Chapter 18. A Glimpse of Progress
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I woke up from the chill air and fingers trailing on my face. Gentle but persistent. Scrunching my nose in response got me nothing from it apart from the light chuckle of my tormentor.

My hand caught hers as I rubbed my eyes open, “Good morning, love.”

“Morning…” The pale blue eyes focused on me, “You have silver eyes, Erf.”

“I do,” I smiled back at her, “And so will you, unless you’re against it.”

Yeva shivered and lunged into me, “You have no idea how nice it is to see you speak. To know your face as I hear the familiar voice.”

“Yeah.” Glancing down at the discarded blanket I couldn’t help but tease, “Have you been exploring much?”

She stuck the tip of her tongue out, “How can I sleep after feeling the light of the rising sun again? I will admit — I did spend a lot of time simply enjoying seeing things again. But after some time I came to the conclusion that you were much more interesting to look at, compared to the walls and the ceiling.”

Her hand brushed my hair away, “What do you mean by being against it? I could choose whether to have it or not?”

“Yes, although slowly. Currently, your nanites are busy integrating with your body and fixing it to what they assume to be a default state. The silver of the eyes is part of that. My people hail from a harsh world where the sun is as much of an enemy as it is our friend and the reflective lining of our most sensitive parts was a must.

“Once that is done, you will be able to start modifying your body. Things like greater strength, better digestion, or even a skinsuit of your own. The colour of your eyes would be a trifling matter.”

“How come you didn’t change your own?”

“It’s a Navigator thing.” I rubbed my forehead, “Our eyes need to see the void without filters, without additional protection and electromagnetic shielding. You can change almost anything, even grow wer parts like ears and claws, a tail and fur, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Noticing the question in her eyes, I kept going, “The nanites aren’t all-powerful. They can make you as strong as a wer, but they won’t give you their Spark. They can quickly heal your wounds and bring you from the brink of death, but they won’t make you invulnerable. And many would wish you harm just because you have an unknown power.

“A few tendays ago, when Irje let me roam the city for the first time, I felt it myself: I grew cougar ears to try looking like a wer. Only to realize that all wer and wermages can sense each other’s Sparks at a distance.” I chuckled, “If not for Albin, I could’ve come back all beaten up.”

Yeva sat up and tilted her head, trying to listen to the nearby noises, “You think someone might target me?”

“I do not know, but I do worry.” I grumbled, “Amalric is getting restless again, and the deliberate mentions of his aunt mean there is something more afoot. Within weeks, you will slowly grow into your new powers and the fewer that would notice it — the better.”

“Weeks?”

“Seven days. Our ancestors saw seven as the magical number, unlike ten in Emanai, based on the seven distinct celestial bodies in the sky.”

“Magical?” Her eyebrows rose, “I thought you said that people on Earth didn’t know magic?”

“They didn’t. Do you remember my lectures on algebra and the concept of the unknown? Magic was a similar concept long before the infamous ‘x’. People understood cause and effect and sought to find the causes of everything they saw. You work hard in the fields and you reap a great harvest afterwards. But some events would happen seemingly without any cause or in spite of them. You pray to gods and offer sacrifices, yet rain doesn’t come this year and your crops wither, or luck leaves your home.

“What they could explain was called natural or mundane. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and other similar events were attributed to gods and were called divine. The rest? Unnatural but too petty for gods to cause? Well, these were called arcane or magical, caused by the powers of a witch or a mage.”

“And here magic is everywhere,” Yeva murmured back.

“Precisely. Probably the reason why they call it Flow since the original words lost their meaning. It is something the wermages study themselves and teach their children, part of their natural philosophy and who they are. But that is exactly why we have to be cautious, Yeva. That base fear of the unknown is still there, and it is us who are the practitioners of what is arcane in this world.”

I sighed, “For wer and wermages, our nanite bodies would be a thing of wonder. Unknown powers that could not be explained with their understanding of the world. As anything else unknown, they would distrust us and, if we show them that we are equal or even stronger, they would fear us. This is why I keep showering Aikerim with inventions and gifts aplenty, I am the eccentric wizard in a royal court. Known for his useful cantrips and odd behaviour and not for his ability to lay waste to entire armies.”

Her eyes grew wide, “Could you?”

“Eh,” I shook my hand in a so-so gesture, “Depends on a scale. Killing everyone or someone is easy. It gets tricky when you need to kill a precise group. But that is not important — I have no plans on doing so but neither do I want others to know I have the ability to. Which means soaps, glass, and other fancy luxuries; not weapons and poisons. Yet even that got me into a lot of trouble already. Just imagine how bad it would have been if I wasn’t underestimated.”

“You want them to underestimate me?” Yeva gently smiled as her eyebrows climbed up.

“Yes,” I answered honestly, ignoring the slight sarcasm, “At least for now. I don’t mean our sadaq or even Aikerim, nor do I mean act as you were either. Just try not to do anything that would freak others out. Just as I never deployed my skinsuit in public while also making it look like a luxurious scale mail rather than an outright impossible one.”

“What about other parts of the body? Things that should change with time.” Yeva glanced down as her tiny hands easily covered her breasts. I couldn’t help but sigh internally, she had a slim build and, while not being completely flat, had very little in terms of assets.

“Yeva.” My palms pushed her hands away, feeling the softness underneath. That softness that I grew so familiar with and loathed to part from. I couldn’t grasp her breasts as I did with Anaise, never mind Irje, but that was what set her apart. That pliant flesh was both available and elusive: enough to please the eye and tease the touch but too small to grab and hold. “You can do it if that is your desire, but you shouldn’t compete with Irje or Anaise. Nor do you need to catch up to them in any aspect. I love you as Yeva and I don’t want you to become a second cougar. Be yourself, stay yourself.”

She smiled, “It is hard to say no when you are asking. Yet my mother told me that large breasts are a necessity in life, both to feed the young and to attract a benevolent patron.”

“I consider myself plenty attracted already, thank you. Or are you planning to attract more?” I grumbled, causing her to giggle in return. “Your mother wasn’t wrong in general terms, someone well-endowed looks healthy and well-fed, and able to nurture future children. For a murk, all these qualities are essential. For the nanite-infused body — not so much. That is why I don’t care. I like how you look because of you.”

My hands wrapped around her torso and pulled her closer to me, “I grew to know you first as a person. And from that I grew to love your body — you need not fear that I would ever look at you and find you lacking. Because I love Yeva first and foremost.”

“Erf,” She breathed close to my face, her lips trembling as her arms started to roam my body once again. “Stop talking and just kiss me.”

I claimed her lips in an instant, feeling her tongue aggressively invading my mouth. Demanding my response.

“Erf!”

My fingers ran through her hair and held her close as we rolled in the bed. Our desires, desperately clashing in a dance older than humanity.

“Erf! Are you awake!?”

Our kiss stilled as we opened our eyes to look at each other. I lay there in silence, looking at the pale blue eyes crinkled in amusement.

“You can’t be sleeping this long! I heard you.”

I groaned among Yeva’s giggles. Somehow she had found my frustration entertaining. Throwing the blanket aside, I stomped across the room to the entrance.

The sleeping quarters of my sadaq were currently the only occupied rooms on the second floor. That way we could have just a little bit more privacy, peace, and quiet. Only my sadaq could walk here freely — others would only come by if they had a reason to. Whether to clean the floors or to wash the clothes.

Even today.

“What!?” I barked as I stepped into the gallery, not caring for the chill morning wind across my groin and the rest of my body. The rooms opened into a long balcony that ran across the entire inner wall of my estate. With a clear, open view of the courtyard within and the loud intruder right in the centre of it.

The smattering of servants, already busy with early tasks, immediately found something else to do somewhere else.

“Er,” Isra dropped the heavily scribbled wax tablet, “I…list…wrote it.”

The minotaur struggled to pick it up as it kept falling out of her fingers, again and again. The fact that she still couldn’t decide where to look didn’t help either. “For the smithy…approval…I rushed to get everything ready.”

“Well let me fucking finish and I will take a look!” I sarcastically retorted back.

Behind my back, Yeva’s laughter got only louder.

 

 

Yeva

She had found a new hobby for herself.

Watching. And smiling.

How could she not? The fairy had given her the gift of gifts and promised her even more in the future. And Yeva wouldn’t, couldn’t stop enjoying it.

She spent her time basking in the sights she craved to see all this time. Some of these she missed since her childhood, while others were still new to her. His smiles and the flowers around the estate, Irje’s antics and the blue sky. And a myriad of others. Yeva felt dizzy when she saw the estate buildings for the first time — the Manor she was originally from couldn’t even compare! And Erf got it for them as an extra, after buying her freedom!

There were some slight issues with the transition — Yeva had found that even simply walking around was a bit overwhelming for her senses somewhat. Erf suggested taking it slow and gradually accustom to her new body, but she came up with a better solution. A blindfold. Her hearing grew stronger too, while the mind found it easier to retain a memory of the areas around her. A single glance was all she needed to confidently walk across a busy courtyard with her eyes closed: her mind could remember where everything was and if something moved she would hear it and act accordingly.

A neat length of white cloth was now wrapped around her eyes. Loose enough that she could peek around it from time to time but secure enough so Yeva could depend on it when she got light-headed again.

A simple ruse that was easy to maintain while it concealed her abilities. Now that her body grew stronger every day, Yeva agreed with Erf on the necessity of remaining inconspicuous. She didn’t want Vera to get sad from losing her current job either.

Not like the blindfold would stay on all the time — she only put it on outside and enjoyed the unrestricted sight while indoors, especially so she could watch everyday actions from one of the balconies.

There were still many things new to her. The tall outer walls of the Manor that separated them from the city were nothing like she saw before. While the residents were just as unique. Anaise didn’t look as scary as she painted the wermage inside her mind. Yeva wasn’t like their horny cougar and wasn’t desperate to know her intimately before and as such, up until this point, she had no idea what the Lady of the House really looked like.

That is why Anaise surprised her so much by how normal the wermage looked. As well as Domina herself. The wermages of her childhood were arrogant, quick to anger, and eager to show off their power and wealth. It was different here and, looking at the luxury of her estate, tall walls, and the towering aqueduct above, she finally understood why. Aikerim wielded real power. The Domina of Kiymetl didn’t need to scream about her wealth and power because it was already obvious for everyone to see.

Or it could have been Erf’s influence.

Yeva amused herself watching him bicker with Wrena about a waterwheel. Both of them were eager to start using all that water over their heads but Wrena wanted to make a well-proven and basic design while Erf was pushing for a ‘cross-flow turbine’. The carpenter would have likely agreed quicker if he didn’t mention that this would be a temporary ‘mock-up’ and likely to be replaced by a ‘real one’ at a later time.

The next thing she knew, Wrena and Isra were quarrelling among themselves in front of the working machine. Wrena was eager to attach her future lathes while Isra wanted powered bellows and trip hammers. It took Erf quite some time, and a few adjustments, to pacify both of them. The carpentry workshop was moved to a building close to the smithy so that the turbine could power them both with a single rotating drive shaft. Mollifying both masters.

He was lucky both of them understood the benefits of cooperation. Armed with straight edges and flat surfaces, Wrena’s lathes were already showcasing their precision. Powered with Isra’s Flow, the runed chisels could bite into the metal with ease and produce the first straight cylinders and rods.

Isra grumbled slightly about wasting iron into shavings and the necessity to power runes. And then Erf assembled the pieces together and showed them the ‘beauty of a precisely crafted rod bearing’. Suffice to say that shut the minotaur up completely and irrevocably. Yeva was impressed as well at how their already high opinion of her husband managed to climb to an even greater height.

Any further suggestions were accepted without any fuss, and arguments were voiced only because Erf requested them. A smart decision on his part, since Isra did have quite a few good ideas on iron procurement. He was planning on buying discarded bloom waste from city forges for cheap, while the minotaur just scratched her horns and offered to simply take what they needed from garbage piles near workshop districts. Even offered to go herself since she knew exactly what to look for.

That was the power of Erf. The promise of his knowledge alone was enough to send wermages running to fulfil his every wish. To act like eager students and willing allies. Just like Anaise and Aikerim had done as well.

In the quiet evenings, their sadaq would meet and relax together. Anaise would quiz Erf on mathematical concepts while helping Irje understand whatever the cougar had learnt from watching the Flow lectures during the day. The Lady of the House herself was equally eager to learn and willing to teach. Yeva even felt compelled to contribute as well. And so their peaceful evenings were filled with the calm music of guitar strings. A soothing backdrop to their private conversations.

Irje struggled but had some limited progress. At the same time, Yeva understood Erf’s frustrations about Flow like no one else — what they discussed was akin to talking about colour to a blind man. At least Irje had some sort of confirmation when her powers managed to power runes on demand or even move non-runed objects. Although there was a certain preference in her repertoire.

Erf called her a ‘dildomancer’.

That was the first time Yeva shared a laugh with Anaise; the look on Irje’s face just made them laugh even harder.

But sight and the guitar skills weren’t his only gifts to her. Erf shared knowledge too.

Not just with lectures or examples — the Harald interface inside his body was able to interact with her own nanites. By linking themselves together in a manner Yeva didn’t think was possible, Erf was able to impart his knowledge directly into her brain. All it took was a weirdly warm tentacle attaching itself to the back of her skull.

And within days she realized that she now knew. Suddenly Erf’s musings about the variable flow rate and the head of the aqueduct made perfect sense why he chose that specific turbine and not any other. Likewise, his alchemistry mixtures ceased to be the obscure steps one had to follow blindly to the letter and became the chemical reactions that she could easily understand and even predict the outcome in advance. While the mathematical concepts that he tried to explain to Anaise turned from mind-breaking puzzles into ideas Yeva was already aware of.

Even that weird thing, hidden inside one of the greenhouse rooms, started to make some sense. Something that could be barely identified as a plant mostly because it was rooted into the ground and harvested energy from the sun. But she knew better now. Behind that black pulsing bark, new organs were slowly growing. Secretion glands, programmed in advance, were set to produce a plethora of complex chemicals. Some of them were close to maturity too — the bark already started to warp where future spinnerets would emerge and start producing fine threads similar to spider silk.

The bio-printer was also slowly gestating seed sacks within. Seeds of plants commonly found in Emanai but a little bit more resilient, a lot more productive, and much easier to grow and harvest. Erf listened to their suggestions and didn’t include a lot of spices or in large quantities. Just enough for their and Domina’s kitchens. Enough not to worry about incoming shipments but too little to sell outside the Manor walls. Nevertheless, they were made with provisions in place — these plants would only produce sterile seeds and weren’t easy to graft or transplant. Ensuring that each new plant would have to be created by the bio-printer specifically.

And no one could communicate with the bio-printer but Erf. He did mention something about proprietary technology.

Yeva also knew that what she had was just a sliver of all his knowledge. These were the foundations of science, given to her so she could slowly get used to a new way of looking at the world. Thousands, if not millions, of inventions and ideas, where each one could potentially summon yet another lamura from overseas.

And Yeva hadn’t seen the sea with her own eyes yet.

Speaking of snakes, she had suddenly found herself thinking differently about Shahin. The distaste was still there — the envoy did try to murder her husband after all, even though Yeva knew by now how improbable that attempt was. The change in thought came with the newfound knowledge of glass and understanding of how little was enough to make the lamura so desperate. Before, Yeva thought of her as an agent of a rival Manor, quick to remove any competition. Now it almost felt like a hungry urchin that tried to steal a piece of bread from a full table by setting the whole house on fire.

Still the wrong thing to do but somehow a little bit more understandable.

For now, Shahin appeared to follow in the footsteps of Wrena and Isra. At least there was a definite shift in her behaviour after Erf gave her a new task and took the shackles off. There was a certain drive behind her actions now. The lamura actively sought his gaze and tried to be around whenever Erf would come for a visit. Quick to show off her work and discuss runes and future projects.

Not everything was smooth and pleasant, however. Domina tried to alleviate concerns about her elder sister, but Yeva was quick to notice the concern on Anaise’s face. Or the change in Aikerim’s tone of voice. There was a possibility of something brewing on the horizon. Domina did promise to investigate further just in case.

The biggest worry was, however, Erf. And his family. Now that she could see again, their interactions were even harder to witness. He had all that interstellar knowledge in his head, yet he had no solution to the problems of the heart. She asked. Erf chuckled ruefully and murmured that it was a task for Lif, not him. Irje did suggest giving them more time, but Yeva was afraid that there was very little time left at all.

Because it wasn’t just his family that was the problem, Erf was too. To her own horror, Yeva noticed that he had begun to disassociate from them. A few moments after yet another brush with his family and the hurt on his face would be wiped off completely while Erf would throw himself into another task. At the same time, he would mention them less and less with every coming day, as if his heart chose to ignore the problem that it found unable to resolve.

Yeva wouldn’t let him.

She would find a way to get them back together, one way or another, weathering any frustrations in the process. And she wouldn’t stop simply because she couldn’t find a solution, Yeva would simply try and try again. Her husband gave her love, family, and sight and she would pay him back in kind.

“You will not change their minds like that.” A quiet voice hissed nearby.

Yeva turned her ear toward the speaker out of habit. Shahin, “I refuse to stop because someone says I can’t.”

Their relationship wasn’t exactly friendly but she felt her hostility toward the snake waning after the recent events. Yeva had previously confronted the lamura about her reliance on heat. She informed her that, while the previous treatment wasn’t intentional and won’t continue, Yeva still felt the lamura deserved it based on her previous deeds. To her surprise, Shahin acknowledged it silently and without complaining. Most likely due to Erf already breaching this subject with her beforehand.

The incident was over and resolved and Yeva didn’t want to pursue it further herself, lest she succumb to vengeance and spite.

“I did not say that. I said you will not change their minds this way, not that you can not change their minds at all.” Lamura elaborated. “They need to arrive at this decision themselves.”

“That is what I am trying to do.” Yeva pursed her lips.

“Dragging a camel to water is not enough, he needs to be thirsty too.” Lamura paused for a few moments, “From what I can tell it is his current status that drives a wedge between the family. Am I correct?”

Yeva sighed in her heart. She should have been quieter in her reasonings and objections, now Shahin knew about it as well.

“What you need to find is a connection or a memory that they all share. And then you make sure they remember it as well, without being direct about it of course. That memory should come from their heart — you can speak truth after truth and they would still refuse to believe you.”

“And why should I believe you?”

“It was my task as an envoy to make others think the way I want. My Manor considers me quite good at it, or I would have lost my position a long time ago. Ask your husband about his past, the things he did while their bond was strong. What he craved or longed for back then.”

“What a stupid question,” Yeva scoffed, “He craved warmth, scraps of food, and a restful night of sleep. And lack of beatings for a day.”

Scales rustled on the floor, “Domina? No, not her — he would not act this way around a stern mistress. His previous masters then. They made quite a blunder to sell one so skilful. If they knew about his skills that is.”

Yeva kept silent as the memory of Tarhunna’s words rang inside her head. About her own bluntness and the ability to speak so well that she couldn’t refuse but follow along. Shahin was just like that — Yeva could hear her unravel secrets from just a scant few words. And yet she found herself unable to end this conversation either. Not when the lamura had dangled such an offer right in front of her.

“Tell Erf that he should change the way he pampers them. His current gifts and offerings are simply too much for someone who had a cruel mistress mere days ago. A hungry child does not crave the pickled livers of a peacock, he wants a simple loaf of bread. And give them tasks to perform, not of the harsh kind but the things they would enjoy doing themselves. Their current status as freeloaders is strange and confusing, a token work would give them some sense of normalcy.”

Shahin’s words made Yeva blink in surprise. Instead of the anticipated half-truths and meanderings across the maze of words, the lamura went straight to the point.

“But that is only the beginning. This would calm their hearts and give you the fertile soil to nurture other thoughts instead. Thoughts about family.”

Yeva shuddered. Somehow, the lamura’s tongue felt so much more powerful than her enormous tail, solid with wermage muscle.

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