Being noticeably different is frequently a hassle. People slot you into the “Other” category where a whole bunch of nasty prejudices and behaviors lurk. Most of those come from social conditioning that extends across the history of humanity or whatever the species in question may be.That which is “like me” I can find common ground with, that which is “Other” is dangerous and best avoided if I can’t straight up destroy it.
As Parliamentary Diplomats, that’s one of the areas that our studies are most focused on reversing. Finding the commonalities with sapients you’ve never encountered before is the bedrock on which all other communication needs to stand. Anyone can transmit information to an “alien”, but to communicate requires “communing”, or in other words understanding the person that you’re communicating with on an empathic level. Our classes are mixed up to help maximize that, which is why one of my “study buddies” is a twelve foot tall spider and another has the kind of horrifying morphology that you only find on my Earth in the deep ocean creatures that live below the depths that light can penetrate.
Both of them are wonderful people. Xoxl’s a fantastically gifted poet and Yulono can somehow cook every style of food ever imagined. They’re funny, and kind and a delight to be around. But even after knowing them for over a year, there’s a part of me that jumps and shrieks if I run into them unexpectedly. The same is true for them too. It’s uncomfortable but it reminds us that “trusting our instincts” is a great way to make terrible mistakes.
The flipside of that is we’re also trained to recognize how other people can wind up governed by their instincts. One of the most effective forms of manipulation is to arrange for someone to manipulate themselves into doing what you want.
The serious coursework on that sort of thing is still several years away for me, but even so I could appreciate how people’s instinctive urge to avoid the “scary devil girls” caused them to clear a path for us as Way and I chased after the fleeing Kari.
Kari ran without watching where she was going but she clearly knew the town well enough that it wasn’t a problem for her. Rather than running off towards the beach she angled to the north breaking away from the stone lined streets and wooden building to plunge into the foliage undergrowth that bordered Dawns Harbor.
The forests around Dawns Harbor were kept safe by the sanctuary spells of the Holy Throne but the spells weakened considerably the more distant from the town or the roads you went. Kari had to know that, but she was upset enough to be past caring.
“Wait!” I called as we ran. That didn’t slow her flight at all and for a young girl without any magical enhancements, Kari ran damn fast.
“Catch her in the woods?” Way asked via dream speech.
“Probably the best idea. We’ll have more privacy there to talk.” I replied.
“The townspeople will ostracize her further is she’s linked with us.” Way cautioned.
“Might be too late to avoid that, but you’re right. It’ll be worse the more contact they think she’s had with us.” I said.
“You’re going to try to clear up the misunderstandings, aren’t you?”, Way asked out loud. There was the air of accusation to it, which was fair. Clearing up the mess I’d inadvertently made meant getting involved. That meant work and, with the way things normally went for us, fighting. In other words pretty much the opposite of rest and relaxation.
“That’ll depend on her.” I said. Leaving Kari on her own seemed wrong on a number of levels, but forcing her to take stand as the catalyst for changing the entire town’s opinions on us didn’t strike me as any kinder.
We followed Kari through the woods to a cleft at the base of a small waterfall. I motioned Way to hold up before we could peer inside it.
“This feels like a great place for a trap and that devil guy is probably still watching us. Could you check out the area while I talk with Kari?” I asked.
“Sure. Let me know when you’re ready for me to join you. I’ll yell if I need a hand with anything.” I nodded and headed towards the cleft in the rocks.
“Kari?” I called out before stepping into view. It was both an acknowledgement of her space and a request to enter it.
“Go away!” the young girl sobbed.
“I’m not sure leaving here without you is a good idea.”, I said.
“I’ll be fine.”
“I meant for me actually.”
“What? Why are you here?”
“I won’t lie, I heard some of what happened back to the Inne. It sounded like you got fired for helping us out. I didn’t like that and I’d like to be able to help you with it.”
“I don’t need any help.”
“Is it ok if I come around? It feels a little weird talking to a waterfall.” I asked.
I walked around the edge of the cleft and saw the room beyond. It had probably once been only a natural fissure but someone had carved it out to be a sizeable room. Kari was sitting against the far wall hugging her knees and looking at me with accusatory eyes. Beside her there was an old chest that was closed and locked with a heavy padlock. A desk and pair of chairs stood conspicuously out of place against the wall to her left. Someone had used this as a hideaway at one point.
“Nice sanctum.” I said. I’d seen grander dwellings, but at the same time, I hadn’t had a private spot like this when I was her age so I was a little envious.
“Sanctum. It’s a special spot that’s all yours.” I said as I strolled slowly into the cave.
“How do you know that?” Kari was looking at me, but her arms were still wrapped around her legs.
“If you wanted to be with people you could have run home.” I said.
“Listen I don’t want to get in anymore trouble. I shouldn’t even have talked to you.” Kari said. She moved her hands from her legs and crossed them in front of her chest. Defensive and angry.
“I know. I’m grateful you did though.” I stopped strolling and leaned back against the wall beside the desk.
“So what are you doing here?”
“Figuring out how I can pay you back.”
“I don’t need your money. They wouldn’t let me keep it anyways.”
“I wasn’t thinking of money, though you did just lose your job for getting me breakfast so I suspect I owe you a pretty big tip.”
“They won’t let me keep it!” Kari insisted, looking away down and away from me.
I slumped against the desk and lowered myself to sit on the ground. I wasn’t facing Kari directly, but I could see her out of corner of my eye.
“There are ways around that.” I said.
“Like hiding it?”
“Sure, but that has a lot of problems. I was thinking more in terms of getting you your job back if you still wanted it. If your boss didn’t think we were in league with the bishop’s enemies, she wouldn’t begrudge you a tip right?”
Kari croaked out an unkind and bitter laugh.
“Yes she would. She only pays us in food and clothes and a place to sleep. She keeps all the coins ‘for our own good’. And you’d never get her to take me back.”
I kicked myself for having forgotten to check my meta-awareness memories for how the economy worked in Vale Septem. Reviewing them, I saw that while professionals traded in coin, the poor worked and traded mostly via barter. Kari’s employment wasn’t bad for a girl of her age and skills, but there also wasn’t much future in it. She was poor and was going to stay poor no matter what she did.
Well, almost. Sticking up for a traveling dreamlord ought to earn one some perks I felt. She was right however that simply dumping coins on her would not fix her problems.
“I can be pretty persuasive when I’m telling the truth. But before I work out how I’d get your boss to believe we’re not ‘that kind of people’, there’s the question of whether you want that job back at all.”
“It’s stupid. I don’t have a choice.” Kari sniffled.
“There’s nowhere else I can go.”
“You’ve seen everywhere else?”
“No, but it doesn’t matter.” she said angrily.
“You ever imagined being anywhere else?” I asked.
Kari laughed again and again it was short and bitter.
“All the time. I hate it here.”
“Tell me about them.” I said.
“The places you’ve imagined going.”
“They’re just stupid places. None of them are real.”
It was my turn to laugh, though there was no bitterness in the chuckle that escaped my lips.
“What’s so funny?” Kari asked.
“Some of the most wonderful places I’ve been, my home even, are places you would never believe are real. Trust me when I say there’s nothing stupid at all about imaging places like that.”
“Yeah, but I’ll never get there.”
“Maybe not, but tell me about one anyways. What’s your favorite place to imagine?”
Kari looked down at the ground again and was silent for a moment.
“The Ivory Temple.” she said.
Meta-awareness didn’t give me anything on it so I knew it wasn’t an actual location in the world. I could also tell that it wasn’t her ‘favorite’ strictly speaking. She was treating me like I was an adult, so she edited out any of the ones that would make her sound childish, or that were too personal.
“What’s it like?” I asked.
“It’s on top of a mountain, above the clouds so the sky is always blue. It’s the Moon’s home when she’s not in the heavens so everything is the white of stars.”
As Kari spoke, I began weaving a spell. I couldn’t cast one in the usual fashion without her noticing, so I cheated a bit with my dreamlord skills. In place of calling verbally to the Seventh Dominion (which covered Illusions), I bent reality just a little bit and called to the Dominion with dream speech, weaving a spell based on the story that Kari was telling.
“What about at night? Is the sky blue then too?” I asked, fighting to keep my vision and senses within the physical world. Touching the dreaming was easy enough but if I wasn’t careful I’d get swept up in it and wind up falling out of time. Even a second in the Dreamlit world would cast me a week and a half forward in Vale Septem which would be a bit counterproductive under the current circumstances.
“Yes, the sky’s always blue, it’s not dark like the night is here. It’s a like the ocean when it’s shining at sunset. All silver and blue and red.”
“Is the Moon alone there?” I asked.
“No. She has her favorite people with her, her Hand Maidens. They’re all beautiful and they’re dressed in moonlight.”
“How do you get to be a Handmaiden?”
“If you look up at the Moon and tell her how pretty she is a thousand times, she’ll look down on you and if she needs a new Handmaiden she’ll carry you to her home on a glowing horse of stars.” she said a spark of wonder playing in her eyes before she sunk back down into a frown. “See, I told you it was stupid.”
“You also said you’d never go there right?”
“No one can go there. It’s not real.” Kari pouted.
“This is asking a lot, but will you trust me for one moment.”
“Because you’re brave and I want to show you something.” I said.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked, still uncertain.
“Just close your eyes.” I said.
I knew I was asking for a huge leap of faith from her. If I had any malevolent intentions there were countless horrible things I could do to her. To be fair though, if I was some kind of monster I could do most of those to her whether or not she closed her eyes.
Kari looked at me, uncertainty painted all over her face. I met her eyes and waited quietly while she made up her mind. After a moment whatever battle had raged within her was decided and she gave a small nod and then closed her eyes.
I breathed out the spell that I’d been holding and made it real within the world, or at least as real as an illusion could be.
The grey stone floor of the room rippled away, replaced by a radiant white which spread up the walls as well. The ceiling sparkled away revealing a brilliant blue sky above. On the walls, the areas which weren’t covered by the white moonstone fell away to reveal more blue sky and the sea of white clouds far below us.
Like ghosts, wisps of vapor coalesced into a dozen women in scintillating robes who were waiting in attendance on a giant woman of pure alabaster skin, hair and clothing.
I smiled looking at the work. There was far more imagination packed in Kari’s words than the mere sound of them had been able to convey.
“Ok, open your eyes Kari.” I said as I walked over to help her up.
She opened her eyes and screamed. It was a short, panicky scream cut off by disbelief as much as any rational process. The Hand Maidens and the Avatar of the Moon turned to look at us in it’s wake.
That was unexpected. They were only supposed to be set decoration for the illusion.
I blinked my eyes and cast out with my meta-awareness. The Handmaidens were real. That was scary. So was the Moon. That was scarier.
I looked at Kari. She was awestruck. I blinked and looked at her again. How much imagination did this girl have?
“My children, we have guests.”, the Moon said.
I almost panicked, but the decorum Professor Haffrun had so diligently labored to instill in me won out.
“Though we are uninvited, I hope we are not unwelcome and pray that we have not intruded or trespassed against your grace.” I said to the Moon.
“Neither intrusion nor trespass are you guilty of, nor are you unwelcome or uninvited.” the Moon replied.
“It is by your will that this vision has found form in the solid world?” I asked.
“Yes, Dark Queen.”
I felt my heart freeze up at that. If the Moon knew to call me by that title, then she was more than a simple spirit of Vale Septem. I hadn’t worn it openly since I’d awakened to my powers two years ago. That, and the secrets that went with it, weren’t meant to be a part of any world except my own.
“As I stand before you, I claim no territory in this world and hold no dominion over any who call this place home.” I protested calmly.
“Yes. And yet, you bear the title still. The title and more, about which I would speak with you, though not in this form.”
“I have no other form here.” I said.
“You need no other, it is my own form I speak of, one lost to me.” the Moon said.
Spirits love their riddles and cryptic speech. Having been on the other end of this sort of conversation though I was aware of how difficult it can be and was willing to cut the Moon some slack. Her references might be opaque to me but between meta-awareness and whatever additional context I could pick up on my own I had a feeling it would all make sense eventually.
“That discussion is for another time however. For this moment I merely wished to indulge in the loveliness of the vision you created.” the Moon said.
“The vision was woven from my magics, but the loveliness you see, and the imagination that powered it, belongs to this brave one.” I said, indicating Kari with a gentle wave of my hand.
Kari didn’t look pleased with the extra attention. She’d blanched almost as white as the floor and walls and her eyes had flown open so wide they were the size of dinner plates.
I knew that feeling all too well too.
“It’s ok.” I said simply and reached out to take her hand.
Wordlessly she extended her hand to me, but her eyes remained glued on the Moon even as I helped her stand up.
“Approach please child.” the Moon said to Kari.
Kari tried to move but her body looked like it had locked up on her.
“She’s here because she likes your work.” I whispered to Kari.
That seemed to penetrate her awestruck brain. She turned to me, blinked and then shook her head to clear it.
“Ok.” she said and let me guide her forward.
The Handmaidens parted as we approached the Moon’s throne and formed into two lines to funnel us towards the great spirit.
“Mortal child, you have given us a wondrous gift in this place. Should I have need of a new Handmaiden I would be pleased for you to join me here. Until then please accept this gift in remembrance of the guise you has chosen to see me in.” the Moon said.
The Handmaiden nearest the Moon stepped forward with a glowing white bundle in her hands. She turned to stand in from of Kari and bowed, presenting the girl with a dress of moonlight. Kari looked at the offering with her eyes wide and her mouth open and moving but producing no sound.
“Th-thank you!”, she finally managed to breath out and then thought to add a deep bow.
“Our time here must, of a necessity, be brief. If you need seek us out again, we ask that you invite us here once more.” the Moon said.
And then the vision faded away. The last image of it that I saw was the Moon lowering her head in a small bow at me. That did not bode well for my vacation.