, taking his friends by surprise.

"What's that all about, I wonder?" said Tom.

"Dunno," said Darius, "but I'm getting bored, now. That's always been one of my problems, how quickly and easily I get bored. I could be having the time of my life, and a second later," he snapped his fingers, "I'm dying of boredom. So... maybe we can do another round. Tom's first again. Maybe tell us about some of your masters?"

"Should we wait for Cameron to, um... get back?"

"Nah, if he's doing something without us, we should do something without him. Fair's fair."

"If you say so. Well, I'm sure I've mentioned some of my masters before, and most of them taught me skills you'd all likely find a bit boring, though you clearly have no problem reaping the benefits of my studies under Staniel."

"Who?" asked Darius.

Tiejo said, "He is being the one who taught Tom to make coffee!"

Darius grinned. "Oh."

"Anyway, there are some you surely wouldn't find boring. For example, I studied swordsmanship under Moto himself."

"Impressive," said Darius. "Did he teach you the Chakra Over Mana technique? ...But look who I'm asking. Is there anything you don't know, about anything?"

"Not that I'm aware of. ...Not of which I'm aware. And yeah, he taught me COM."

"By any chance, do you know the Jade Variation?"

"Certainly. Learned it from Jade herself."

"As did I. So it seems we had the same sword master. Small world."

"Indeed. But I don't exactly think of her as a master; at least not my master. I got to know Jade when she began studying with Moto, shortly before I completed my own studies with him. I learned the Jade variation from her about a year later, during a visit to my old master."

Tiejo said, "So Tom's master was Darius's master's master?"

Tom grinned. "Seems that way. Reckon that makes Moto the lad's grandmaster, which makes me... I dunno, an unclemaster, or something. I daresay that means he should start showing me more respect."

"Yeah, whatever," said Darius. "Your turn's over. Star, you got anything?"

Before he could reply, Cameron suddenly became visible and audible, and asked, "So, what'd I miss?"

"Nothing," said Darius.

"Except," said Thew, "my cousin completely forgetting I'm here, and skipping my turn."

Darius turned to Thew apologetically. "Oh, damn. I am so sorry, coz. You're right. I suck. I can't believe I did that."

"Eh, it's okay. I can't really think of anything to say, anyway. I'm not sure I'm feeling the kind of closeness the rest of you seem to be feeling with each other, but I've enjoyed getting to know you all. There's not much I can share about myself. I'm a spirit-talker, and for the past year I've been an adventurer. And I'll be grateful to you all if your plans lead to my family coming out of hiding. Although I'm not sure how overthrowing the Second Order, or whatever, would prevent Mr. Illustri from getting his son's Sorreter friend to eliminate Uncle Adam, since he was going to do that in secret, anyway."

"Oh. I hadn't thought of that. But... I'm sure we'll come up with something. But are you sure you don't have any deep, dark revelations about yourself?"

"Nah, I'm good. If I think of anything, I'll let you know. After all, I don't feel the need to be under the influence of anything to make me comfortable sharing."

"No, I guess I don't, either. I mean, I'm never comfortable, in a general psychological sense. But I obviously don't have a problem talking about hating myself, and life, and whatnot. Still, the purplesahde makes it easier, makes it... not hurt so much, when I talk about the things that normally trouble me. And I'm kind of scared of that feeling wearing off. It reminds me of how I feel when I realize I only have one bottle of beer left. I gotta say, though, the sense of connection I currently feel with my friends, here, reminds me of how much it bugs me that it's hard for me to feel connected to my family. I wish you could tell me something that helps me feel a connection with you."

Thew shrugged. "Sorry. Um... I like your books?"

"Thanks. I was actually thinking of bringing some of your brother's stories with me to read on the way to Near Port, but then I thought, if something happens to us, I wouldn't want them getting lost. I don't know if he has multiple copies."

"I'm sure he has handwritten copies of some of them. There's really not much to do with one's time, when you're in hiding."

"I guess that's true. Anyway, maybe you could share some of your stories with us? Since you're a writer, too."

"I'm afraid I don't have any with me. I could tell you a bit about some of my plots, but I think you'd get a better sense of them from actually reading them. I'll loan you some when we get back to Triscot."

"Thanks." He sighed. "Anyway... it's kind of ironic how deeply I can feel about my lack of deep feelings for my family. Like how much it hurts me that I couldn't get more excited about learning you all are still alive. But I suppose the important thing is that you are; how I feel about it doesn't matter as much as that. It's not really about me."

"That's true."

"But there's also the fact that I can't feel very excited about the idea of returning home again. I mean, I want to... but just not that often, nor for long periods when I do. And I can't help hating myself for feeling that way."

"Well, I agree, in principle. Not that you should hate yourself, but you're probably right to think you should feel more strongly about family than you do. On the other hand, in the time I've been traveling, I've noticed that not all families are as close-knit as our clan. I've actually talked to some of the people I've met, about that. And they say that's more true than ever, since the Coming made it more common for people to move to other villages. But it's always been true, to some extent, that people grow up in a relatively small household, and when they grow up, the move out on their own, and then they may not feel the need to see their family every day, or even every week. Even if they live in the same village, they may not see or talk to family more than once a month. Some people I've met say they don't even see family more than once a year. And, like you, they may feel guilty about that. Or they may not. It's not that they don't love their family, they just don't feel the need to be in frequent contact with them. Then again, some people say they at least talk to relatives via t-mail a few times a week, if not every day. Closeness to family, or lack thereof, seems to be very much an individual thing, rather than a universal thing. So, maybe the way you feel isn't part of whatever's wrong with you, but part of what's normal about you."

"Thanks. That means a lot."

"On the other hand, I don't think anyone I've met has found out their supposedly dead relatives are actually alive."

"Again... thanks," Darius said with a hint of sarcasm. "Okay, your turn's over now. I think that's everyone. It's been a fun game, but maybe we should play something else now. Anyone got a deck of cards?"

"I'm hungry!" Tiejo suddenly exclaimed.

"We just had lunch," said Tom.

"Not 'just.' Stories take time and time makes hungry."

"Ooh, actually," said Darius, once again digging in his pack, "I've got chocolate! Also xocolatl. I've been waiting to share with everyone, and this seems as good a time as any. Who wants what?"

As Darius began handing out treats to his friends (and cousin), Tom said, "Damn... twigs, incense, chocolate... how much stuff have you got in that bag of yours? Did you pack any clothes?"

"I have more than one bag, you know."

"You know," said Ginger, between bites of chocolate, "I was thinking, when the rain first started, and I was talking about how saying things like 'it couldn't get any worse' causing things to get worse, is the same on every world... how there's actually a great deal that's the same on every world, or at least common on many worlds, according to spirits. Chocolate is a prime example, as God himself told Connor and Brigid that it exists on every inhabited world in the Universe."

"And on every inhabited world," said Darius, "the people Fall from God's grace through some action or other, which always leads to a punishment specific to that world, such as Landians' feeling of personal isolation from one another."

"And I believe I've heard that every world has alcohol, or similar things for staving off unpleasant feelings, such as those caused by God's punishment," said Tom. "Things to drink, or smoke, or eat, or chew, or... whatever."

"And," said Cameron, "on every world there is a framework glitch unique to that world, which allows for the possibility of something that completely ignores the laws of science, which God himself had created to govern the Universe."

"Such as Surreal, on the Land," said Darius. "So if no one has a deck of cards, is anyone up for a game of Surreal?"

"We're travelers," said Tom, "I'm sure we all have a deck of cards."

"Besides," said Cameron, "I'm sure you know full well that Surreal is illegal. I may have cast spells on the wagon and our persons to ensure enemy Sorreters can't find us, but there is no way I could hide the invocation of Surreal from the authorities in Sorret. It's far too dangerous, so the automatic surveillance spells would easily punch through any attempt to magically hide it."

Darius scoffed, "Obviously I'm not talking about actually invoking the game. I'm not that crazy. It's not even a matter of not wanting to attract the authorities, it's a matter of understanding how dangerous the game is. But people can and do play pretend games of Surreal, without invoking the glitch for reals."

"Glad to hear you have some sense in your head," said Tom. "But speaking of framework glitches, does anyone know what Earth's is?"

"Not a clue," said Darius. Everyone else shook their heads.

"Damn. I thought maybe Ginger or Cameron might have heard from spirits. Oh well, maybe you'll ask one, someday?"

"Maybe," said Ginger. "Anyway, I'm not sure how I feel about this idea. Even if it is just pretend."

"What is 'Surreal'?" asked Tiejo. "How does one playing, and how does one pretending to play?"

"Ah," said Darius. "I assumed everyone would know about it, but I guess it's not surprising that you don't. So, allow me to explain...."


chapter 40

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