Worth the Candle, Ch 174: The Blade of the Self

Optics 20, Clarity:
When you hold or touch, directly or indirectly, a lens or prism of any kind, you can alter its properties (e.g. altering focal point, concavity, refractive index, thickness). Any alterations you make will revert once you are no longer holding or touching the lens or prism. This includes biological lens, e.g. in the eye. Alterations must be physically possible.

Research 10, Organizational Efficiency:
When you research anything, you are capable of holding in your head the location of all previous sorted or filed materials, so long as no one else has moved them. No special organizational schema is required for this, you simply know where everything is.

Mathematics 10, Arithmetic:
You can do simple arithmetic with two operands instantly and without thinking about it. You can count any number of objects instantly, so long as you can see them.

Alchemy 10, Equivalent Exchange:
You instantly know the answer to any questions of stoichiometry.

Logic 20, Contradiction:
If anyone presents a logically inconsistent argument to you, or an argument which is inconsistent with the facts as you know them, you will instantly and firmly be aware of this, even if you do not remember the specifics.

Logistics 10, Worst Case:
Whenever you make a roll using this skill, you cannot have more than two degrees of failure. When making a sequence of chained rolls, overall results are still limited to two degrees of failure.

Repair 20, Parts:
When you look at something broken, you instantly know which parts need to be replaced and which need to be repaired, so long as you have some method of knowing that within three degrees of reasonableness.

Ink Magic 10, Burnout Resistance:
If you would suffer two or more levels of creative exhaustion, suffer one less instead. If any effect removes one or more levels of creative exhaustion, it removes one more than it normally would.

Air Magic 10, Currents:
In addition to your normal sense of air temperature, pressure, and composition, you are able to sense and manipulate the direction of air movement. This direction is subject to (and must act against) normal fluid dynamics and your normal range.

Passion Magic 20, Passionate:
You may split one complex emotion into two smaller ones for the purposes of passion magic expression. These can be used in tandem with the normal penalties for doing two things at once.

Gem Magic 30, In The Rough:
Uncut gems may be used as though they were cut, with the number, shape, and symmetry of the facets determined by you at time of use. When you hold an uncut gem, you are aware of all the ways in which it could be cut.

Gem Magic 50, Fractured Brilliance:
You are no longer constrained by the gem for the purposes of determining number of projectiles. Instead, when you use a gem, you may choose to emit any number of projectiles with their properties as determined by the gems, with mental strain proportional to the number of projectiles. Similarly, you can elect to use a gem at lower power with lower strain.

Blood Magic 40, Flow Control:
Your blood is now configured into a ‘blood mass’ which you can independently control, with every drop of blood controllable so long as it’s part of the contiguous blood mass. Connection to your blood does not decay so long as it’s a part of the blood mass, no matter how far from your body it is. This virtue does not grant you extra power to control your blood, except as provided by the lack of connection decay.

Vibrational Magic 30, Spectra:
You can expend breath to apply the sensory aspects of vibrational magic to a wider range of vibrations, including the entire electromagnetic spectrum and everything covered under warder’s sight. Breath cost of these extra senses is based on time used, doubling each minute of use.

Engineering 30, Runtime Analysis:
Without actually running or using a piece of equipment or structure, you can make a number of determinations about how it would perform. These analyses include, but are not limited to: revolutions per minute, energy efficiency, carrying capacity, lift, thrust, wattage, and thaums. You must be able to adequately sense the equipment or structure in use to make these determinations, to within one degree of reasonableness.

Five days after the Respec, I was bumped up against the level twenty soft cap of amateur training in every new skill that I had taken. We were burning through time with abandon, a fact which we were all well aware of given our deadlines, but the twenties brought virtues with them, a lot of them predicted to be good, and getting me into as good as shape as feasible before we tried some pretty dangerous things or new quest lines seemed like it was the better part of valor.

But getting into the best position possible wasn’t just a matter of watching the numbers go up: there were two things that needed doing before I could get out there, both of which had been put off for some time. The first was very local, but required some careful diplomacy on the part of Amaryllis, part of a deal that had been made in the distant past, but whose conditions we hadn’t quite managed to fulfill.

I sat down with Esuen, the tuung handmaid turned exile turned matriarch (of a sort), in the house that we’d had built for her ages ago. It was a stately place, following imperial fashions, but it was no mansion, and there was something rather quaint about it. She had guards out front, ones we had hired for that purpose rather than tuung, but that was the only sign that she was in any way special. She had her mister tank beside her, though the room was quite humid already. There was no carpeting, given the risk of mold, and very little fabric. Esuen’s chair was something special, and seemed like it was made of live plants, but as her visitors we got some wooden chairs, which I hoped had been adequately waterproofed. Grak had come with me, mostly because he was our magic expert, but also because he had nothing else pressing when I’d asked if he wanted to come with.

“The agreement was that I would teach you the spirit blade technique once the first generation of tuung reached adulthood,” said Esuen, after we’d been through the initial pleasantries.

“Amaryllis said that you’d reached a revised agreement,” I replied. I glanced over at Grak. I hadn’t expected that we would have to renegotiate.

“We had,” said Esuen. “But you were the one who saved me, and so far as I can gather from my limited vantage point, you have a great deal of pull. I wanted you to know and understand my grievances, the same as her, because you might be able to temper her.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well … go ahead.” I knew that the two of them had talked quite a bit, but I’d had almost no contact with Esuen. “Let me know what’s on your mind.”

“When I left the athenaeum, I was mourning for imperial culture, and thinking about how different things were back home,” said Esuen. “Some of my escape was, I will admit, personal. But I was also thinking about the tuung, and their place in the world. I was thinking that there are three places with tuung, all of them cut off from the world. None a part of the empire, none of them good places. I had thought, when I left, that I would be helping to make a place for the tuung, creating a refuge for anyone who wanted to quietly slip away from the lifestyle. The male tuung are constantly under the thumbs of the matriarchs, always kept near the point of rebellion, because it’s profitable to deprive them, and easy to put the rebellions down. I had thought that a place for them to go, a group of allies, would be for the good.”

“And you don’t think that’s what’s happened?” I asked.

“No,” said Esuen. “Clearly not. The hyperbolic time chamber wasn’t a part of the initial plans. I had thought that I would have time with them, with my children, but … it wasn’t so. Now they’re grown, almost adults, and I had so little to do with them.”

“They’re not culturally tuung,” I said, trying to help her get to the point.

“They don’t speak the language,” replied Esuen. “I come from a dystopia, by imperial standards, I’m well aware of that, but my culture wasn’t so offensive that it deserved to be carved out of my children.”

“I doubt that’s what Amaryllis did,” I replied. “She probably just thought, when she was making her plans for their education, that it would take time and effort for them to understand, or that it would be … I don’t know. It’s hard to put culture into people, if you don’t have anyone who has actual experience with that culture raising them. We can probably find some kind of accommodation though, if you’d like.”

“Amaryllis already offered me the same thing, and I already took her up on it,” said Esuen. She folded her hands in her lap, then took a moment to fiddle with the mister beside her and give herself a few sprays. “She has been scrupulous in her deals with me.”

“Oh,” I replied. “That’s good.”

“She came to every meeting prepared,” said Esuen. “She would have reams of paper, with copies for me to look over, she would have answers to every question I would pose. It occurred to me only after the third or fourth time it happened that she was using the time chamber to make her plans. Objections that I raised would be deftly addressed at our next meeting a few hours later with action items and a variety of choices for me to consider.”

“That … does sound like her, I guess,” I replied.

“I agreed to all of it,” said Esuen. “When I had problems or concerns, she had answers. She was ready and willing with compromises, sometimes compromises that were in anticipation of arguments that I never made. The Council of Arches could not be replenished, which put a limit on how much power she could have, especially as it became more difficult to attain quorum.”

“And yet,” I replied. “Now you’re looking at thousands of children that you don’t know, people who share a species with you, but almost nothing else aside from physiology.”

“Made from nothing,” said Esuen. “Made for some higher purpose by Amaryllis.”

“And you think that you got the short end of the stick here,” I said, nodding.

“I think that if this had been the offer, when you had rescued me, that I would still have taken it,” said Esuen. “The decision was not between this and nothing, though.”

I nodded. “I don’t know quite what you’re asking of me here.”

“I’m asking for the two of you to know,” said Esuen, with a nod toward Grak, who had so far stayed silent. “I don’t have any particular hope that it will inform your votes among the Council of Arches, but it would help me to know that someone out there was apprised of the situation.”

“I’ve been talking with the tuunglings about a second generation,” I said. “I suppose I should have brought you into those talks.” Amaryllis hadn’t talked about that with me, and I had no idea whether she would want Esuen to be a part of it, but it seemed like it was probably a thing that should be done.

“Tuunglings,” said Esuen. “The term is beil, for those who are young, sœjäna for those who are on the cusp of adulthood.”

I winced, not just from the faux pas, but because I didn’t really want Tuung as one of my languages, especially when the sœjäna only spoke Anglish. “Alright,” I said. “Sœjäna. I’ve been talking to them about a second generation. Not necessarily one born of them, but almost certainly one that they would have a hand in raising. If you have misgivings about how the first generation of sœjäna turned out, you should let them know, and let us know, and we can work together to make sure that the next generation doesn’t lose something important of the place you’re from.”

“You’re humoring me,” said Esuen.

“No,” I replied. “And Amaryllis knows as well as I do that there’s a deep knowledge to cultures. There are reasons that things are done the way they are, and those are sometimes good reasons, even if they’re not obvious from base principles. One of the big mistakes that the Second Empire made was in thinking that they always knew better than people who had been following policies and procedures that had been in place for hundreds or even thousands of years, just because those policies and procedures were, in some cases, completely indistinguishable from superstition.”

Esuen narrowed her eyes at me.

“Okay,” I said. “To give one example, which Amaryllis likes to bring up a lot, there was a village in the kingdom of Bellichi that was situated around a salt mine. Whenever a miner left, he would throw a pinch of salt over his shoulder. On investigation, no one knew why this was done, only that it was something that everyone did. The miners got it beat into their skull on their first day on the job that it had to be done, that to not do it would be to invite badness into their lives. Not a rule handed down from on high, but a rule that everyone followed, for social reasons.” I was watching Esuen, trying to see whether she was following, or if she knew this story. “So the salt mine comes under new management, as a lot of things did during the Second Empire, because no way was some hick out in a backwards kingdom like Bellichi maximizing salt production from the mine properly, not without then-modern management techniques, data analysis, and what have you. The new management team is non-local, and they don’t really give a shit about the salt throwing one way or another, so they completely ignore it as they drag the salt mine kicking and screaming into the third century. New machinery is installed, new miners are trained up on that machinery, a lot of them from out of town, and the tradition of throwing a pinch of salt over the shoulder is forgotten. Two months later, a horde of salt golems bursts forth from the walls of the mines, because the compact they’d formed generations prior has been repeatedly and terribly violated.”

“Amaryllis does a better job of telling that story,” said Esuen.

“That’s not surprising,” I replied. “I think for her, it’s kind of core to her understanding of the world. It’s a way of making sense of things. Half of it, anyway. The other half is realizing that sometimes things are done for no good reason, or because things have fallen into a terrible state by everyone following their incentives into a tragedy.”

“She asked me many questions,” said Esuen. “She asked about my language, my customs, how things were done within the military, what punishments were given for which transgressions, how power was transferred, and endless questions about our habitat, how we built our buildings, what furnishings we had, what we ate, what I ate at Cranberry Bay, the mister tanks, all manner of things. And she discarded almost all of it.”

“Yeah,” I replied. I sighed. “I understand what you’re saying, and what you don’t like, and I think it’s just … she was trying to make a culture from scratch, and took aspects of her own culture over aspects of yours, because she knew her own culture better, and because it wouldn’t have been feasible to copy the environment of the tuung in the Boundless Pit wholesale, not with everything else that was being done. I’d have to talk to her about it, though.”

“You haven’t?” asked Esuen.

“No,” I replied. “She’s spent years in the time chamber by this point. Most of her plans were made without me.” That hurt a little bit to admit, like I was a failure of a friend, or like I hadn’t been supporting her enough. I didn’t have much interest in the nation-building, and frankly, still didn’t, but I thought a better version of myself wouldn’t have let her put so much on her plate without offering to help.

“She told me the story of the salt golems, to help assuage me that she truly, deeply cared about making sure that the issue of culture was approached with an open mind,” said Esuen. “She made her own plans, carefully and artfully presented. We had a wide-ranging discussion of tuung society and my thoughts on what was best about the imperial approach, and I think the most she did with that information was to adjust her marketing materials.”

“She didn’t incorporate anything?” I asked. “Even just … I mean, tuung have different eyes from humans, different patterns that appeal to them, and if you were writing up a plan to raise and educate thousands of tuung … I would have thought that a lot of that would have been actionable.”

“Maybe it was,” said Esuen. “Maybe it wasn’t. Amaryllis was very good at convincing me that she knew best.”

“Have you been — when it was here, did you go into the wing where they were raised?” I asked.

Esuen shook her head. “I’ve spoken to some of them. The sœjäna. There’s an enormous gulf between us.”

“One you think can’t be mended?” I asked. “I’ve had … I’ve had problems with my own parents, distance between us, and I think that if they were willing to, then, I don’t know, maybe we could have repaired it. We’ll try. I’ll loop you in.”

“Thank you,” said Esuen. She gave a nod, then frowned slightly and misted herself again. “Talking to you has been more helpful than I thought.”

“I haven’t really done anything yet,” I replied. “Come to the next meeting about the second generation, and maybe you can call me helpful then.”

“I hope to,” said Esuen. She squared her shoulders. “Now, you came here for a reason. Let me teach you how to form the spirit blade.”

“That was illuminating,” said Grak as we walked back to the annex.

“Yeah?” I asked. “I still can’t do it. I’m close though, I think.”

“I meant about Amaryllis,” said Grak.

“I don’t really fault her,” I replied. “I mean, I haven’t been really paying attention to the nation-building stuff, or the education programs, or anything like that. And I would like to get some input from Amaryllis, because I’m absolutely sure that she had her reasons. I guess I’m not even sure that in principle ditching the tuung culture is wrong.”

“Hrm,” said Grak. I noticed that he was walking fast to keep up with me, and I slowed down to accommodate him. It was easy to forget that he had a much shorter stride. “I abandoned dwarven culture.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I noticed that you stopped dyeing your braids. And the braid is different.”

“I came back to the old ways after I found out what happened at Darili Irid,” said Grak. “I’ve been … trying different things, since we went back there.”

“It looks nice,” I said. I’d never paid super close attention to Grak’s appearance, but the ‘lead’ braids had never really been to my preference. They had made him look older than he was.

“Thank you,” said Grak. “I should have spoken to Esuen more.”

“There’s still time,” I replied. “You were a good choice to bring along, better than I’d thought. Do you … want to talk? About the things that you liked about dwarven culture, the things that you didn’t like? If you don’t feel like now is the time —”

“There was a stubborn obstinance that the things we had were as good as they could be,” said Grak, switching to Groglir. When we were together, we would switch back and forth as it suited us. “I could see, dimly, how it would appeal, how ignorance about the wider world might be comforting. Most people only talked about the dwarfhold, and if they had interests outside it, it was just in what they read from the other dwarfholds. I wasn’t the only one who got out, but most people didn’t want to. Most people didn’t care to try.”

We kept walking for a while. I didn’t know what kind of response that warranted, but my own thoughts had gone to Bumblefuck, Kansas, where some of my classmates would probably live out their whole lives, maybe with four years of college as a brief intermission. I was sure that my hometown had its charms, ones I was mostly blind to. If I had something that I wanted to save from that specifically small-town Kansas culture … it was hard to think of. From American culture? Sure, there was probably a package of things that I would take in building my ideal version of America, but even the thought of that left me feeling like I was an egotistical freak. And Amaryllis had basically done that, and not only had she done it, it had apparently mostly worked, at least so far. Some of that was down to the people who had done the actual raising, and Valencia deserved a lot of credit there, since she had done the vetting, but still.

“There was a sense of belonging,” said Grak, continuing his thought. “Everyone had a purpose and a place. The only problems came when people didn’t like the mold they were being pushed into. In the empire, and at the athenaeum, it’s common to feel adrift. There are groups and clubs, but if you miss a meeting or an event, no one will track you down to ask how you’re doing or whether you need help. That aspect of Darili Irid, that I would keep.”

“Others too, probably,” I said.

“There was a sense of togetherness,” replied Grak. “It was your duty to do what was best for the clan. It was easy to know what should be done, even if you disagreed with it. Even if it was wrong.”

“Seems like a dangerous thing to keep,” I replied.

“I don’t know that I would,” replied Grak.

“But you can see how it would be appealing,” I nodded. “Comforting, if maybe a bad idea. There are a lot of things like that. Sometimes it seems like you could fix the whole world if you could hammer everything into shape.”

“Thinking about being a god again?” asked Grak.

“Not sure that I would ever be up for it,” I replied. “But I suppose I’d prefer myself to the alternatives.”

“I agree,” said Grak. “I would prefer you to the current management.”

“What an enormous vote of confidence,” I smiled. “But even if you were ranking people in the party, I’d be what, thirdish from the bottom?”

“I would put you first,” said Grak.

I stopped where I was, and after a moment, Grak stopped too and looked at me.

“I’m serious,” said Grak.

“That’s, uh,” I replied. I was stymied. “Not Solace?”

“I am not sure that I would want to live in a world remade by Solace,” said Grak. “We have fundamental disagreements.”

“I see,” I replied. “And … not Amaryllis? She’s a bit more, uh, competent than I am.”

“Building worlds is what you do,” said Grak. “Amaryllis could make something slick and oiled. Something efficient and sterile. I’m skeptical of her creative ability.”

“Huh,” I said. “The tuung seem to have done fine though.”

“The tuung are a model of how she would do things,” said Grak. “I would prefer whatever you came up with.”

“Huh,” I replied. “Well … thanks. If I ever become a god, a true god above all others, then I’ll carve out a special place for you. Some kind of … Grakland.”

“What would it be?” asked Grak.

“Ah, fuck, I didn’t prepare for this test,” I replied with a laugh. “I’d put you in one of the biggest cities, one of those places where you can eat at a different restaurant every night and never have to go to the same place twice. Of course, restaurants work a little differently in my version of an anti-hell, because no one has to work unless they want to, and I have to imagine that demand for restaurants outstrips supply of people willing to put in the work, even just the minimal work that would be required in this new world, though autonomous constructs could handle a lot of it, and —”

“Juniper,” said Grak.

“So we’ve somehow solved the restaurant problem to my satisfaction,” I replied. “Supply equals demand. But even with all the people, all the traditions, all the cultures mashing up against each other, you live in a little community, like almost everyone does, a place that has your little core social group, selected for compatibility by an omniscient agent of mine. It’s sort of like an apartment building, but with more greenery, cleaner, less built for economy and efficiency. Everyone knows everyone in their commune, a hundred people all told, and they have a shared culture of their own. As to what that looks like,” I let out a breath. “For you, specifically, I picture somewhere with a few other dwarves, maybe a plurality of them, mostly agkrioglian, but with a few, uh … not traditionalists, because they would be living in a dwarfhold, and not really neo-traditionalists either, but some new word for people who live as their culture of choice in a community that’s wildly different from that culture.”

“Kralikadon,” said Grak.

“Hrm, no,” I replied. “That’s not quite right, unless you want to coin it for what we’re talking about.”

“I do,” replied Grak.

“Well, okay, so you have kralikadon there, who do some of the more traditional dwarven stuff, but they’re kralikadon rather than agkrioglian, so they would be adopting imperial culture or its equivalent into dwarven staples like kear, giving you this spectrum to sample from between traditional and wildly different.” I took a brief pause, trying to think about this. “Your environs change with the times and the seasons, usually keeping some elements the same, matching the moods and wishes of everyone in the commune. It’s all recognizably different, but still the same at its core, never too much at once, only occasionally overwhelming, but then always with time to rest and breathe. You know, the thing that I like most about the game of Ranks is that it’s always different, but at the same time, there are these emergent properties from the standard rules where you can always find the same common threads. I’d want to make a community like that for you.”

“Hrm,” said Grak. “And you would have the same heaven?”

“Gods no,” I replied. “I would never want so many people around. From what I’ve experienced of cities, here and on Earth, I wouldn’t want to live in one, or be in a position where I had to go into one all that often. No, for me, it would be an island somewhere, or a mountaintop temple, someplace secluded and alone, except for occasional visits from friends, and — and maybe a companion. Not in a game mechanical sense, but —”

“Amaryllis?” asked Grak.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“I’m not offended or hurt,” said Grak. “In the interests of letting you know.”

“In case I was thinking it?” I asked. “Yeah. Thanks. You and the others, mostly I’m thinking we’d see each other once or twice a week, a planned dinner together, or a show, or something like that. Maybe in a few years we’ll be the people who saved the world.”

“A few years?” asked Grak.

“Or less,” I replied. “My personal power is increasing too quickly for this to last much longer, no matter what the Dungeon Master says. We’re not pushing at the end goal right now, but we can’t be that far off if we’re going up against the upper ends of the scale. Mome Rath was supposedly on par with Fel Seed.” I shrugged. “I keep trying to figure out how many things there are ahead of us, and I just don’t think there are that many, not unless we want to keep going up the power scale, or unless we want to dick around with side quests.”

“And if it doesn’t end when we find Uther?” asked Grak. He was giving me a raised eyebrow.

“It won’t,” I replied. “He’s not going to just bust out of his prison of amber or whatever and then make me a god, or solve everything forever. There will be things to do after that, or at the very least, things to talk about. But … I don’t know. I learned about Arthur coming here not all that long after I came here, and he’s touched so much of Aerb in so many ways, I just … yeah, you’re right, maybe it’s not the end, maybe that’s just the real beginning. I should temper my expectations.”

“Hrm,” replied Grak, but that was all he said, and I didn’t press him for more as we reached the main building.

“I’m sorry I don’t always have time to hang out,” I said. “I’ve been putting more on my plate lately, and I worry that my friends are going to miss out unless I can find places like this where we can mix business and pleasure. Let me know if that’s not enough for you, or if I’m dropping things that shouldn’t have been dropped, for you, or for others.”

“I will,” said Grak, nodding.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 174: The Blade of the Self

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